Writing Is A Bad Habit: Dark vs. Evil: The Big Meh? a.k.a. Meaningful Conflict

Conflict is the soul of drama.

I’m certain you’ve heard the phrase before bandied around.  We’ve talked about it a plenty before and it is elementally true.  There is no dramatic tension without conflict.  However, to be one-hundred percent accurate, there should be a clarification to that phrase.  It takes more than raw conflict to make drama; it takes meaningful conflict.  No one cares about a story wherein the main conflict is what the protagonist wants to eat for lunch (unless that choice will having unexpected consequences!).  Pastrami vs. tuna salad is not the meaningful conflict of the ages.

As we’ve discussed before, conflict becomes meaningful through the stakes behind the resolution of the conflict and our investment into the characters at the heart of the conflict.  That is why a conflict revolving around dark, nasty, villainous sorts rarely works out.  If handled with any kind of heavy-handedness, you can easily have both your supposed protagonists and antagonists become unsympathetic, robbing you of critical reader investment.  Yes, we sometimes want to root for the bad guys but, to make that happen, said bad guys must be handled very carefully.  The readers must he made to understand the characters and sympathize with them.  They must be made relatable, more human.

To compound that issue, dark vs. evil often leads to conflicts that have minimal stakes.  Yes, someone may die but I mean the larger stakes.  To take it to the extreme, if we have, say, two world-dominating supervillains in conflict, what are the larger stakes of the conflict?  Yes, one may lose, but the world itself winds up in subjugation under the iron heel of one super-powered dictator or the other.  At least that’s how it might turn out unless it is, as with the relatability issue, handled in a more nuanced method.  Perhaps the conflict becomes a lesser-of-two-evils situation, where one villain is far less ‘evil’ than another?  Perhaps the conflict becomes multi-tiered, wherein our ‘protagonist’ undergoes a character arc (man vs. him/herself) and becomes a step above his/her previous villainous self?  There are quite a few clever options that can allow a writer to utilize a dark, gritty, and possibly outright evil cast and still find a way to make it work.

There’s a reason why the classic conflict of ‘good vs. evil’ has lasted so long and works so well.  Meaningful conflict is easiest to create when dealing with opposing forces with great divides of motivation and goal.  The closer those motivations and goals come together, the harder it is for the writer to create that necessary drama to make the readers care about the story.  Still, it’s not impossible!  If any of you lovely readers have any more ideas, suggestions, or input to deal with this situation, leave it in the comments below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

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4 comments

  1. I remember struggling through a massive doorstop of a book club selection, which everybody else seemed to have loved ever since it came out in the 1980s. One of its many, many defects was its villains, some of whom were historical personages who were written about badly, and one who was fictitious, but whose thin flatness, if labeled cardboard, would have been an insult to the paper products industry. The author’s attempt to humanize this character who robbed, raped, and pillaged his way through the story, was to tell the reader that the guy had nightmares. My response: “Oh. Really.”

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