Writing/History: when the war isn’t really over

A slightly different post for today, a crossover for real history and fiction. Wars are often major parts in some types of books (Sci-Fi and Fantasy included) – and, sooner or later, both books and wars reach their end. The reality (which can be used well for fiction, as I’ll mention) may lead to a bitter ending that only leaves salt-filled wounds and a base for another conflict.


Battle of Passchendale (1917)

Europe’s history is beset by conflict, and sometimes one led into another with just a short break. But a recent look back at the end of the then-called Great War (now known more as the First World War) had shown that the end… wasn’t really an actual end in the long term. Despite the ceasefire and the negotiations, border disputes (both diplomatical and armed) were frequent across europe and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia still impacts Europe a century later.

Which brought me to a question that applies both to reality and fiction: when is a conflict really over?

The struggles in the Middle East, happening since the Cold War, haven’t really ended to this day, they only change as time goes. New factions (however small) come and go while the conflict is nowhere near a real resolution as everyone involved has a different vision of what the end should bring.

Iraq war (2013)

Fiction: endings and returns

I’ve mentioned the topic of endings in fiction already, though the focus was different.

The main point still stands, though: an ending should feel like one. Meaning that the main plot arc (and the main conflict) should be brought to an end.

This may seem obvious but many authors of stories (whether books, movies, or videogames) eventually return to the fictional world – which can be done well or bad. Sometimes, artificially extending the lifespan of a fictional universe is way too obvious and sometimes it’s done so it feels organic.

Where is the difference? In the first ending – and whether it is a situation that leaves the space ofpen for a realistic continuation. This is way harder to do with stories heavily focused on characters, more so if those characters reached some kind of resolution (which is why some endless shows suffer from such extensions).

But it’s easier to do if the worldbuilding is complex and features many factions that can’t agree on everything. Sure, a continuation may still end up looking artificial if it’s done poorly, but there’s a lot of potential.

A new war… or an old one?

One way is to take the WWI as inspiration. While the main conflict is over, there are still disputes left behind. The question then is whether those smaller issues have the potential to grow enough to carry another plot arc.

The other way is something I see more fitting for fantasy or Sci-Fi: when a major threat (such as a mad wizard bent on world domination, corrupted eldritch creatures, or invaders from deep space) is defeated, those once brought together to stop this threat may now bicker over the spoils of victory – and bring back old feuds.

This may not happen instantly – and if the author decides so, this may mean the next story won’t be a direct sequel but a spin-off happening several years later, more so when the people have forgotten the hardships they once endured together.

In either case, there are many things to keep in mind, to make sure the continuation isn’t seen as artificial.

The major issue I see is in the characters. Especially in the last scenario I mentioned. Those who fought against a world-ending level of threat because they saw it as a war for their own future may not be interested in a squabble of greedy leaders.

This present several challenges should the author want such a character take part, for whatever reasons. One way is to go into such character and show how they think, what they believe is ‘too much’ and thus a reason for them to get involved – but this should (at risk of facing the readers’ wrath) stay in character.

Returning to a story once closed can be done, and is a tough challenge. I’ll welcome your thoughts and opinions: is this something you’ve done with your writing? Have you read a book (watched a show, played a game) that handled this very well – or very poorly?

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