Two Sources Of Plausible Conflict For Writers Of Fantasy

Exploit the unending, insoluble conflict caused by stupidity to deepen your fantasy work.

Collective and intelligent cooperation is always impeded by basic human stupidity.

Potential Conflict #1:

Purposeful stupidity. There are beings of all ages and class who have learned to avoid work by being inveterately incompetent.

Potential Conflict #2:

Good old honest incompetence. Some people don’t think quickly. If these folks are given tasks beyond their native capacity, mayhem results.

In the example below (labelled “Good Writing“), I have made use of Conflict #1.

Bad Writing:

Volgoth watched his army wheel on the ground below; the captains in the front were following orders precisely, and the blocks of armored men moved as one.

A flap of wings drew Volgoth’s attention to the side; a messenger on the back of a massive eagle swept near.

“My lord, Gilgum approaches!” the messenger cried. Volgoth drew up the reins of his dragon, and flew higher into the sky. He drew a pair of crystal balls from a pouch on the dragon’s harness, and tossed them into the air. The two clear balls lit up, and the faces of Volgoth’s two chief generals appeared inside.

“It’s time,” Volgoth said.

Good Writing:

Volgoth stared down in horror at the tangled mass of bodies that surged on the ground below. He had been prepared for some clumsiness, since Brawn had warned him that the soldiers were badly-trained, but he had never suspected they would be so incompetent as this.

A flap of wings drew Volgoth’s eyes to the side; a messenger on a mangy eagle flew near.

“There’s been a great fire in the north!” the messenger cried over the sweep of his mount’s ragged feathers.

“And?” Volgoth demanded, his voice booming through the air like a drum.

“Gilgum wants to reschedule,” the messenger shouted. Volgoth’s left eyelid twitched. I should have killed Gilgum when I had the chance, he told himself for the fourteenth time.

“Did Gilgum say when he would be prepared to answer my challenge?” Volgoth asked, attempting to keep his voice even.

“Two months, he said,” the messenger replied. The mangy eagle folded its wings, and shot down towards the ground; the messenger wrestled the massive bird back up into the sky. “I’m sorry, he’s hungry,” the messenger shouted up to Volgoth. “I came straight from Gilgum.”

Volgoth raised a hand, and waved the messenger away. The eagle and his rider spun sharply away, and Volgoth put his hand into a pouch that was buckled to his dragon’s harness. His fingers closed on a clear, crystal ball. There are supposed to be two, he thought. Rage seethed through Volgoth’s shoulders. He drew out the ball, and tossed it into the air. The crystal orb lit up, and the face of Volgoth’s premiere general appeared within.

“Gilgum cancelled,” Volgoth spat. “Get the soldiers out of the valley, and straighten out the formations. I have to call Halor.” Volgoth snatched the crystal ball out of the air without waiting for a reply, and tossed it up again. Another face appeared, this time of Volgoth’s second-most general. I am surrounded by buffoons, Volgoth told himself bitterly, and he opened his mouth to speak.

Remember that fictional characters are, alas, only human (well, occasionally), and incorporate ratios of competence into your fiction to create plausible conflict.