I'm working through the Sanderson youtube classes on writing fantasy and he discusses the idea that conflict can arise between any two (or three) of the three legs of a story - plot, character, setting. But he hasn't given enough examples.

I think conflict and tension are related. I'm trying to increase tension (reader interest) and assume conflict is one way to do this.

But what is mostly happening is that my characters are just arguing more. This has the upside of highlighting an idea to explore, and the downside of making the characters all a little less likable. It's characters conflicting with other characters about their personal motivations and goals.(Think: arguing how to get rid of the ring in LOTR FOTR; different character motivations in conflict.)

I'm concerned I'll end with fifteen chapters of arguments. Yuck. So I'd like to better understand other ways to conflict character, plot, and setting.

Example: What is meant by a conflict between setting and plot? What would this look like? It seems that such conflict would be character-free, so it would not involve people arguing. :-) But might still increase tension.

Would an example of this be something like the plot of LOTR (get the ring to Mordor), conflicting with setting (it's hard to get to Mordor)? Is a plot/setting conflict simply a hurdle like that for a character?

What is a concrete way to understand the idea of conflict between plot/character, character/setting, setting/plot?

Edited: Based on two answers so far, here are examples, I think, of each. Please feel free to feed back and correct. (I still don't have a firm grasp on plot, though.)

Examples of character/setting conflict: (2 each)

Martian: The mission captain being in a ship headed to earth when her crewman is on Mars. Damon battling the elements on Mars

LOTR:Any hobbit struggling outside of the Shire. Aragorn's struggle with his role of the King?

Star Wars: Luke wanting to fight but being told he must farm moisture. Obi Wan wanting to train Luke within a system that does not allow that

Examples of plot/character conflict:

Martian: ?? I think the conflict among his crew mates when they learn he is alive - ??

LOTR: Frodo becoming addicted to the ring while needing to discard it,

Star Wars: Luke desiring to save his friends halfway through his Jedi training

Examples of setting/plot conflict (I might not understand plot):

Martian: The setting of Mars clearly conflicts with the plot of getting him home.

LOTR:I think the setting conflicts with easy disposal of the ring.

Star Wars: Losing the droids on a sand planet threw a monkey wrench in getting the plans easily to Obi Wan.

4 Answers 4


My pet theory on this is that all story conflict is moral. That is, it is a conflict between values.

If a big pile of rocks falls on the road and our hero picks them up one by one and moves them out of the way, that is landscaping, not story.

If a big pile of rocks falls on the road and our hero starts to pick them up one by one and move them out of the way, but is soon exhausted and thirsty and aching, and looks up and sees that there is still a huge pile of rocks to move and wants to give up the quests and go home to bed, that is moral conflict -- a conflict between the virtue of ease and the virtue of continuing the quest. It is that moral conflict that makes it a story.

Now I have no idea what Brandon Sanderson means by a conflict with setting, but if I was to try to map it to an idea that made sense to me, I would say that setting can be a source of moral conflict by presenting obstacles that require moral courage to overcome.

In LOTR the companions of the ring try to cross the misty mountains and are stopped by a snow storm. They then have to make a choice between abandoning the quest, leaving some of the party behind, and going via Moria. There are several moral conflicts in this choice, all of which is triggered by the setting.

One could look at it this way: Character is defined by the intersection of two incompatible desires. Setting is the circumstances which make these two desires incompatible. Plot it the action that forces the character to decide between the two values.

Thus conflict arises out of all three working together. A different character with different desires many be perfectly content in the same setting. A character with these desires may be able to satisfy them both in a different setting. The same set of actions may lead to a different outcome in a different setting. Change any one of the three, therefore, and your story does not lead to the moment of moral crisis that differentiates story from landscaping.

EDIT to clarify what moral means:

In case there is any confusion about what I mean by a moral decision, it is not simply about choosing to do the socially endorsed "right thing" instead of the "wrong thing". A moral choice is about a choice of values.

To borrow Amadeus's examples, if his pilot swims to shore, builds a hut, builds a signal fire, spots a plane, signals it, and gets rescued, this is merely a technical accomplishment. There is no choice of values. Just good sense and hard work.

The hiker with the trapped arm, however, does have a choice of values to make. He is choosing to subject himself to prolonged agony performing an operation that will probably kill him anyway. The choice between agony and death is by no means an easy one and it is very much a choice of values. Similarly the astronaut has to choose between loneliness, the pains of starvation, and despair and an easy death.

Put is this way, if the reader is on tenterhooks wondering, will he do it or not, it is a moral choice. If the reader is merely wondering, will it work, it is a technical problem. Certainly there is a will-it-work element to the astronaut's dilemma. But without the will-he-won't-he question, it is just a fictional documentary.

