4 Types of Conflict

Annie Whitehead is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017.

Annie’s latest novel, The Sins of the Father, releases today and I’m delighted to have her on the blog – the topic is conflict, an ingredient at the heart of successful novels.


Conflict is one of the seven elements of historical fiction outlined in Mary’s blog post. It has to be present in any novel, but of course it means many different things. I’ll start with the most obvious, and the one involving the most people, and then reduce the numbers of participants:


It’s likely that, if you write historical fiction, you’re going to be writing about a period in which a war or battle was fought. The period I write about has a lot of battles; not outright wars, but every so often one kingdom would turn on another and fights occurred. In the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period, there were Vikings to contend with. War is bloody, brutal, and traumatising and that’s true whether it’s a Viking incursion in the ninth century or a battle in WWI. The thing to do, I feel, when writing about battles, is to make it personal. That might mean showing why it matters so much to certain kings, or tribe leaders, that they win a particular fight and what’s at stake, or it might mean showing the story of individual soldiers at the front, or the stories of those waiting for them at home. I’ve read many books set during the ‘Great War’ and it seems to me that by focusing on one or two individuals and their stories, the tragedy can become more affecting, as they come to represent the millions who were involved.

Conflict within the setting

Not all historical fiction will focus on, or even feature, any kind of pitched battle. Yet conflict will still be present as a major element of the story. Perhaps mill workers are badly treated by the mill owners. Tenants might be evicted, on a small scale – perhaps the family who are the main focus of the story – or on a larger scale, such as the highland clearances. Warring families, such as the Poldarks and the Warleggans in Winston Graham’s novels, who are on a more equal social footing, are still locked in conflict which drives the drama long after Ross Poldark returns from war. The Industrial Revolution era will provide rich seams for such conflicts: businessmen seeking opportunities and coming up against opposition from others like them; the struggles of movements which would eventually become the trades unions. In nineteenth-century America, the conflict does not just come in the form of the civil war which fractured the country, but the tension surrounding slave ownership and the abolitionists where again, focusing on one small group, family, or individual, makes for a powerful drama. 

It’s always worth remembering, too, that conflict among people on the same social stratum can arise from misunderstanding, by one or both parties. In my novel Cometh the Hour, the first in my two book series of which the new novel is Book 2, two kings went to war because they both believed the other was harbouring an enemy. Conflict born of misapprehension can add a level of pathos to the story.

Conflict within the setting would also include those who rail in some way against the status quo, against the accepted thinking of the age, or against their perceived place in society. The pitfall here is that the character might step too completely out of their time period. The historical novelist must think about the mindset of the period, but within that there is scope to have a character trying to step beyond the confines of their prescribed life. In the time in which my latest novel is set, women ran the abbeys, which were sociable places, and were ‘double houses’ where both monks and nuns lived. The religious life was a good one, often readily chosen, but in later periods, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Young women with no protectors, no dowries and/or no great social standing, might find that was the only option for them but it doesn’t mean they welcomed it. A woman seeking to escape this life would be in conflict with the norm, but would not be stepping out of her period and nor would she be introducing modern attitudes to the story.

Conflict Within the Family

A truly universal theme! Inter-generational conflict can be found in any period, and will be recognisable to modern readers: the son who does not wish to follow his father into the family business, or who wants a better life, the daughter who wants to work for her own living where her mother was not able to. There is also conflict between siblings, another familiar aspect to life. In my latest novel, two brothers are extremely close and love each other immensely. They are bound together by the tragedies which befall their family, yet each has a different idea about the path he should follow. One wishes to emulate their father and he is driven by a need to prove himself just as capable and, though he does not admit it, by a fear of failure. The other is more circumspect, feeling that the past should be left alone, and that old mistakes should not be repeated. He is also in awe of his elder brother and feels inadequate, living life in the shadows as it were. Their different approaches to life lead to conflict, made more bitter by the fact that they love each other so dearly. This, I think, hurts so much more than conflict between natural enemies.

