Conflict is necessary for a good story, and it can arise from any number of places. You can generate conflict through the plot by making your story about a rebellion against an evil empire. Or, you can generate conflict between characters: the hero is all about cats, while the villain posts nothing but dog memes! But you can also build sources of conflict directly into your world, and that’s what we’re talking about today.
Packaging conflict with your worldbuilding gives you much more robust conflict. Audiences might wonder why two sides of a political divide can’t compromise, but that’s far less likely when the conflict is driven by the very rules of the setting. World-based conflict is also great for telling multiple stories in the same setting. You’re building yourself a well from which you can draw conflict whenever you need it. This means you don’t need to provide an explanation every time a new conflict arises. It’ll flow directly from the world!
1. Resource Scarcity
Historically, most large-scale conflicts have been about resources, often underneath a heavy frosting of ideology. The Crusades were originally launched to reconquer land for Christendom. The American Civil War was fought primarily over the resource of slave labor. Even WWII, the great showdown of good versus evil, started largely with German and Japanese attempts to seize resources.
With speculative fiction, we can kick things up a notch and craft worlds where resources are so scarce that characters have no choice but to fight over them. This model is the default for postapocalyptic settings like Mad Max and Fallout, where raiders and scavengers squabble over remnants of the old world. But you need not be limited to road warriors and super mutants when building a resource-scarce world.
In the realm of science fiction, extraterrestrial colonies are a fantastic setting for resource scarcity. Perhaps the first wave of colonists settled on an inhospitable world, expecting that a second wave would soon follow with more supplies. But that second wave never came, and now the colonists are stuck in an environment where they can barely breathe the air.
Creating resource scarcity in fantasy is a little trickier, since most fantasy civilizations have been established for some time, but it can be done! Perhaps your setting’s economy is heavily dependent on a single commodity, the way ancient Mediterranean kingdoms once depended on bronze. When that commodity runs out, people start to get desperate. Or, you could build a small part of the world where resources are unusually scarce. A single cow might not be much in the rich cities, but it’s everything on the Blasted Plains.
Resource scarcity is perfect for a setting with low-scale conflicts. After all, no one can build epic weapons of war when resources are scarce. At the same time, it’s difficult to get people excited about a grand political cause when their basic survival is at risk. Instead, conflicts will usually be practical and vicious, fought over the basic necessities of life.
2. Natural Disasters
Storms, earthquakes, droughts, and volcanic eruptions all cause plenty of havoc in the real world. People struggle to survive in the face of nature’s onslaught, and if they survive, there’s still the aftermath to deal with. While humans often band together during the event itself, the loss of infrastructure and resources can make the situation deteriorate quickly.
That all happens on a relatively stable planet, where weather occurs in predictable-ish patterns and humans evolved to handle most of what nature can throw at us. Things can be much more intense when you’re building your own world.
In most cases, natural disasters can create conflict in one of two ways. The first is a conflict of humans* vs nature. In this scenario, your characters will be working to either stop the disaster or mitigate its effects. You can see this in action with stories like The Dragonriders of Pern, where brave heroes must take to the sky and burn away monsters crossing over from a nearby red giant. This type of disaster conflict tends to be morally straightforward because few people have any qualms with stopping a tidal wave.
The second type of disaster conflict is what comes after the event passes, where the survivors have to get by in their shattered world. This is what happens in the Broken Earth series, where the world is so geologically unstable that it tends to have an apocalypse every few centuries. This scenario highlights all the evils that humans are capable of, as close friends turn on each other over a few crusts of bread.* With this scenario, even happy endings tend to be tinged with gray morality.
The main thing to be careful of when building a disaster-prone world is not making things too intense. If the civilization-ending meteor strikes happen too often, audiences will wonder how humans could have survived long enough for the story to even happen. You can lighten this burden by having humans be recent arrivals or by going in deep and showing the strategies people use to survive. If the world is beset by constant floods, you might show how homes are built to detach from their foundations and float freely. If deadly bacteria occasionally spew from volcanoes, you might show how every child is trained to spot signs of sickness.
