Wish Fulfillment and Conflict

One of the challenges of seeking to portray a ‘positive’ experience for a character (and, by proxy, the reader) is that it can lack conflict. The very nature of wish fulfillment is to allow a reader to experience their wishes fulfilled via the story, and this is, naturally, a positive experience. And yet a story needs conflict (and, thus, negativity) to be worth reading at all. How do you reconcile the two?

Here are the methods I’ve found (a.k.a. thought of but never executed):

1. The experience is a negative one, but has just enough aspects of wish fulfillment to end up inspiring fandom attention.
         a. This is where scenarios which are inherently negative (I’ve been selected as a gladiator, taken prisoner by a beast, abandoned on a wild planet, drafted by magical army, etc.) end up seeming somewhat positive due to various glamorizing elements (fame, romance, heroism, etc.); this happens most often when there are some elements of codification to map a reader’s imaginings onto, which can thus increase identification and fulfillment, or when the protagonist’s specific experience is somewhat positive.
         b. This can be quite problematic, especially considering how it might romanticize slavery, sexism, violence, etc.
         c. It should be noted that often the positive elements pertain only to the protagonist’s experience, as they encounter individual attention, mastery, relationships, etc. which mitigate the overall negativity that everyone else encounters (sometimes, the simple fact of their unique treatment is itself wish fulfillment).
         d. Examples (may) include: The Hunger Games, The Bone Season

2. The experience begins as a conflict, but as a result of the development of relationships and/or mastery of the situation, ends as wish fulfillment.
         a. This is where the scenarios, usually the relationships between characters, begin as conflict and negativity, but as they get to know each other and form bonds, the protectiveness and camaraderie become wish fulfillment in and of themselves (often heightened due to the transition); can also be seen in cases where the beginning finds the character floundering and failing in their goal/setting, only to gain skills and mastery enough to take charge of their goal/setting and thus see their wishes fulfilled.
        b. This is differentiated from the first in that some level of positivity is attained, and the underlying situation is usually not too negative outside of the specific conflict that is ‘healed’ (or the negativity is strongly lessened by the development); some problematic elements may remain, particularly the changing of feelings towards one who may have abused or harmed you, but usually less severely than in the first—where the situation is always negative but feels positive due to specific aspects.
        c. Examples (may) include: The Host, Written in Red

3. The experience itself is positive from the beginning, but specific elements of the experience are negative enough to create conflict (and yet not taint the experience).
        a. This is where an individual aspect of an otherwise positive experience creates conflict, but usually does not dampen the positivity of the experience as a whole; it is the direct opposite of the first, where individual positive aspects have the opposite effect; usually seen as an individual antagonist within the experience who creates conflict for the protagonist.
        b. The key is that the experience is positive, while these individual aspects are not.
        c. Examples (may) include: Harry Potter (Snape/Malfoy), Fruits Basket (Akito)

4. The experience itself is positive, and the conflict comes from outside the experience (though possibly still as a result of it).
        a. The important distinction from the third is that the conflict is coming from outside the experience, so that the antagonistic force is not present within the experience even though it may be a result of it (primary example = Voldemort vs. Snape/Malfoy).
        b. One version is where the conflict is present from the beginning as an outside force, which runs the risk of dampening the positivity of the experience by making it seem silly, forced, or disrespectful in lieu of the looming conflict.
                    i. This can end up creating something similar to Type 1, but the difference is that the experience itself is not the source of conflict, and often is meant to be positive, while the conflict comes from outside.
                    ii. Examples (may) include: City of Bones (Valentine)
c. The other version is where the conflict exists in the background until the end, thus allowing the positivity of the experience to bloom unhindered, but with hints of conflict; the problem, however, is that this makes the conflict nonexistent (purposefully so), and thus denies the story any momentum or interest.
                    i. Examples: none that I can think of outside of my own fails
                    ii. This can work if the main antagonist is background until the end, but other forms of conflict (usually types 2 or 3) build the first half or so; in fact, in types 2 and 3, there is usually a larger antagonist in the background doing just this.

There are many nuances to be argued here, and each story is a little bit different. Keep in mind also that fandoms can spring up and seem to treat things like wish fulfillment that are in fact not meant to be, and so the problematic elements may not be the creator’s intention at all.

Types 2 and 3 can often be conflated, and are probably the most common/popular. I suppose the difference would be whether the conflict is derived from individuals within the experience or the entire group of the experience (who are then individually converted).
All stories involving wish fulfillment are a careful mix of positive and negative elements, precisely because a story needs conflict but also exists to have fun and entertain. Balancing these elements is an art form that can create wonderful stories that inspire our fantasies but don’t bore us along the way.

And this is sort of just a random mess of terminology that doesn’t make much sense, but I had written it to “help” myself organize my thoughts, so… here it is. 🙂


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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