Conflict Within

This is a special sub-branch of conflict, which leads to self-doubt, anxiety, and moments in the story where the main character reaches a point of despair, feeling thwarted or hide-bound by an inability to make a decision. My main character in the latest novel, the younger brother mentioned above, has moments where he is frozen by doubt. The youngest of nine children, he feels that his elder siblings have it all figured out, and he constantly questions why he feels differently about the things that matter most to his family. Then, around three-quarters of the way through the novel, there is a nasty twist and he finds himself having to act against his own principles, and in the process alienates himself from several family members. He’s placed on the horns of a particularly troublesome dilemma, where taking one path will hurt those he loves, while the other will also hurt people whom he cares for. Battling with one’s emotions, with a heart versus head scenario, or where duty must come before love, adds deep layers to a character’s story and offers the reader a chance to sympathise and empathise.

Thank you for your take on conflict, Annie. The examples you’ve given are truly universal, and, as Alma Katsu discussed in her recent master class on conflict, ‘upping the ante’ in terms of multiple levels of conflict really adds to a story’s success.

The Sins of the Father by Annie Whitehead ~~ A father’s legacy can be a blessing or a curse…

AD658: The sons of Penda of Mercia have come of age. Ethelred, the youngest, recalls little of past wars while Wulf is determined to emulate their father, whose quest to avenge his betrayed kinswomen drew him to battle three successive Northumbrian kings.
Ecgfrith of Northumbria is more hostile towards the Mercians than his father was. His sister Ositha, thwarted in her marriage plans, seeks to make her mark in other ways, but can she, when called upon, do her brother’s murderous bidding?

Ethelred finds love with a woman who is not involved in the feud, but fate intervenes. Wulf’s actions against Northumbria mean Ethelred must choose duty over love, until he, like his father before him, has cause to avenge the women closest to him. Battle must once more be joined, but the price of victory will be high. This stand-alone novel is the second of the two-book series, Tale of the Iclingas, which began with Cometh the Hour.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Torment & Conflict – the spurs that drive characters into action

Patricia Bracewell is the author of The Emma of Normandy Trilogy and March 2nd marks the release of the last novel of this trilogy: The Steele Beneath the Silk. It’s a story “brimming with treachery, heartache, tenderness and passion as England’s queen confronts ambitious and traitorous councilors, invading armies and the Danish king’s power-hungry concubine.” With that as context, we can be assured that Patricia knows a thing or two about conflict – her topic for today.


Drama, conflict and change—things that cause such agonizing disruptions in our own lives—are what make the imaginary world of a novel utterly compelling. Conflict, in particular, is the engine that drives a story, no matter the genre. But unlike writers in other genres, historical novelists must reach into the past, must root the conflicts portrayed in their novels within the history and culture of their chosen historical periods. Conflict then becomes a tool to not only move the story forward, but to immerse readers in that other time and place.

There are three types of conflict that should be in every novelist’s toolbox: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Himself. And because a writer cannot rely on just one type of conflict to carry a story all the way through to the end, all three should appear within the pages of any novel. The historical novelist, though, mines the past to find them.

In my trilogy set in 11th century England, I found plenty of Man vs. Man conflict in the decade-long Danish effort to conquer England. Big men with swords emerging from dragon ships appear in the early pages of my first book, Shadow on the Crown, and the viking invasion of England is the overarching background of all three novels. 

But although I was writing about war, my main interest was not in men and battles, but in the women who lived through that conflict yet made only rare appearances in historical documents of the time. So I kept battle scenes and skirmishes to a minimum, and often described them through the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle—the contemporary account of events in 11th century England. In The Steel Beneath the Silk I quoted a Chronicle entry that described a viking attack on Canterbury and was probably written by a monk in that city within living memory of the incident:

They beset Canterbury, and seized Archbishop Ælfheah…and they overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head, and his holy blood fell on the earth. 

It seemed to me that this account by someone who quite possibly knew the murdered archbishop would be just as moving as anything that I could invent. 