To be clear on this, even the simple moral choice of doing the right thing rather than the wrong thing is a choice between values. The hero is not going to contemplate doing the wrong thing unless doing the right thing is incompatible with one of his values. The countervailing value to doing the wrong thing is the social isolation that results from it. Does Jim want to keep the million and lose the respect of his wife and family?

In fiction, it is not the rightness or wrongness of the act that matters, but the choice of values that is inherent in it.

  • I think this definition of "moral" proves too much: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proving_too_much --- The reader can be on tenterhooks as Joe racks his memory deciding to turn left or right to catch the villain, because the reader knows the villain went right (and Joe doesn't). Will Joe decipher the clue that tells him "go right?" that is not a values decision for Joe. This definition also defies the definition of "moral": Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character. (Socially endorsed or not).
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 22:18
  • @Amadeus My definition does not prove anything. It merely explain how I am using the term. But right and wrong behavior are defined in terms of values. It is right to choose the greater value. The human problem is to discern the greater value. Stories are not philosophical exercises any more than they are technical exercises. They are explorations of the human experience and the moral problem that we most often wrestle with is not choosing to be good or to be evil, but discerning where the good lies. Thus choosing between two values is a moral problem -- a problem of moral discernment.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 22:29
  • I read the first sentence and knew it was you and knew it was going to to be great answer. I'm glad you did the edit because it seems to be the best part of this. Thanks again. +1 Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 23:08
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    The astronaut on Mars may also well consider allowing himself to die without contacting anyone. Asking the crew to return might put them at risk. Asking NASA to send another mission to him is saying 'My life is worth 3 million dollars even though this means the mission to Europa will be underfunded.'
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 23:23
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    @DPT, true, but none of those decision entered into the movie (I don't know about the book), and I don't consider it a valid argument to speculate about how a story might have been written differently, and then use that speculation to justify "The Martian" was making value judgments. If I can do that, I can also do the opposite, and show stories clearly about value judgments were just technical decisions, if written differently. That is what "proving too much" means in logic, an argument is not valid if its application can make answers turn out either way. It delivers no distinctions.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 23:50

I don't agree that all story conflicts are moral; I think that is a strange position. Here is how I understand Sanderson's theory. First, that each of the pairings can be used to create conflict. They do not necessarily have to be a direct opposition to each other.

Disclaimer: I don't know what Sanderson would think of this analysis, it is just the way I personally understand these interactions. If someone has better information that what I remember from the BYU courses, Provide a link, I'll watch it again.

Character & Setting.

This can be direct conflict: A character can have a non-moral conflict with setting, because the setting is the "villain", and the character is not (IMO) making a moral choice by trying to survive. If my pilot's plane is struck by lightning and crash lands at sea, I don't consider it a "moral" choice to try and swim ashore and survive on a desert island, and then work to return to society. Yes, she is making choices, but it is a stretch to say they are choices about who she wants to become; she just wants to see her husband and kids again and eat a cheeseburger, she wants to escape this prison and be free to be that person she already considers herself to fully be.

I DO consider that a story. Likewise, a climber that gets his arm wedged behind a boulder and must choose to amputate it in order to survive (to escape his prison). It is a hard choice, but not a choice of whether it is morally right or wrong to live without an arm. Or an astronaut left behind on Mars, and chooses to go on a starvation diet and grow and eat potatoes in his own waste to survive (and escape his prison).

I don't consider these moral choices; i.e. between right and wrong, or being a killer or not, or being brave or not, or betraying principles or not. Any non-sentient thing (mainly the environment, sometimes disease) that threatens to destroy the MC or someone she loves is a villainous setting, that must be tamed or escaped or defeated (like a disease), and I consider it a story even if the MC is not required to make any moral choice to succeed.

The same is true for less dire environments: The stranger touring a strange land of magic and wonders, and returning home.

Character & Plot

This is more obvious; the plot consists of some events, and those events can cause conflict with characters. The MC's house burned down while she was at work, it burned the neighbors houses, with major losses. The fire investigator says the fire began in her kitchen, but can't narrow the cause further than that. Her neighbors claim the fire is her fault, and sue her for actual and punitive damages to their houses.

Plot & Setting

The plot and the setting together can create conflict. The hurricane hits, and washes away our home. Services everywhere are disrupted, the roads are out, police won't come, the phones are down. The plot: My MC must find replacement meds for her son, or he may have a status seizure that would kill him (a seizure lasting more than 5 minutes; a continuous epileptic seizure can cause brain damage, stroke, heart attack, and death.) This is similar to Character & Setting, but in this case, the setting would not be deadly for all characters, and is not particularly lethal for our MC, but the plot (every hour without meds increases the lethal risk to her son) interacts with the setting to create conflict.

In this kind of circumstance, unlike the "figure out how to escape the environment" plot, moral choices may apply: Will she steal an unattended rubber raft? Will she hold a stranger at gunpoint to take by force half their supply of the necessary meds? But I don't think they are absolutely necessary in order to make a compelling story.

