Exploring the Motives Behind Wars in Fantasy Novels

by | Jul 11, 2017

Last Updated:
May 17, 2023


In fantasy novels, wars are a common theme that can serve as a powerful motivator for characters and create tension for readers.

However, it’s essential to remember that wars must have a logical reason behind them, grounded in the world you’ve created. The reasons for wars are not always straightforward

To put it another way, no government, empire, or enemy is simply evil to be evil and wars don’t just happen so that a character has someone to fight. You need to explore the nuances of the motives behind them as this will add depth and complexity to the plot.

Once you finish your worldbuilding, it is important to establish a believable reason for the conflict that drives the story. Delving deeper into each one can create a more immersive experience for the reader.

And that is the goal: to create an immersive experience for the reader that feels real and makes logical sense.

The last thing you want is for the reader to get to the end of the novel, having loved the characters but wondering why the heck everyone is fighting.

So, as you read through our suggestions in this post, think about the underlying factors.

For example, the scarcity of resources is a common motive for war and the first one on our list. Still, it is crucial to understand what lead to a particular resource becoming scarce in the first place. Is it because of environmental factors such as drought or overuse, or is it because of political or economic factors such as hoarding or price regulation? By exploring these nuances, you as the author can create a more realistic and compelling reason for conflict.

Similarly, historical animosities between groups can also be a motive for war, but it is vital to understand how those animosities continue to impact the present.

What are the cultural and societal factors that have contributed to the tension, and how have they manifested in the current situation? By exploring these complexities, you can create a more layered and nuanced conflict.

The same is true concerning the different perspectives and motivations of the characters involved in the conflict. A character seeking revenge may have a very different perspective than one fighting for religious beliefs.

So, don’t view this post as a simple list of reasons as to why you might have war in fantasy novels, but rather try to dig deeper and explore the nuances to add depth and complexity to the plot.

By understanding the underlying factors that lead to conflicts and the different perspectives and motivations of the characters involved, you can create a more immersive and realistic world that engages the reader.

Let’s explore some of the motives behind wars in fantasy novels.

Scarce Resource

One of the reasons why wars may occur in fantasy novels is due to scarce resources.

This could be a simple reason like a lack of farmland or employment, or it could be more complex, like a shortage of magical ingredients. Maybe they are running low on iron and your hero is sitting on a mountain. Maybe one land is overpopulated because they’ve done too well. The population is restless, and trade is only getting them so far.

When one country needs these resources while another has a surplus but is charging too high a price or regulating the export, it can lead to a power struggle that could potentially pull the world apart.

Someone or Something in the Way

Another reason for wars in fantasy novels is when someone or something is in the way.

This could be a small, peaceful hamlet standing between a kingdom and a large force or a group of people that need to be eliminated to make way for a larger plan.

It could be that the hero, or her country, is simply a stepping stone to a bigger plan.

This is a common reason for wars in dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels, where the government or ruling power needs to remove any perceived threats to their authority.

plot development war


Religion is another reason that has been the cause of many wars throughout history and is a popular motive in fantasy novels.

When two groups of people with different religious beliefs vie for supremacy, swords are often drawn. Especially when both firmly believe they are right.

Whether religious laws are being enforced on a population raised to believe differently, or groups are fighting over the same holy land, religion can spawn many struggles in fantasy and reality.

Historical Animosity

Historical animosity is also a common motive for wars in fantasy novels.

One hundred years ago, the current king’s great, great grandfather insulted the princess of a neighboring kingdom by marrying a commoner the day before the arranged grand wedding, and… well, after generations of hearing how horrid the neighbors are it won’t take much of an opportunity to create a spark which leads to a battle.

The past can have a significant impact on the present, and long-standing rivalries between countries or groups often lead to conflict.

Will two characters not trust each other because of ancient mistrust between their races? Even if it is life and death? Will a queen betray a kingdom to right a historic wrong?

plot development war


Revenge is a very human motive and can drive characters to commit acts of violence.

Whether the slight that needs to be avenged is buried in dusty books or happened yesterday, revenge can lead to a multitude of casualties before it is resolved.

Revenge is often tied to personal motives, such as avenging a loved one’s death or restoring a perceived injustice.


Insanity is another common motive for wars in fantasy novels, with mad kings being a popular trope.

Madness can manifest itself in many different ways, from absolute insanity to a mind that sees paranoid plots within every shadow.