War, though, is only one kind of Man vs Man conflict. Ambition, resentment, suspicion, and rivalry can lead to conflict that is far more subtle and is conveyed through dialogue and internal monologue. For example, knowing that the two central historical figures of my story, Emma of Normandy and Elgiva of Northampton, would be pitted against each other in a struggle for power in England many years after the time period of my trilogy, I imagined how that later conflict might have begun decades earlier, and I brought it into the pages of my novels. Here Emma and Elgiva face off in The Steel Beneath the Silk:

For a long moment Elgiva continued to regard her old enemy in brooding silence. Emma was far too arrogant, she decided. She still thought herself a queen, and that was Cnut’s fault. He had foolishly made her imprisonment much too pleasant, and it was long past time to do something about it. 

She said, “I wish to talk to you about your sons, Emma. I have seen Edward.” And she watched with satisfaction as Emma put aside her needle, dropped her hands into her lap and turned to face her.

“You saw him—where?” Emma asked icily, her green eyes appraising Elgiva as if trying to determine the truth of her claim.

No swords in that scene. Only a needle, resentment, suspicion, sharp words and frosty glances. Conflicts within the family, within the court, and within the realm and the wider world are the base metals that a historical novelist can, like an alchemist, transform into gold.

As for Man vs. Nature—sickness, foul weather, the very real hazards of getting somewhere on a ship, a horse, a cart or on foot—especially if time is a factor—all of these add drama and tension to any story. The characters in my novels suffer miscarriages, pestilence, terrible weather, filthy roads and dangerous sea voyages, all pulled from my research. A good example: in The Steel Beneath the Silk a tidal wave wreaks havoc on the English coast: 

Merchants arrived with stories of harbors that had been devastated by a great wave; of ships that had been swept inland and left, battered and broken, far from the sea; of countless bodies of men, women and children lying like bundles of rags on the beaches or floating off shore. Even the larger towns on the English coast had been savaged by the sea, while numerous small villages had been entirely swept away…and no one left behind to even tally the dead…All had been destroyed by a tide that many believed had been directed by the hand of a wrathful God. 

I didn’t make that up. The tidal wave that hit Britain in 1015 was attested to by chroniclers in Wales, England and the Low Countries. My description, though, was based on images of the tsunami that devastated Thailand in 2004—history repeating itself.

As for Man vs Himself, that conflict is usually portrayed through internal monologue as the author slowly reveals a character’s personality. But because the king who appears in my novels had been described by a 12th century historian as “haunted by the shade of his brother” I decided to use that ghost as the embodiment of the king’s guilt, fear, and indecision:

…looking warily into the middle distance before him, he could see the air rippling like water as his brother approached, every wound on his body gaping like a bloody mouth.

Forced to stare into his brother’s burning eyes he silently cursed the horror that held him in thrall. The martyred Edward, he knew now, would never settle for a golden shrine, nor even for a king’s son consecrated to his service. An eye for an eye, the Bible said. A crown for a crown. His brother and his God demanded restitution, and nothing less. There would be no forgiveness, no peace, until he relinquished the crown that should never have been his.

And that he would never do.

Fear, guilt, indecision, frustration, forbidden passion—these all lead to inner turmoil with which to torment our characters. And torment is the operative word here. The last thing a writer wants to do is to make things easy for the characters in a novel. Torment and conflict are the spurs that drive characters into action. However much we love them, we have to make them suffer until almost the very last page.

The Steele Beneath the Silk by Patricia Bracewell ~~ In the year 1012 England’s Norman-born Queen Emma has been ten years wed to an aging, ruthless, haunted King Æthelred. The marriage is a bitterly unhappy one, between a queen who seeks to create her own sphere of influence within the court and a suspicious king who eyes her efforts with hostility and resentment. But royal discord shifts to grudging alliance when Cnut of Denmark, with the secret collusion of his English concubine Elgiva, invades England at the head of a massive viking army. Amid the chaos of war, Emma must outwit a fierce enemy whose goal is conquest and outmaneuver the cunning Elgiva, who threatens all those whom Emma loves.

Many thanks, Patricia. I’m sure readers will be captivated by The Steele Beneath the Silk.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.