Writing a Conflict in a Utopian Story
(MINOR SPOILERS: Best to read after reading The Alternate History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)
Every plot needs a conflict, and every novel needs stakes. But how can you write a conflict into a utopia? What kind of struggle would a protagonist face in an alternate universe 1000 years more advanced than our own? In writing The Alternate History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I was so clear on the central message and theme of progress throughout history that I comfortably constructed a preliminary outline with all the chapters, each with a geographic setting and a subtopic related to the central theme. But the overarching plot was evasive until I found the overarching conflict.
Writing the conflict was a complex multi-layered struggle. The protagonist had to have an overarching conflict unique to him and a conflict related to his presence in the alternate world that he shared with his partner. Both conflicts had to be compelling enough to drive the plot forward. To further help dynamicize the plot, miniature conflicts would need to employed in episodic fashion in every chapter as well that at once address the sub-theme of the chatper, has a satisfying resolution, and is part of the greater conflict.
For inspiration, I decided to read the classic novels centered on a journey: Thomas Moore's Utopia, Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and Voltaire's Candide. Like Thomas Moore's character in Utopia, Saul, the protagonist of The Alternative History, goes to a seemingly perfect world. Like Phileas Fogg of Around the World in 80 Days, Saul travels around the alternate world visiting familiar countries with a partner. Like the Time Traveler in The Time Machine, Saul's transition to the alternate universes is rough, but in those alternate universes he learns a lot about his time and society's shortcomings. Unlike Candide though, the naive lad forced into a world that proved more ruthless than he could bear, Saul is a jaded man forced into a world that proved more enlightened and compassionate than he could believe. In all of these voyages, the main conflict seemed to be the return home.
The resultant alchemy of The Alternate History was the desired chemical reaction of the complex components of the conflict. The protagonist Saul's chief concern is returning home to his family (major unique conflict), but his return home would come at the conclusion of his and his partner Speaksall's mission (secondary shared conflict), and the success of their mission depends on their successes in every city, country, and region they visit (miniature episodic conflicts). The mission is a particularly sophisticated struggle fit for a sophisticated world on a different level than any struggle of our own imperfect world. But it was a relatable parallel to one of our existential threats, so Saul quickly understood and engaged. The character arcs, just as compelling, mirror the progress of the conflicts and the plot. Saul's journey makes him question his very impactful choices, and though his desire to return home remains unchanged, his reasons and motivations to return home mature from selfishness to duty. Speaksall, his partner in the alternate world, grows in understanding his own world as a result of the mission and of his interaction with Saul. The narrator, who is listening to Saul's story and serves as the stand-in for the reader, also grows and changes his perspective on history after hearing Saul's story. My own perspective on history has transformed very similarly to the narrator's since I started writing this book in 2012, shifting from innocent fascination to dire warning.
By its messaging and settings alone, The Alternative History was particularly challenging for plot development as it was a peculiar struggle to write a conflict for a near-perfect world. Even more challenging and peculiar was the ultimate take-away. While it was easy enough to write about an alternate world that contrasts with our own due to our historical errors, it was important to end the book with a hopeful message and a lesson for thought and action. I hope by shedding a light on this part of my writing process, this post helps you through some types of writer's block if you ever experience them. If you are intrigued to read The Alternative History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, visit this page for buying options.