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    I've explained what I mean by moral in other answers, but the nature of the medium is that I should explain it every time I use it. I have edited my answer accordingly.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 22:05
  • I have answered beneath that explanation. I think "values" is too all encompassing and can be applied to just about anything. And a technical achievement story can still be a story, just like a mystery, it is figuring out what will work when the answer to that is non-obvious, and the suspense of whether the MC is clever enough to do it, after they have tried and failed a few times, is what makes the story worth reading or viewing. How will the Martian get over his despair and find a way to recover from the destruction of all his food? We know he will, but HOW?
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 22:24
  • It is not that we don't know that he will. Nor is it that we don't know how he will recover from the destruction of his food, which is merely technical and usually hokum in most stories. It is not even really how he will get over his despair, though that is closer to it. It is in the experience of him getting over the despair. The story lies not in the explanation but in the experience.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 22:34
  • I see The Martian as being closer to a police procedural or detective story - which by the way is less about a moral choice or a choice of values than other types of stories. We like to watch clever people solve problems. That's what Bones is about, obviously all of the various flavors of Sherlock Holmes (including House, MD), and I include The Martian in this category. There is at least one major choice that could be considered part of such stories: to "take the case" or not. Watney and Holmes both have to choose to keep working/surviving despite having emotional reasons to give up. Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 23:16
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    The Martian had another choice (not wasting taxpayer money or his crewmates lives with a dangerous mission). The technical part of stories is a great place to give the reader forward momentum. It can be something of an illusion in the context of the moral arc. Doesn't matter. Each technical success is payout to the reader. Each clue added to the mystery is payout. The technical aspects move a story and 'feed' the reader - but the moral angle is the part we're trying to understand about ourselves. 'How much do I value life? Would I put my friends in danger, or saw off an arm, to survive?"
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 23:27

A good Setting vs. Plot conflict I always like to use to demonstrate this is the Disney Film "Mulan". The Setting is Ancient China and the Plot is "Mulan must defeat the leader of the Huns, Shan Yu." Seems simple, hell, I'm old enough to remember the original trailer for the film, which basically gives away the ending:

The Emperor of China: I've heard a great deal about you, Fa Mulan. (Voice becomes progressively angrier) You stole your father's armor, ran away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived your commanding officer, dishonored the Chinese Army, destroyed my palace, and... (calmly) you have saved us all.

Aside from the still hand drawn animation (not colored at all) and her fathers end line of dialog, saying that Mulan had brought him great honor (also from the end of the film), that's all audiences got.

Disney's marketing was simple: Here is what she does, beginning, middle, and end... and as awesome as we told it to you, we're underselling... you gotta check this chick out.

Again, the plot is pretty much summed up by the Emperor's dialog. Mulan will break all the rules, and save China. That's the plot. So with that in mind, what is the antagonistic force that threatens her in these goals?

While most people would say Shan Yu... or the boring villain whose name I can't remember..., I submit that it is not the the agency of the plot that is Mulan's antagonist (the villain written for her to fight in the story) but the agency of the setting, specifically the sexist society norms of Ancient China that existed as the did in the story's setting. Shan Yu and Mulan have no plot connections other than she is a lowly soldier in a war of aggression he caused. In fact, the first time they meet is halfway through the film. Rather, thing that opposes Mulan is that her own society values her less than a man (As described in "Please Bring Honor to Us" and "Be a Man", which propose the gender ideals of each sex in the setting's society.). Mulan pleading for her father to be spared conscription is seen by her father as a great dishonor, which he admonishes her for and then reclaims by walking up to take his notice without need for his crutch and returning to his house without taking it back from his wife.

Every struggle Mulan faces in the film are societal norms, not efforts by Shan Yu specifically targeting her. In fact, he payed her no mind, in favor of killing the unit officer who denied him his victory by obliterating his army. It's only when he is corrected that he pushes aside the officer to face the real threat, the lowly ranked "Soldier from the Mountain." It's pretty clear from this scene, Mulan is a threat because she has at the very least a four digit body count to her name... gender has nothing to do with that... and is the only character in the film who gives her the deserved respect of her actions without any hesitation. He may be her enemy, but her society is her antagonist in stopping her from resolving the plot cleanly. And a society is an element of setting, not of plot.


This is a great question, DPT! I would say that conflict doesn't always have to be taken in the literal sense. For example: Your protagonist has an orc friend she travels with. a conflict can arise from being in love with the orc while being expected, as the mayor's daughter, to marry some noble instead. Another conflict can arise from the orc being a good friend and now the emperor have decided that all orcs in the kingdom must be executed immediately. Those do not involve arguing but rather something our heroes need to deal with. The possibilities are many :)

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