Plot Building: A Reason to Go to War

Why is there war in your novel?

Wars, or overthrowing a ruler, are a common trope in fantasy stories. They motivate characters while throwing hurdle after hurdle at a hero. Will she survive the battle? Will he escape the search party? Tension builds as the threat mounts. Readers keep turning the page. So, of course, authors want to add war into the story.

But why the heck is everyone fighting?

For all good wars, there is always a motive. 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. I touched on this previously in my post on character arcs. Even an antagonist has a story arc. If they were simply the ultimate evil that eats all good… that isn’t really an arc – more like a flat line. And that shows in the plot and the story.

Once you finish your world building, creating a realistic reason to fight should be easier. A solid foundation of the tensions in your novel will enhance the story to something unique and specific. 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 be wondering why the heck everyone is fighting.

Looking for some ideas on why countries or people fight? Check out the list below!

Scarce Resource

A reason to fight can be simple: one country is out of a resource. Maybe they are running low in iron and your hero is sitting on a mountain. Maybe one land is over-populated because they’ve done too well. Now they are low on farmland or employment, the population is restless, and trade is only getting them so far. So why not just invade the neighbors to get more land while getting rid of a few aggressive folks at the same time?

Gold, fishing grounds, farm land, people, or magical ingredients can all be scarce resources. And if one country needs them while another has a surplus but is charging too high a price or regulating the export… well the uneven balance just might pull the world apart.

In the Way

Sometimes the hero, or her country, is simply a stepping stone to a bigger plan. Or maybe they are just in the way. The small, peaceful hamlet stands between a kingdom and a large force. Or maybe more soldiers are simply needed for a larger war and picking off a little country, like the one the hero currently lives in, to get a few more warriors is a great, quick plan. Who doesn’t love a few hundred slave soldiers?

plot development war

Climactic Event

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 a 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 who need slaves or devious people who sell slaves. If one of those are your hero who just survived a devastating event…

Religion

I hardly need to describe this one. Take a look at our world and history. Religion divides. When two groups of people with even slightly different beliefs vie for supremacy swords are often drawn. Especially when both firmly believe they are right. Whether religious laws are being enforced, especially on a population raised to believe differently, or groups are fighting over the same holy land, religion will spawn many struggles in fantasy and reality.

Historical Animosity

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 stories told through history on who is an enemy will cause ripples in your plot. 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 an historic wrong?

plot development war

Revenge

Of course the slight that needs to be avenged doesn’t have to be buried in dusty books. It could have mistakenly happened yesterday. If the king who married the commoner wasn’t one hundred years ago but in chapter one… well there is the motive for your plot. Revenge is a very human motive and when the people seeking it also have power, it will sweep up a multitude before it is resolved. If it is resolved.

Insanity

Mad Kings are almost too common of a trope, but still a very useable one as a Game of Thrones proves. Madness can be absolute with a king who wants to roast anyone who looks at him wrong or it can be insidious, a mind that fractures only at times or sees paranoid plots within every shadow. 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 to see how well that works out.

Corrupt Ruler

A ruler doesn’t have to be insane to be poor. They could be weak, but probably won’t last long enough to be much of a bother in that case. Instead, they can simply be corrupt. Or the people around a good ruler can be corrupt. Money, slaves, or resources can be bartered for favors. Favoritism or favors going to the highest bidder will result in dissension that eventually will cause a rift. And so begins your story…

plot development war

Hunger for Power

Perhaps it is 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, 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.

These are some quick ideas of why war might exist, or be coming, in your novel. And there are more! Once you have a visual map and cultures peopling the world you’ve built, figuring out what that primary motive for battle is going to be and aligning it with the reality of the world is important. It will make the story ring true and hook readers with building tension that sweeps up the characters.

What are your favorite reasons for spawning battles? Which have you used? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments!

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn (also known as Weifarer) is an indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently on the road in North America in a Four Wheel Camper along with her husband, Adam, and Cairn terrier, Ayashe.

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