3. Supernatural Ideology
Humans are no strangers to ideological divides. Within just the last century, we’ve seen some truly epic clashes like capitalism vs communism and security vs freedom. We’ve also seen plenty of less compelling entries, like giving people healthcare vs letting people die. But those are mundane human ideologies. This gets way more interesting when you add magic.
In many of ye old fantasy classics, supernatural ideology comes down to good vs evil. In Middle-earth, for example, orcs were literally turned evil by Melkor’s torturous magic. Elves and dwarves, on the other hand, were created to be supernaturally good. Humans are the only species that gets a choice!* This dynamic continues higher up the chain of command. Gandalf and Sauron are both members of a divine coterie split along good/evil lines. They can’t help but oppose each other – it’s in their nature!
While stories of black-and-white morality are still viable, they often seem simplistic to a modern audience. If you want something more complex, look to Avatar: The Last Airbender. In this world, humans are divided into four nations based on which classical element they use in their magic. The nations also have distinct cultures, much of it stemming from their elemental themes. While no nation is wholly good or evil, the scene is still set for excellent conflict. The nations clash because they have different interests, but also because they simply have different ways of doing things. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Fire Nation war, originally launched as a way of converting the rest of the world to Fire Nation industrialism.
Theming is incredibly important when building worlds with supernatural ideology. Not only must the different ideologies make sense, but they also have to resonate with the readers. Lord of the Rings used the ever-popular dynamic of good vs evil,* while Avatar themed its factions off the well-known system of four elements. Neither series would have worked as well without this strong theming.
The main weakness of supernatural ideologies is that they often create broad generalizations. Even if you don’t mean to paint one side as evil, only ever portraying them as the enemy can have that effect. This is particularly problematic if that side clearly resembles marginalized people in real life. That’s why Avatar spends so much time developing characters from each nation, so no one will think the world is easily divided into good guys and bad guys.
4. Toxic Resources
I love to talk about how most conflicts are motivated by access to resources, but what if resource scarcity isn’t the issue? What if the problem comes from utilizing the available resources instead? That might sound weird, but humans have some experience with it in real life. One example is forced labor. It’s tremendously profitable for whoever does the forcing, and it causes horrendous problems for the enslaved. Another example is fossil fuels: a cheap, abundant source of energy where the only problem is that using it slowly cooks your planet. Sheesh, that’s some brutal worldbuilding.
But outside the existential problems of our own world, speculative fiction offers plenty of opportunity to create toxic resources. One of the most popular is sacrificial magic, as seen in roleplaying games like Legend of the Five Rings and Call of Cthulhu. Both these settings have powerful magic that requires harming or killing another human in order to work, which means people who are okay with murder suddenly have direct access to sorcery. Both settings also feature magical corruption, so the use of this toxic resource becomes self-perpetuating.
This kind of toxic resource creates immediate conflict. It gives the worst people in society exceptional power and also keeps the heroes from using that power. Sure, the cultists might be willing to sacrifice a dozen innocents for their ritual, but heroes aren’t. Unless they are, of course. That’s the other option with this kind of toxic resource: you can create some truly dark stories with it. Your characters might be decent people pushed into such extreme circumstances that killing a person for magical power starts to seem reasonable. That kind of story isn’t for everyone, but the people who like it tend to really like it.
The other major type of toxic resource is the slow-burning variety. This resource is analogous to our own fossil fuels: it seems fine at first, but as time goes on, the downsides start to mount up. Let’s say you have a D&D-style setting, where undead can be easily animated. These walking corpses can do most work a human can do, without requiring food or sleep. Soon the entire economy is powered by skeletal labor. It’s only later that research wizards discover how each undead gives off a tiny amount of negative energy, and eventually that energy will accumulate to lethal levels. But by then, the necro-industrial complex is entrenched, and removing it will not be easy.
