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Conflict is one of the most important things in driving a story. I’ve been working on my particular story for a while now, and I finally seem to have worked out a good plot, and by that, I mean the big problem which needs to be solved. Only, I genuinely don’t know how to solve the problem.

I think it’s because the issues are with morals and characters colliding, rather than solid events. I’ll quickly explain the situation.

Character A has been presented for the majority of the book as a villain. He’s done awful things like wiping out a bunch of people (revenge motivated) but eventually he can’t stand himself for it, so he’s like “I’m gonna change” and swears never to take another life. He is also in possession of over powered magic.

Character B is presented as the hero who will take down the villain, but actually he’s a pompous, selfish, power hungry, narcissistic guy, so the story questions whether or not you should even be rooting for him.

We are left with two pretty bad people. Personally, I want Character A to prevail, because I’m a sucker for redemption arcs, but to do that, he’d have to break his promise and kill Character B. I would have Character A let himself be killed in a self sacrificial situation, but that leaves another character in an awful position, I don’t know how to go into it without another five paragraphs of explaining.

My question is this. How do I resolve conflict if none of the options seem satisfying or correct?

  • 3
    I love how the answers of Mark Baker and Galastel are very different, but equally valid and both very useful. – sesquipedalias Sep 18 at 10:48
  • This almost sounds like the character arcs for a couple of the characters in a TV-series called Ripper Street. May be worth a check out. – J Crosby Sep 18 at 15:07
  • How about borrowing a little from Avatar The Last Airbender and have A get advised to kill B, but come up with a way to end it without killing, taking away power. – online Thomas Sep 19 at 14:39
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    @onlineThomas Or, more permanently, the ending of Chris Nolan's "Batman Begins"... – Chronocidal Sep 20 at 13:10
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You're saying you've written yourself into a corner. You appear to have to options, and you don't like either. You're forgetting: you are the writer. You are god. Your story is not set in stone, your choices are not limited to those two options. You can find a third option, or you can change the presets.

First, figure out what it is you want to say. It's not enough that there is conflict. What does it mean? Why are those things happening? What are you exploring, what truth(s) do you seek to touch on?
For your particular presets, do you want to say that redemption is possible, do you want to tel a Les misérables-like story, with a Javert chasing your reforming character? Or do you want to speak of an unforgiving world where there is no redemption, and the so-called hero is himself a vile despot?

Once you've decided what your story is about, at its core, find a way to make it work. Some examples:

  • Javert could not accept bending the law. Valjean being a convict and a good man was a paradox. Much like your situation, it appeared Valjean would have to kill him to be free of him, but that would thwart his whole redemption arc. So Javert ended up committing suicide.
  • Frodo could not destroy the Ring. It was too powerful, and he was too broken. Frodo being able to cast the Ring into the Cracks of Doom would have undermined the whole setup. So Gollum shows up just at the right moment, and conveniently falls into the volcano.

To make it work, you might have to go back and change some presets. Javert had to have been the kind of man who could, at the very least, recognise he has hit on an inconsistency. He was not the kind of man who would have just brushed it off. Similarly, Gollum's importance as divine intervention is set up beforehand. Whatever your "third option" is, you would have to set it up, or it would be an unearned Deus ex Machina - a bad trope.

Or you might decide to change the presets even more, make your options different. Maybe your characters are not as you think they were at first. Or maybe some bigger threat makes them join forces. Or something else - the possibilities are unlimited. Just find out what the story is about, and let that be your guide to everything else.

  • Yes--a thematic question, something outside of the plot itself. Very good. – DPT Sep 18 at 15:33
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    Your hero can fail or omit saving the villain (cf. Batman, Face/Off), the hero may have friends doing the dirty work (cf. Daredevil). – user3819867 Sep 19 at 8:59
14

There are, fundamentally, two kinds of problem: technical problems and moral problems. A technical problem requires working out a workable technical solution. It is subject matter for a technical manual. A moral problem requires a choice between two values. It is the subject matter of novels.

