Veronica Roth believes that it is the element of conflict that makes the stories we write – and read –worthwhile. I absolutely agree.
But what is conflict? According to one authority on the subject, there is “no single universally accepted definition of conflict”. How ironic!
Fundamentally, conflict refers to a state of opposition between persons, ideas or interests. Synonyms of conflict include dissent, struggle, division, friction, rivalry, strife and war.
In a utopian world, where there are no divisions or conflict, traits and characteristics that make each of us unique would not exist. Psychologically, all humans would be the same: unified by one line of thought.
Consequently, in such a world, individuals would lack sufficient inspiration to write and interest to read!
Writing, especially with regard to story-telling, is a deeply personal pursuit, where our thoughts, beliefs and aspirations are translated into words on a page. Knowledge of the topic is essential, of course, but our writing is greatly influenced by our background and personal experiences. Diversity is a key ingredient. Diversity, too, gives rise to conflict.
Realistically speaking, the notion of a world without conflict is as abstract to me as a description of the blue sky is to a person born without the faculty of sight.
Therefore, instead of discussing how the absence of conflict would affect our perception of the written word, I shall concentrate on the significance of conflict and show how it has influenced most of our literature, in terms of what is written and how it is received.
Let’s start with the most widely read book in history: The Bible.
It is comprised of a collection of smaller books, beginning with the book of Genesis, which relates the story of creation.
The doctrine of conflict is introduced early in the Scriptures and deals with the rivalry which arose between the Creator and one of his renegade angels, who became known as the Devil.
This theme runs throughout the sixty-six books of the Bible, culminating in a final showdown between the forces of good and evil in the book of Revelation.
Would the Bible, as we know it, have existed without the presence of conflict? How could we have grasped the concept of righteousness if we did not understand what ungodliness is?
Would well-known biblical characters: Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, the Good Samaritan, Judas the Iscariot and indeed, Jesus Christ, have featured in a book without conflict?
Even non-religious people cannot fail to appreciate the beauty of the words in Psalm 23 written by King David of Israel, probably around 1000 BCE. In part, the author acknowledges God’s protection in times of conflict.
This sacred song is universally accepted as one of the masterpieces of all literature. Why? Because most people have an intrinsic need for stability in a world of chaos.
Another important factor is that central to all religious teachings is the Divine gift of salvation: eternal life in a place of sublime peace and bliss called, among other names, Paradise, Heaven or Nirvana.
Sacred books like the Bhagavad Gita or the Holy Qur’an, viewed as guidebooks for salvation, would be redundant in a perfect world.
Some of the greatest secular literature of all time, irrespective of genre, era or setting, also employ conflict as the foundation on which a story develops. Let us take a look at a few examples:
- Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, set in ancient Greece, tells the story of the Trojan war, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy or Ilion, by the Greeks.
Considering the advancement that mankind has made, especially in the fields of science and technology, is it not thought-provoking that a poem written around the 8th century BC is still relevant today, in a world still affected by war?
- Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s longest play, written around 1600 is one of the most powerful and influential works of literature in history.
It immerses the reader in the realm of Prince Hamlet of Denmark and his contention with King Claudius, the Prince’s wicked and conniving uncle.
Hamlet arguably is the second most-filmed story ever, tailing Cinderella.
- The Diary of a Young Girl is the autobiography of a Jewish teenager named Anne Frank, written during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
This highly acclaimed work has been published in more than sixty languages and is considered to be among the finest of twentieth century literature.
- Harry Potter, the fantasy fiction series, which comprises seven books written by J. K Rowling is a sterling example of the role of conflict in modern literature.
More than 500 million copies have been sold worldwide, making it the most-sold book series in history. The last four books also hold the record of being the fastest-selling books in history.
The plot revolves around Harry Potter’s struggle against Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard. The reader is transported into a captivating world of vivid imagery and magic. It is not surprising that film adaptations of the series were instant box-office hits.
This leads me to the role of conflict in the media. It is an undeniable truth that bad news sells well, either online or in print.
The media thrive on stories of crime, corruption and warfare – not to mention dysfunctional personal relationships.
‘Trump news’ is a headline grabber, where reports of Trump-related conflict, be it political or personal in nature, dominate mainstream media.
Trump’s outspoken and controversial views on issues ranging from gender to gun-rights and global-warming ensure him a place on the front pages of newspapers worldwide!
In retrospect, had it not been for conflict, names like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Lee Harvey Oswald, Osama bin Laden, or David Koresh would have been unfamiliar to most of us. These were ordinary people, who became famous – or infamous – because of the individual roles they played in either advocating peace or engendering conflict. Thus, they became ‘news-worthy’ on a global scale.
Even well-known fictional characters such as Peter Parker, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond would not exist. These heroes are only such due to their efforts in the struggle against social injustice and crime.
Not to be overlooked is the effect conflict has on our music and film industries. Many award-winning lyricists and screenwriters have been inspired to put pen to paper, by schisms within society:
- ‘Imagine’, the song co-written and performed by the iconic John Lennon during the Vietnam War, is a call for global peace.
‘Imagine’ is one of the 100 most-performed songs of the twentieth century and has earned a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
- Avatar is an epic 60%-computer-generated science fiction film, written and produced by the award-winning director James Cameron.
Cameron acknowledges that although the film is not anti-American, it “implicitly criticizes the United States’ role in the Iraq War.”
Avatar has the distinction of being the highest-grossing film of all time and has won multiple awards.
However, in order not to digress, I shall turn my attention once again to literature.
How many millions of people around the globe have been entranced by ageless fairy tales such as: ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Cinderella’?
Traditionally, fairy tales end with the line: “and they all lived happily ever after,” which is a far cry from the reality of life.
However, even fairy tales weave conflict into fantastical storylines!
Truly, conflict is an essential component of literature, both fictional and factual. What information would grace the pages of our history books in a conflict-free world? What events would be worthy of documentation?
Characteristics now deemed remarkable and deeds presently viewed as extraordinary, would be meaningless. Heart-warming narrations of human virtue would lose their impact.
Conversely, the age-old human custom of recording past events for future reference is a prime example of how conflict, which typically has negative connotations, can be used in a positive way to teach and to foster development.
Unfortunately, conflict, when not properly managed, can have disastrous results, as seen from the Holocaust and more recently, the phenomenon of Terrorism. However, these are examples of extreme conflict.
From a personal perspective, had it not been for the theme of conflict, I would not have had the pleasure of reading ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde or ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ by Louis MacNeice; Great Expectations, Love Story, Things Fall Apart – and countless other gems of literature.
Indubitably, we all yearn for a world of peace and harmony, an end to war and strife.
However, in a perfect world, the art of writing, which definitively separates humans from all other species on earth, would ultimately meet its demise.
And both Veronica Roth and I would lose a dearly-loved occupation.