A mentally unstable ruler can cause internal turmoil within their kingdom or inspire action to overthrow them.

However, we must point out that Mad Kings are almost too common of a trope used to build tension in fantasy novels.

The former ruler will cause internal turmoil without meaning to while an overtly mad queen will inspire action to overthrow her. And you only need to pick up George R.R. Martin’s bestseller, Game of Thrones, to see how well that works out.

Hunger for Power

Perhaps this is somehow a special type of insanity, but for some people enough is never enough. They want more.

More wealth. More magic. More power.

They want everything while the world grovels at their feet.

It’ll take some solid character-building to make this ruler ring true with readers, but such a personality exists and has existed.

If you want chaos to roll across the world of your fantasy novel, drop one of these dark characters into the plot and watch the ripples unfold.

plot development war

Natural Disasters

Volcanoes, destructive storms such as hurricanes and tornadoes, magical wars leaving places barren and uninhabitable, and earthquakes all can initiate a trigger that leads to war.

When a place becomes uninhabitable, a mass exodus ensues. This leads to cities and kingdoms closing borders or becoming overcrowded.

Suddenly homeless populations can be easily swept up by strong countries that need slaves or devious people who sell slaves.

If one of those is your hero who just survived a devastating event…

Corrupt Rulers

Finally, corrupt rulers can also be a catalyst for war in fantasy novels.

A ruler who is corrupt or whose advisers are corrupt can create dissension within their kingdom.

Money, slaves, or resources can be bartered for favors, and favoritism or favors going to the highest bidder will eventually cause a rift that could lead to war.

Once again, be careful of the overused trope and if the corrupt ruler is what you decide as the motive for characters and a reason for war, try to be original. See if you can come up with some interesting twists on this trope and avoid it being a copy of what has been seen in lots of fantasy novels already.

Exploring the nuances of war in fantasy novels

In conclusion, wars in fantasy novels can be a powerful tool for creating tension and conflict, but it needs to be grounded in logical reasoning.

Whether it’s due to scarce resources, religion, historical animosity, revenge, insanity, or corruption, wars must have believable motives within the world created by the author.

By doing so, the author can create a compelling and immersive story that will keep readers engaged until the very end.

Yet, and as mentioned in the introduction of this post, when it comes to crafting a compelling war-driven conflict in a fantasy novel, it’s important to keep in mind that wars are rarely motivated by just one factor.

The underlying reasons and causes are much more complex.

This is where combining different motives can create a more layered and realistic conflict. By intertwining different motives, you can create a complex and multi-faceted conflict that feels grounded in the world you’ve created.

Combining motives

One common motive for war in fantasy novels is, as mentioned, the scarcity of resources. This can be due to a lack of farmland or employment opportunities, or a shortage of magical ingredients.

But what if this scarcity is also driven by a corrupt ruler seeking to profit from the conflict?

By combining these motives, you can create a conflict that feels more realistic and grounded in the world you’ve created.

Another example of combining motives is the use of historical animosities as a driving force behind a war over scarce resources. Perhaps one country has always had a mistrust of another, and when the other country gains control of a key resource, tensions rise and eventually lead to war.

In this case, the historical animosities add depth and complexity to the conflict, making it feel more nuanced and believable.

Combining motives can also add depth to conflicts that might otherwise feel too simplistic or one-dimensional.

For example, a war driven solely by revenge might feel too straightforward, but by adding in other motives such as historical animosities or a corrupt ruler, you can create a conflict that feels more complex and realistic.

Ultimately, combining different motives in a war-driven conflict can create a more layered and immersive experience for the reader.

By understanding the nuances of each motive and how they can interact with each other, you can craft a conflict that feels grounded in the world you’ve created and leaves a lasting impact on your readers.

Consequences of war

Furthermore, consider the impact of war on the characters.

While war is a powerful and often devastating event, it will often have a profound impact on the lives of individuals caught in its path.

While the motives behind the war are certainly important, it is equally essential to consider the impact that the war has on the characters involved.

One way to approach this is to consider the personal stakes that each character has in the conflict. What are they fighting for? Are they defending their homes and families, seeking revenge for a past wrong, or simply following orders?

Understanding the individual motivations of each character can help to make the conflict more personal and emotionally resonant.

In addition to personal stakes, it is important to explore how the war impacts the relationships between characters.