The reason that moral problems are the subject of novels and not technical manuals is that moral problems have no perfect solution. They are a choice between values, and thus the protagonist must give up one thing they value to claim the other thing they value. Thus in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy has his pride and Lizzy has her prejudice, but they also fancy each other. Darcy will have to give up his pride and Lizzy her prejudice if they are to achieve the competing value of love.

Here's the kicker, though. This contest of values does not just apply to good people. Bad people have competing values as well. Do I steal the marchioness diamonds thus allowing my arch enemy to escape forever, of do I kill him and forego the diamonds?

In traditional good vs. evil plots, the essential conflict for the protagonist (the good person) is, do I try to save my wife/child/dog/country/budgerigar, at the very likely cost of getting myself killed, or do I stay out of it and buy a parakeet instead. In other words, the moral choice is fight evil vs. stay safe. That is a huge chunk of literature right there.

But there is no reason you can't have bad people grapple with a choice of values. That works just as well. It is a smaller, but certainly significant chunk of literature. (Have a look at Graham Greene's Brighton Rock for instance.)

So, to resolve the conflict, you first have to frame the conflict correctly. One of these bad people is your protagonist. They have two values (however mean and craven they may be) and they will be forced by circumstance to give one up to maintain or achieve the other. That is your conflict, and you resolve it by manipulating them into a position where they have no choice but to choose, and then you walk them through the events that follow to prove to use that they have indeed chosen. The end.

  • Huzzah! Sounds as though I got my protagonist through the right hoops. Glad to read this this morning. – DPT Sep 18 at 15:31
  • Cultivation novels are build around solving technical issues with technical solutions. The excitement readers draw is more focused on characters learning and refining techniques, which later they use in hopefully intelligent ways to overcome their adversaries. While moral decisions do exist in these works, they're hardly essential and mostly used as an excuse to finally get technical. They're not of my personal taste and don't seem to be too popular in the west, but their existence alone makes me believe that technical issues have a place in novels. It's a staple in many eastern works. – Syalashaska Sep 19 at 13:25
  • @Syalashaska There was a vogue of business novels in the west as few years ago which gave technical business advice in the form of a story. It was a pretty short trend but there is a perennial interest using story forms to give technical advice. I'm disinclined to count then in an analysis of the nature of story. But eastern religions seem to tend more to contemplative withdrawal compared to the heroic religions of the west, and that could translate to a different literary culture that values different things even in works of entertainment. But western heroic forms seen to dominate today. – user16226 Sep 19 at 14:05
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Like you, I am a writer who loves character conflict. There's nothing I love more than creating two characters who each have virtues and flaws, and put them at odds with each other. I want my readers to care about them both (I hate Bad Guy type villains, personally) and when I write I tend to put my story in an impossible situation. You want them both to win, but they cannot because their goals are diametrically opposed.

I'm also a writer who doesn't tend to do a lot of planning beforehand. When I'm really in the zone, it seems to me like I have absolutely no idea what my characters are going to do until they do it. I watch the story being written as the words flow from brain to pen to paper. I find myself occasionally appalled by what my characters are capable of doing, and I wonder "how are you ever going to pull a happy-ever-after out of THAT?"

As you may imagine, plot is my weakness as a writer. If I don't have a strong sense of destination, my characters will wander off into places which are interesting, but do not contribute to plot movement.

And I frequently find myself written into a corner; how can my heroine resolve this impossible situation? What can she possibly do to "fix" things? As I go back and analyze my own patterns, I can see that I have a particular theme that my characters use to solve the problem, and for me that is the concept of "self sacrifice." Once I had figured that out, it became a lot easier for me to figure out how to resolve those impossible conflicts.

I ask myself; what is the problem here? What is the actual heart of the conflict? What are the two forces which are clashing? Then I ask; how can my heroine sacrifice herself to make everything come out all right. I'm not suggesting that this be your theme, because you are not me and what pushes my buttons may not push yours.

