Episode 198: War. What is it good for?

On August 27, 2022, Kasie and Rex dove deeper into conflict with a discussion on the ultimate conflict: war. How it shapes characters, landscapes, and exposition. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day



  • Extreme conflict: War
  • SCWA’s Annual Conference and Virtual Conference are open for registration
  • The ways War affects the narrative
  • How to frame your war story
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Segment 1

So last week we did “conflict” and this week we’re turning it up to 11 with War which, as you might imagine, is extreme conflict.

Don’t miss adjacent episodes on raising the stakes and “White Knuckle Scenes” which address the concept of “tension” in fiction and our first “conflict” conversation way back on episode 10.

Last week we told you that conflict, according to this resource from Oregon State, means “thwarted, endangered, or opposing desire. It’s when a character wants something, but something else gets in the way.”

Today we’re going to take War as extreme conflict and work out what they do to the narrative in three specific capacities:

  1. As setting (or backdrop)
  2. As primary conflict (this story is about the war or violence itself)
  3. As exposition (it happened before the story but the residue is still here)

A few years ago, World War II novels were all anyone was publishing and I (Kasie) read WWII in every theater on the globe:

  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (San Francisco)
  • All the Light We Cannot See (Normandy/coastal France)
  • The Postmistress (Cape Cod)
  • Five Quarters of the Orange (French countryside)
  • The Orphan’s Tale (Western Europe)
  • Sarah’s Key (Paris)
  • Wildflower Hill (Australia)
  • Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (Shanghai)
  • The House at Tyneford (England)
  • The Bronze Horseman (St Petersburg)
  • Atonement (England)

It felt like the only thing worth writing about was the stories surrounding World War II and I think the compulsion was that so many people who’d lived through the conflict were passing away. In any case, the “theaters” of war were many – the Pacific, the East Coast, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Great Britain. There wasn’t a place on earth that the war didn’t touch. I haven’t read any novels about Canada or South America during that period, but I’m sure there are some.

In any case, what was it that made WWII so compelling? Even Outlander jumps off from WWII before plunging back into the Scottish rebellion of the Jacobites in the 1740s. People were changed, irrevocably, by WWII.

And that – irrevocable change – is the reason war is a compelling topic for stories. 

Segment 2

So let’s talk about how it functions. 

As Primary Conflict: We’ll begin with the “war story” subgenre of historical fiction. A war novel is one that takes place on or around the battlefield. The central conflicts all arise from the action of warfare itself. Some examples:

  • Red Badge of Courage
  • All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Catch 22
  • War and Peace
  • The Things They Carried
  • Slaughterhouse Five
  • Dr. Zhivago
  • The Zookeeper’s Wife

Primary characters in war novels are military personnel: soldiers, generals, sailors, pilots, and those who support the war effort such as nurses, doctors, and USO volunteers.

What are your favorite war novels and why?

Who are your favorite war novel characters and why?

What is it about the war that shapes the novel? That shapes the people?

Segment 3

As backdrop: there are a number of fantastic books that simply use the war as backdrop. What do we mean by backdrop? Well, it’s happening and because it’s happening we have circumstances we might not otherwise have, but it’s not the central conflict of the book or for any of the characters.

Some examples:

  • Atonement – the conflict is social class and a younger sister’s jealousy of her older sister’s relationship; but the war is what drives them apart
  • Memoirs of a Geisha – the conflict is a young woman trying to make a life for herself in a career where there’s competition, jealousy, and danger; the war interrupts the expected path for Geisha
  • The Floatplane Notebooks – the conflict is the family growing up and apart but Vietnam separates them as one brother is drafted; though we never visit the theater of war, the brother’s missives home on pages he’s torn from the Army’s procedure manual are evidence of the toll the war is having on him.
  • The Book Thief – the circumstances of the story all revolve around the Nazi presence in Poland, but the story isn’t about war, it’s about a young girl finding reasons to be hopeful and protect her humanity despite loss and death surrounding her. 

This blog is for fantasy writers, but it gives some compelling reasons why war – in a novel – is a good plot device. Wars provide conflicting motives – think of Rick and Victor Laslow  in Casablanca. One just wants to survive, maybe make a little money, the other has a noble role to play in liberating Europe. Wars make unexpected allies and unexpected enemies out of people. Political conflicts can drive families apart, can pit tradition against modern thought. Wars also create scarcity of resources and can force sacrifices that wouldn’t otherwise be made.

With the war as background, you can force characters into any number of circumstances. Their desperation for survival can create really dramatic moments and impossible choices can really drive a plot.

Segment 4

As exposition: sometimes the war has already concluded when the novel begins. In these cases, war is exposition. It’s something that has scarred the people, the landscape, and the economy before we start reading the story. 

Some examples of war as exposition:

  • The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway’s Lost Generation wallowing in their Post WWI malaise, addicted to violence and unable to really feel anything at all because of it.
  • The Kite Runner – it’s about a man who escaped Taliban rule in Afghanistan but the atrocities he witnessed, and the scars of war since the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the decades-long conflict fueled by Cold War brutality have left him (and his nation) scarred.
  • 1984 – influenced by the totalitarian rule defeated (just barely) in WWII, Orwell anticipated the government surveillance, overreach, and fear of a dystopian society.

People are changed by war and sometimes those changes make for dynamic stories. Think of these conflicts:

  • The couple that got married on a whim before or during the war and are now forced to live with one another as husband and wife.
  • The children who lost one (or both) parents and are now making their way without adult supervision or any sense of family traditions or values.
  • A wealthy business owner who lost everything in the war is now forced to work for someone else.
  • A society woman is reduced to seamstress to make ends meet.
  • Refugees and asylum seekers all have interesting tales to tell about which parts of their culture they keep and which parts they abandon to assimilate in their new world.
  • Disgraced losers in the war – people on the wrong side of it – and the shame and guilt and struggle they have to put their lives back together after the humiliation of defeat.
  • Trauma and the mental anguish thereof
  • Grief and devastation

So.Much.Drama. Ask yourself:

  • What did your character do during the war? Was he honorable or not?
  • What are the likely circumstances of a betrayer? A sell out? A traitor?
  • Can your character sleep at night?
  • What scenes from the war haunt him the most?
  • How does the character’s war trauma play out in current scenes?
  • Was your character a hero? Would he consider himself to be one? Why or why not?

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