Writers often talk about conflict, but much of what they say is wrong. Too often, they are likely to see the word “conflict” and assume it means violence, especially in their opening hook. This assumption can quickly become a problem, because –let’s face it — many writers have no experience of violence. Moreover, if you start with a sword fight or a chase, you create the additional problem of making readers care about a character they know nothing about. Even more importantly, if you identify conflict with violence, you risk a crude and unsubtle story.
So what’s the alternative? In The Hands of the Emperor, a long self-published novel that is currently attracting widespread attention, Victoria Goddard offers one alternative: instead of external conflict, try internal conflict instead. Here’s how she does it:
Her main character, Cliopher Mdang, is the only member of his family to seek a career abroad. He has become personal secretary to the Emperor, the manager of the imperial bureaucracy, and a byword for efficiency. He rarely has time to return home, where everybody in his extended family knows him simply as Kip. Cliopher is proud of his accomplishments, but he is unmarried and sees few friends or family as he goes about his work. He needs balance in his life.
At the start of the novel, Cliopher has a distant relationship with the Emperor. The Emperor is ringed with tabus, and Cliopher is not one to presume, and avoids any familiarity. Then, tentatively, alarmed at his own daring, he suggests that the Emperor take a holiday. To his surprise, the Emperor accepts the invitation, taking Cliopher and several other leading members of the court with him. During the holiday, the Emperor learns to relax and Cliopher sees someone as isolated as himself. Slowly, a friendship develops between two lonely men who barely know what friendship even means.
As Cliopher assists the Emperor, he starts to think about his own retirement. The trouble is, home and family irritate him. His friends and family do not realize that he is the second most important person in the empire. They seem him as an amiable mediocrity, and he is too modest to correct them. Just as his pride in his accomplishments is tempered by a wish for a life of his own, so his love of home is tempered by irritation. The story is about he struggles with this ambivalence and —
–And that’s it. The violence is next to non-existent, and the magic is largely ceremonial, or a display at festivals. Yet those who rank their reading by the body counts –the higher the better — may be surprised to learn that result is fascinating. Cliopher is an intelligent, quietly humorous man who is impossible to dislike, and his journey from the stiff and lonely Cliopher back to plain Kip is quietly moving and impossible to put down.
This is not the first time I have heard that conflict does not imply violence. In the early 1990s, Ursula Le Guin discussed “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” championing narrative over conflict. However, Le Guin never altogether managed to make her narratives as interesting as stories of conflict, and, without saying anything, slowly returned to a more conventional, if broader perspective.
By contrast, The Hands of the Emperor shows that at least one successful alternative to our traditional ideas of conflict and story structure actually exists. Based on this example, I am no longer thinking in terms of conflict, let alone violence, in structuring a story. Instead, I am thinking of story structure in terms of a lack of harmony, or perhaps an imbalance that the main characters struggle against. This re-framing, I believe, can only deepen our understanding of story.