But instead of asking "who should win", I would suggest that you focus on how each character drives himself forward into the story. Find a way to make both men learn something, both become better than they were.

It also depends on the age group that you are writing for. Teenagers look for things to be more black and white. They want Good Guys and Bad Guys. They are just starting to explore interpersonal mapping, trying to develop ideas about what is right and what is wrong. Read any YA novel and you tend to have your villains always being villainous for little reason other than that they are basically Bad and your protags doing good things because they are the Good Guys and that's what Good Guys do.

But I think older readers want more ambiguity. There are those who do good things and those who do bad things, but the roles tend to swap more. What is important to me in a story is not who is good and who is bad, but "who do I like?" If you create a villain who your readers like, how do you resolve that in ways that satisfy? My belief (based admittedly on my own personal taste) is for the events of the story to lead all the characters into change, into becoming the kind of people for whom there can be a solution that doesn't destroy anyone.

Each conflict is different. Once you decide how your characters need to change in order to satisfyingly resolve the conflict, it becomes a lot easier to shape the events so that the characters are molded into better persons.

And if you decide you want a more traditional good-guy-wins ending, then decide how your villain needs to be shaped in order to make him a person who deserves to win, and how to shape your hero so that he doesn't.

One other suggestion that I would make. Instead of having the character swear a dramatic "I will never kill again" oath perhaps you could, instead, have that character be shaped into the sort of person who thinks it is wrong to kill. It's a lot more work but IMO a more satisfying paradigm. And you can gradually corrupt your good guy until you come to the confrontation, where your former bad guy wins because (from a meta perspective) because he is now someone who deserves to win. There's also no reason whatsoever to kill your former hero. There are so many ways he can lose. Have his former allies discover how dishonorable he had become and change their alliances. Have him collapse into defeat at the realization that his opponent is the better man. Have him killed by the slimeball types that he has been surrounding himself with. The possibilities are endless!

4

You can resolve the conflict as you want, and either Character A does not break his vow, or he breaks it but realizes the vow was in error.

Character B is a "a pompous, selfish, power hungry, narcissistic guy."

Option 1: Find a way to make these flaws his downfall. He gets discredited, or in pursuit of power or riches, does something that gets him killed. Make him lose the contest with A, not because A used his over-powered magic, but because A cornered B and was going to expose his flaws, so B took a big risk to save his position and that is what got him killed.

Option 2: Force A into a choice of killing B or letting innocents die. A knows B is at heart a criminal, and has to choose. IF A refuses to use his power for good, to save innocents that B is using as pawns, he is more guilty than if he killed B. This makes A realize his power comes with the responsibility to use it to make the world a better place. Either way, he must choose death, so he must choose the right death, the one deserving death.

This is no different than a good man shooting a murderer in defense of an innocent: A will have nothing to feel guilty about. He broke a vow, true, but it was an extremist vow, and he'd made it without considering the perverse consequences it might produce. Perhaps he has help from the innocents he saved in realizing this. Thus A grows more in this exchange, and realizes his true vow should have been that he won't kill for personal gain, but he does have a responsibility to protect others.

  • Not the hero we want but the hero we need. Everybody's rooting for the mage the whole time anyway. – Mazura Sep 19 at 11:48
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How do I resolve conflict if none of the options seem satisfying or correct?

The heart of this sentence is the word 'seem', which suggests ambiguity. Your story most certainly can be resolved in a satisfying way, and you might be closer to the solution than you think.

Let's ignore for now the possibility that there is a third way of resolving the conflict. Either A kills B and breaks his vow, or A keeps his vow and B walks. No other options exist.

Say we canonize the former resolution; the one that has your personal preference. When A and B enter the metaphorical coliseum and unfurl their switchblades, A knows there's no turning back. In addition to a struggle between him and his foe, there's now a second struggle going on. A versus himself, or rather, his will to survive versus his will to stick to his morals. You've effectively added an extra layer of conflict to the story. That's not bad, it's interesting.

