Some Attempts at (Re)Definition: Conflict

I have been thinking for a while about how our attempts to define craft terms influence our students’ (and our own) aesthetics, and I have wanted to try other definitions. The first post is here.

what gives or takes away the illusion of free will

How I Was Taught It

I was taught that conflict is what stands in the way of desire. Man vs. Man, Man vs. World, Man vs. Self. The other component of this was that there were two kinds of conflict: external and internal. Lastly, I was taught that the most compelling conflict is one that comes out of the protagonist’s own flaws: like the tragic flaw that dooms characters in Greek tragedy.



Surely conflict is what stands in the way of desire, and there is external and internal conflict, but when I think about what conflict doesand what its consequences are on meaning, then this is an inadequate definition. It conveys to the student that conflict can be thrown at a character without responsibility for meaning.

Of course I ended up learning about how conflict shapes meaning, by learning about theme, but what this meant was that theme made me go back and figure out what conflict’s role is in the whole of a piece of fiction, rather than simply in the moment, on a level of entertainment.

Conflict means something. It means something to the character, to the theme, and to implications of the book, the book’s being in the world. No book exists in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that if a character wants ice cream, then the character is not without a context, and neither is the ice cream, and so neither is the desire or the conflict. A rich able straight cis white male character wants ice cream from an ice cream truck passing by the car the character is in, as they drive through a black neighborhood that used to be white before white flight changed both its makeup, its economics, and its social welfare (protection, for example). There present a number of options for conflict. Each choice is that: a choice, with consequences and meaning. This character gets a flat tire, then can’t get anyone to help him, but puts on the spare himself and follows the sound of the truck to get ice cream. This scenario has conflict, but it means quite a lot that the conflict doesn’t take into account the racial and sociocultural and class contexts, etc. Omission too is a choice.

Add to this the fact that the conflict must come from somewhere. The kind of conflict above suggests that conflict is about luck/circumstance, but is conquered through free will. That’s a moral stance. Fiction is constantly taking moral stances. It’s the author’s responsibility to take responsibility.

One of the major issues I have with the way we teach conflict is the idea that it should come out of the protagonist and be solved by the protagonist. My problem is moral. Straight able white male fiction has a tendency to present the world as a matter of free will. The problems are caused by the self and can be solved by the development of the self. And both external and internal conflict is like this.

I recently taught A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, in a novel course. I taught it because I knew the students would like it and because the book is extremely “traditional” in its execution of craft. By this I mean: plot is causal and comes out of character, the book moves chronologically but starts from a future point in time, everything is there for a reason that centers on the protagonist’s arc, etc. Most fantasy novels are like this, to be honest.

[Spoilers ahead]
In the novel, the main character, Ged, is the creator of his own major conflict and its solution. Ged’s major flaw is hubris. He is rash and overconfident and prideful. The major arc of the book centers on the conflict released by Ged, in the form of a shadow version of him from the world of the dead. Ged creates this shadow conflict through his hubris, trying to show off his power for a girl, then trying to show off in front of a rival. The shadow gets loose and almost kills him. At that point, Ged loses his hubris but instead goes too far in the opposite direction: he becomes meak and underconfident. The shadow chases him and he flees it. Finally Ged learns he must turn and face his conflict, with the appropriate amount of confidence and responsibility. When he does this, the shadow runs. The main departure from the traditional novel is that the ending is not a battle, but what my students call “hugging it out.” Ged embraces his shadow, recognizing it as himself, and incorporates into him.

Le Guin has great intentions with this book, not only to take power away from a violent confrontation/war as the solution to conflict, but also to put forward characters of color. Ged is one of the first protagonists of color in white fantasy. He lives in a fantasy world in which race is no issue. This is a moral stance. He faces no racial conflict. In fact, his main problem is himself, and his main solution to his problem is himself. This is a moral stance. The book, intentionally or not, puts forward the idea that everything is up to free will, even for people of color, and that what stands in a person’s way is his own pride.

To be honest, I doubt this is Le Guin’s intention. Her intention is to upset traditional frameworks. She says so in her afterword. But conflict does do something and have consequences on meaning. It’s not just something you put in fiction to make it compelling. It presents a worldview. Simply choosing between the three options I was given: Man vs. Man, Man vs. World, Man vs. Self, is to choose a moral view, to choose a way the world is presented, to choose an audience, to choose a message to that audience.

It seems to me that a large part of that message comes down to: how much of the conflict you face is caused by your own actions? How much of the conflict you face is your responsibility? This is a question that has every implication for how to read the context of race, class, gender, etc. Conflict presents your worldview along a spectrum of complete agency to a life that is dictated completely by circumstance. I have to say, my life has been mostly dictated by circumstance, by fate or what-have-you. That’s not true for everyone, sure—that’s my point. A character is particular and specific with a particular and specific context, in which the question of how much of the problems you face are a matter of fate or free will has meaningful consequences. That is: conflict, when put into a particular context (the world of the character in fiction, fiction which is being in the world), makes meaning. Everything does. Let’s teach it that way.

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