Conflict in reality and fiction: Must we fight?

Conflict is a part of life. Everyone knows that. People fight and attack each other all the time, all over the world. It’s why humans have so much war in our history, and why so many inventions came about while trying to beat each other (literally or figuratively).

But hey, conflict isn’t just physical aggression. It doesn’t even need to involve anger or harsh words. Conflict is any incompatibility of interests. Trying to get ten people to agree on pizza toppings is a form of conflict. Anytime a bunch of free-willed people encounter each other, there will be mismatches and misunderstandings because no two people’s heads will contain all of the same ideas.

How weird is that? One word — “conflict” — can mean murdering each other with tanks, or just disagreeing on what colour to paint the living room. But when we bring up the idea of conflict, we usually mean the more dramatic types of battles and arguments. It’s easy to forget that quieter conflict is still indeed a conflict. And quieter conflictions don’t necessarily have to escalate — but for humans, they often have and they often do.

So when we write fantasy stories and invent cultures, fighting is a common theme. Wars against dark lords! Wars against regular lords! Battles for survival and supremacy and saving the whole freakin’ world! And sure, a fight scene can be a great dramatic tool, or just fun to watch. But is it the inescapable conclusion? I’ve met people who say fantasy peoples must — must — fight each other to be believable characters. Aggressive conflict has become as important to the fantasy genre as the real world — maybe even moreso.

This is an idea I find important enough to base my writing on. Is violent, mean-spirited conflict really inevitable? Will intelligent beings always attack each other sooner or later? If so, then why?

I immediately think of the fact that our Earth is dominated by human civilization, meaning that all the people we’ve ever known are humans. And we humans come from a long line of aggressive great apes. Chimpanzees are intelligent creatures that rely on social groups, and yet they go out and murder other chimps for prime land. Some Homo erectus fossils show injuries from clubs and stone tools. Maybe this sort of behaviour is bred into us. Maybe pacifists are just rare flukes.

If that’s true, then a human transplanted into a magical world would still tend toward brutish behaviour and disagreements, regardless of the wonders and bounty around them. But it’s hard to say what the basic human nature is like — because, again, we come from a long line of aggressive great apes and we only have ourselves to chat with. We might turn out differently in a place where we can leave our fellow humans and go commune with, say, unicorns.

That’s food for thought all by itself. Is human conflict a product of human nature, human culture, or some combination of the two?

When there’s so much potential to explore the concept, I say we shouldn’t take the easy route. Why wallow in the awful things humans have done to each other for ages? Why act like violence and hate are foregone conclusion? We have so much potential to try other paths.

This is part of my motivation for the world of Aligare. In my fantasy world, dragons and weasels and insectoids have seen each other as friends for untold generations. They have conflicts of interest and misunderstandings, sure — but no immediate notions of fear or hate or avarice when they look at another intelligent being. And they tell stories of that one terrifying, awful time their gods resorted to fighting. I hope this makes readers question the world humans have built. Can the peoples of Earth achieve this kind of peace? Why or why not?

Even if we can’t avoid squabbles — heck, even if we enjoy a snarky argument once in a while — I think it’s worth thinking about.

2 Comments on “Conflict in reality and fiction: Must we fight?”

  1. Christa says:

    Man, this is taking me back to my philosophy classes at LU!

    I sometimes think that fantasy and sci-fi, at least the less sophisticated ones, are written and read because they’re simpler worlds compared to our real one. The evil side… well, the fact that we even say “evil” indicates a distance between a fantasy book and real life. We don’t readily apply the word “evil” to real nations or organizations… Anyway, that was a tangent, haha!

    Here we go: Fantasy and sci-fi tends to have a clear dividing line between the good side and bad side. And they usually have happy endings. Maybe the stories are like that because we need a place where we’re in control of conflict because reality doesn’t offer that clarity or closure.

    • Funny how good versus evil is so simple, and yet easy to go on long tangents about!

      Control of conflict does sound like a likely theory. I’ve heard that sales of fantasy novels always go up when there’s an economic downturn, because escaping into a simpler world becomes very appealing. It does explain why people enjoy stories where defeating one evil lord somehow fixes all the problems ever.

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