Are they torn apart by opposing loyalties or united in a common cause? Are long-standing friendships and alliances put to the test? How do characters deal with the stress and trauma of war, and how does it change them over time?

Another important factor to consider is the impact of war on non-combatants. What happens to civilians caught in the crossfire, or those who are forced to flee their homes? How does the war impact the economy, the environment, and the social structure of the world?

By exploring these questions and considering the impact of the war on the characters and the world around them, writers can create a more nuanced and emotionally engaging narrative.

This can help to make the conflict feel more real and meaningful to readers and can add depth and complexity to the story as a whole.

But don’t stop here.

What about the cultural and societal factors that influence the conflict?

When crafting a conflict in a fantasy novel, it’s equally important to consider the cultural and societal factors that may contribute to the conflict. These factors can be a driving force behind the motives of the characters and the actions they take.

By exploring these factors, authors can add depth and complexity to their stories, as well as provide insight into the world they have created.

Leveraging religion

One way to incorporate cultural factors into a conflict is through religion.

Religious beliefs and practices can play a major role in motivating characters and driving their actions.

For example, a conflict between two kingdoms could arise from differences in religious beliefs or practices. We mentioned religion earlier, but characters may also be driven by a deep-rooted desire to defend their beliefs or to spread their religion to other regions.


Another cultural factor to consider is race.

In many fantasy worlds, different races may have long-standing animosities or histories of conflict.

These tensions can contribute to the conflict in a story, as characters may be motivated by a desire to protect their own race or to seek revenge for past injustices.

Alternatively, a character may challenge their own racial prejudices and work towards reconciliation with a formerly antagonistic race.


Class can also be a significant factor in conflicts.

Characters from different social classes may have different perspectives on the conflict and different stakes in its outcome.

For example, a war between two kingdoms could impact the wealthy elite differently than the common people.

Examining class differences can add depth to a conflict and provide insight into the society the characters inhabit.

By considering cultural and societal factors in a conflict, authors can create a more nuanced and realistic world for their characters to inhabit.

These factors can provide motivation for characters and add complexity to their actions, while also providing insight into the world in which the story takes place.


And finally, there is the fact that the aftermath of a war can be just as important as the war itself.

It can have lasting effects on the characters and the world they live in, and can provide valuable insight into the consequences of conflict.

Here are some ways to think about the aftermath of a war in your fantasy novel:

  • Consequences: Every action has consequences, and a war is no exception. Consider the long-term effects of the war on your characters and their world. Will there be lingering resentment between different factions? Will resources be depleted or destroyed? Will there be a power vacuum that leads to more conflict? Exploring these consequences can add depth to your story and help readers understand the full impact of the war.
  • Trauma: War can be traumatic for those involved, and the aftermath can be just as difficult to deal with. Consider how your characters might be affected by the war. Do they suffer from PTSD or other mental health issues? How do they cope with the loss of loved ones or the destruction of their homes and communities? Addressing these issues can make your characters more relatable and add emotional depth to your story.
  • Rebuilding: After a war, there is often a period of rebuilding. This can involve physical reconstruction, such as repairing buildings and infrastructure, but it can also involve rebuilding relationships and trust. Consider how your characters might be involved in the rebuilding process, and what challenges they might face. This can be an opportunity to show the resilience and determination of your characters and to explore themes of hope and renewal.
  • Political Fallout: The end of a war can also lead to political fallout, such as changes in leadership or shifts in power dynamics. Consider how the war might impact the political landscape of your world, and how this might affect your characters. Will there be new alliances or rivalries? Will there be a power struggle between different factions? This can add intrigue and tension to your story, even after the war is over.

Considering the aftermath of war can add depth and complexity to your fantasy novel.

By exploring the consequences of the war, the trauma experienced by your characters, the process of rebuilding, and the political fallout, you can create a more complete and satisfying story that will leave a lasting impact on your readers.

And that’s what it is all about. As an author, you should aim to go above and beyond when introducing the concept of war into your fantasy novel.

At the end of the day, it’s about using these themes in a novel to explore the complexity of human motives and add depth to the characters and the world created within the story.

By weaving these themes into the story, the author can create a multi-layered narrative that appeals to readers and leaves a lasting impression. Therefore, a well-planned and executed war theme in a fantasy novel can be a powerful and memorable experience for the reader.

Happy writing.Save


Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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