This slow-burn toxicity cannot help but resonate with anyone who’s been paying attention to the climate, and it has the potential to send a very powerful message. On the other hand, being so similar to real life can make the story overly bleak, especially if it doesn’t seem like the characters can actually do anything about the problem.
5. Divine Meddling
We’re now moving away from actual human experience and into pure fantasy. If your world has gods in it, and those gods like to oppose each other, that can manifest as deadly conflict between mortal characters. Gods rarely settle their differences personally, either because it would be too destructive or because the gods are lazy. Instead, they send their champions out to battle on their behalf, usually granting some kind of divine favor along the way.
Some gods fight for very human reasons. They lie, cheat, and steal from each other until tempers boil over and the only way to settle things is by sending out armies to besiege a walled city-state. Students of Greek mythology will recognize this behavior. These squabbles are common and often bloody, but they’re fairly small in scale. Two smith-gods will happily watch their followers shed blood over who produces the best swords, but they’re unlikely to start civilization-ending wars over it.
Other gods may fight for deeper, more primal reasons. In settings like Pillars of Eternity, the gods represent important facets of reality, like life and death. While they still have personalities, their actions are determined more by their assigned role than any human-like motivations. If you use this scenario, then conflicts between gods can be world-shaking indeed. If the god of law and the god of freedom clash, that’s no mere squabble. The results could change the way humans interact forever.
The most important thing to keep in mind with divine meddling is making sure the conflict still matters to your human characters. The desires of distant gods won’t hold the audience’s attention on their own, especially if those gods are of the petty variety. A war started by gods competing over who’s the hottest might work in ancient literature, but it just seems silly today.
One way to combat this is to make your protagonist a true believer in their god’s just cause. If one god is fighting to make humanity’s lot better, that’s a sympathetic cause. Alternatively, your protagonist could be a free agent trying to get the best result they can out of a clash between titans. Maybe they don’t want either Freedom or Law to triumph completely, and they do everything in their mortal power to force a stalemate. Or perhaps your characters are just ants trying to survive at the gods’ feet.
6. Incompatible Realities
The best part of speculative fiction worldbuilding is that you’re not limited to just one world! You can create as many as your story needs, and if you want to generate conflict, you can make those worlds antithetical to each other. They cannot coexist, and when they meet, one will surely destroy the other.
The most common use of this trope is in cosmic horror stories like the Laundry Files and the Southern Reach. In both novels, alien realities intrude on our own, threatening to make Earth unlivable for humans. In the Laundry Files these other realities are blatantly malicious, while in Southern Reach it’s at least implied that the alien entity isn’t killing people on purpose, but the result is the same: a clash of realities that the characters cannot ignore. They have to fight it, or at the very least be overwhelmed by its terrible might.
But incompatible realities don’t need to come in the form of alien dimensions. You get the same effect in settings like Mouse Guard, where predators want to eat mice, and mice don’t want to be eaten. There is no animosity; the predators do not hate mice. Neither is there negotiation. The predators cannot be talked out of eating mice any more than the rain can be talked out of falling. In fact, the working of a predator’s mind, and any other large animal for that matter, is incomprehensible to mice. A few specific behaviors can be gleaned, but true understanding eludes mouse-kind.
Incompatible realities lend themselves to absolute conflicts. The antagonist is unsympathetic because they are inherently inhuman.* Any emotional or morally gray conflict will take place on the human side and only involve the other reality in the way a hurricane can be involved in a swordfight. These alien foes also provoke much existential pondering and sometimes even the expanding of a character’s consciousness. So if you want a story that’s equal parts desperate horror and philosophical musing, incompatible realities is the trope for you.
Like any narrative exercise, the primary goal of worldbuilding is to serve the story, and stories need conflict to work. So when you design your setting, it’s always useful to include reasons for conflict, whether it’s something from this list or a devilish creation of your own. And don’t feel limited to just one! You can mix and match conflict sources like dessert flavors. You can have a world so devastated by natural disasters that its resources are dangerously scarce, just in time for the old gods to awaken from their slumber and resume old feuds.
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