Here's the climax. A shivs B, who crumples into a ball and bleeds to death. The physical conflict is over, but the mental one still burns bright. How is A going to react? Maybe he hates himself for breaking his vow and drowns himself in the nearest river, thinking the world is better off with one fewer monster. Maybe he comes to accept that doing the right thing isn't as easy as merely wishing to do right. I'm sure there are plenty more reactions to come up with, and that you know your story better than I do. So, pick one.

Is the climax's resolution going to mess with that wonderful foreshadowing in chapter 2, and is it going to shoot a hole in B's backstory? Do I need to rewrite, or even cut those things? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

I'm a big proponent of outlining one's story. I like to pretend I know where my story is going at all times. But that's all it is. Pretend. When the first draft is done the story will have some warts that need to be cut in the second draft. Doing so will make new warts. But they're smaller, and not so numerous. And after enough revisions, they disappear.

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I find it odd that this hasn't come up yet, so here's another alternative to the dilemma, that provides a purely technical solution:

A has access to overpowered magic, right? He doesn't have to kill to win. All that he has to do is prove that B will never defeat him - either by nonlethally subduing B several times, permanently nonlethally subduing B (say by putting some form of long-term curse on him), or by escaping to a place where B has no realistic chance of being able to follow.

Depending on the particulars of the nonlethal solution used, A could come off as a superior person patiently putting up with B's idiocy, a villain who only technically upholds his vow while still being generally nasty, or a frightened innocent successfully escaping from the real villain.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Brilliand, glad you found us. We have a tour and help center you might wish to check out. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 18 at 23:00
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    The world abounds in purely technical solutions, but they make for bad stories. In fact, storytellers often go to extreme lengths to rule out the purely technical solutions that would ordinarily resolve a situation without moral drama. Often they simply ignore the technical solution and hope no one notices (someone inevitably notices and points it out on youtube). The point is, the last thing you want is a purely technical solution. Much of the plot of a novel is devoted to ruling out various practical solutions to force the protagonist to make a choice between values. – user16226 Sep 19 at 11:32
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This is not a problem, this is an opportunity. Great stories are written about insoluble moral conflicts. The fact that you've created one that you --and the reader --can't immediately and easily resolve means you're doing something right, not something wrong. You've accomplished something many writers never master, you've put real stakes on the table.

Now that you've done that, what are some strategies to get out of this difficulty?

  • Wait and see: Have you written the rest of the book yet? If not, or if you're on an early draft, why don't you just keep writing, and see if you find an answer when you get there. The writers of the great classic movie Casablanca didn't know how their movie was going to end until the final moments of writing the final draft --a fact that helps give their narrative life.

  • Be ambiguous: A lot of people hate ambiguous endings, but I love them. Can you end the book after the major story arc has concluded, but before all the loose ends are tied up? For instance, let's say A keeps his vow and sacrifices himself. What happens to character C? We don't know, and maybe that's ok.

  • Give it some time: This is basically the first answer over again, but in the case that you've already written and perfected the entire rest of the book. Put it on a shelf, and just give yourself some time to mull your way to the right ending. I'd argue that the last thing you want to do is go back and rewrite things to give your characters an easy way out. What's going to make this book important to readers is the way it will --eventually --guide them through a dilemma that has some real teeth and bite to it.

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I would have written it as...

  1. Character A defeats Character B
  2. Character B is so humiliated he tries suicide but
  3. Character A saves him by sacrificing himself and is very badly hurt so he has temporary amnesia
  4. Character B gets his lesson and changes for the better and
  5. at the end he is taking care of Character A, whom he accepted as a brother and a friend...
  • 2
    Welcome to Writing.SE Novice, glad you found us. We have a tour and help center you might wish to check out. We're very much a question and answer site here, not a discussion site, and asking for critique or story ideas is off topic. Could you perhaps rewrite your answer to be more general about how a writer might deal with the issue of moral conflict in her/his work? Thanks! – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 18 at 16:52

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