Posted on by Steven Savage

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(Way With Worlds is a weekly column on the art of worldbuilding published at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

For the next few columns I’m going to be exploring the dysfunctions and conflicts in the worlds we create. Not conflicts brought about by our mistakes as worldbuilders (though those can become fuel for deeper worldbuilding as noted), but what happens when things break down? Sure we’re all busy building our world, but things go wrong inside the worlds as part of good worldbuilding, and we have to figure out the implications of the crises we create.

In fact, as repeated several times, conflict is actually part of the process of making a world accessible and interesting. People want to hear stories and play games about things that happen, and that often involves conflict. Not always of course, but often enough it warrants its own section here in a series of columns by a slightly-mad-scientist of randomizing ideas.

Now everyday conflicts are one thing; arguing over a tab, not being able to find dragon dung at the alchemist’s shop, and so on. Let’s talk about the big ones, the ones that are epic and horrible, the ones we write about – and the ones that in real life make us wonder why the hell they happened.

So let’s go and find out just how things break down and go wrong. We’ll start with how it stays together in the first place – well, how our cast of characters and people keep it together.  After all, they’ll be the ones you’re writing about or your players are playing.

Also they’re probably the ones causing the problems . . .

A Balanced Mind

A challenge in writing conflict is its too easy to break things into good guys and bad guys, which history, reality, and numerous fanfic point out isn’t always or doesn’t have to be the case. Good guys and bad guys may not always be obvious, or seem obvious at the beginning or the end.  How do we write conflict without falling into simplistic thinking – or just sod it all and have a fight?

Fortunately I have a model for that.

Something that deeply influenced me as a person and a writer was a book. Back in college (in the 1980’s), I read a book called Maps of the Mind by Charles Hampden-Turner, an attempt to examine various theories of psychology, philosophy, and literature and how they interrelated. A major emphasis was on how the mind seeks balance and how it can spin out of control and do horrible things.  That helped influence my own theories, below.

We always wonder how can someone so nice or normal or whatever go and do awful things? How do murders and wars happen when seeming normal people are behind them? Why, when we dig for the source of evil do we often find banality or disturbingly regular people?

The answer, so sum up simply, is that people get out of whack.

Our value system, who we are, is self-correcting in a healthy person. We adapt, and learn, our values align and realign, our communities adapt, our societies adapt. They may not adapt in necessarily good or healthy or perfect ways, but they often do in ways that go on. Think of it almost like a wheel, turning smoothly and running fine, if occasionally wobbly.

But something can unbalance us as people, or a community, or a nation. It can be a bit of insanity, an economic issue, an anger that festers in the right conditions, an external manipulation. Suddenly an idea or incident or issue dominates our thoughts, and our value system becomes co-opted to become part of that obsession, and even when people oppose our idea or others warn us, it just fuels the imbalance. Even piles of corpses or raging family members won’t stop us as the obsession, this imbalance, drives us.

The wheel wobbles, shudders, imbalanced, like a weight is stuck to the rim.

Maybe in a few cases this obsession even makes sense – we have to throw everything we’ve got at a problem. But I think we can all speak from personal experience and history that it usually gets ugly. Once a conflict begins, once people get riled up, something easily goes wrong and then the horror begin.

(Admittedly now you have your story, but it is unpleasant to contemplate)

Of course a situation like this can’t hold, on a personal level or a national level. If things don’t calm down, the balance of mind or minds is shattered until things break. It could be the break of an individual or an entire nation.  The wheel of the mind flies apart due to the velocity and imbalance.

This is where a conflict with a small “c” becomes a Conflict with a capital letter and disaster usually follows. It’s when an argument over a treaty turns into a war, when an argument becomes ethnic cleansing, when a slight turns into a violent brawl.  All too often things end up, in the end, going to hell among even seemingly normal people.

It just depends on how far the imbalance gets.

With this slightly long-winded description, you have great idea for understanding conflict and when it can ramp up to insane levels.  It’s when things get out of control and imbalanced, and your world and your story is about the restoration of balance or finding a new one.

Even if it isn’t pretty.

More Than People

Now that I just wrote applies to human beings. Indeed in your writing your humans and human-alikes may be similar enough that this is a great rule of thumb.

Does this apply to non-humans or human-alike-but-different? That’s probably a judgement call for you to make. In fact, you may not have considered this strange breakdown effect until now.

In cases of dealing with nonhumans you’ll want to think carefully how conflict affects them. Because you might be using various “human defaults” that aren’t appropriate – including this one.

But personally, I find this a great model.  If anything else it’s relatable, because down deep we’ve seen things go to hell.

Applying This Concept To Writing and Worldbuilding

As depressing as these concepts are, they’re great to apply to writing and worldbuilding.

Basically, the normally balanced human mind can get out of whack when an idea becomes obsession which then dominates their experience and co-opts their ethical system. Eventually they spin out of control, an often make things far worse.  This is when conflict gets big, bad, and ugly.

This concept help you remember a few things:

  1. People don’t just turn evil and do nasty stuff, and there are reason. These reasons usually involve a dysfunctional personal/social system that in many cases makes them even worse. In the cases of the insane, of sociopaths, it may be a real core evil, but for many people it isn’t. Review the imbalances that make the evil “evil” in your world.”
  2. Anyone can spin out of control. It doesn’t just happen to “bad.” people. The heroes of your story could easily suffer from this, being on some great crusade they’ll someday regret. Look for signs characters are losing balance – this doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong, it means you’ve got something to flesh out in your worldbuilding.
  3. People unbalance each other. When one person or group goes into this imbalanced mode, others may well follow as they battle them. Monsters spawn monsters. Remember that as you write conflicts, because people facing conflicts unscathed is rare.
  4.  Small conflicts are one thing, but they can spawn much larger conflicts when things get unbalanced. In your worldbuilding, try and determine which “level” conflicts are on – and when they’ll ramp up or scale down.  Keeping this imbalance model in mind is helpful, you can figure out when things are about to go to crazytown.
  5. When things get out of balance, the conflicts almost inevitably go too far. In your worldbuilding remember your repercussions.  This rule of balance helps you determine when things get messy.

I find this concept quite helpful in understanding conflicts, and hope you do as well.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at

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