By Steven Savage
Archives available at
The Way With Worlds Home Page

When writing of conflicts, it's too easy to break things into good guys and bad guys. I can point to any number of historical events - or, sadly, as of this writing, current events, where it's very difficult to do so.

What is odd in writing conflicts is that, when we stand back, the good guys and bad guys may not be obvious, yet it seems rather obvious to those in a conflict who the good guys and bad guys are. As authors, however, we fall into the good guys/bad guys dichotomy too easily.

Back in college (years ago), I read a book called Maps of the Mind by Charles Hampden-Turner, an attempt to examine various theories of psychology and philosophy and how they may back each other up. Part of it dealt with conflicts, and influenced both my views of writing and of life. I'm going to attempt to summarize the basic idea here.


The human mind is a self-balancing, self-correcting system; we learn, adapt, grow, and change. We learn not to stick our hands in the fire, we learn that a person is not as we thought they were and remember it.

Our value system, our way of interpreting information and determining reactions, is also part of this self-correction. We may encounter an ethically questionable situation, but we can usually interpret, adapt, and learn. The system survives as no one part of it unbalances the others, and so all parts of our value system exist harmoniously, more or less. Think of it almost like a wheel, turning smoothly.

Now, what happens if part of that wheel becomes unbalanced . . .


Sometimes (all too often) our self-correcting value system gets disrupted, and some part of it, some idea becomes dominant in the value system. Suddenly, the smoothly-functioning self-balancing system becomes co-opted to support that one idea.

It could be a racial stereotype. It could be greed. It could be fear or ego. It could be a benevolent idea. But, suddenly, one idea dominates the others and becomes obsession. The rest of the value system starts supporting it, and suddenly the balance is lost.

Then, the system spins out of control. It is no longer balanced. Love becomes obsession, fear becomes utter paranoia, minor differences become exacerbated into genocidal rage.

One idea has become prominent over the entire system of thought.


The system is slowly falling apart, like an unbalanced wheel fluctuating on its axle. It may correct itself.

Or, it may get worse.

Other values get co-opted to support the obsession, and soon there are more gaps in the ethics. So more values are co-opted. The entire system of thought is vainly trying to fix itself, not by balancing ideas and thoughts and ethics, but running around trying to explain everything, each explanation requiring more grandiose meta-explanations.

An enemy becomes a threat of epic proportions. A great war is launched. Innocent people are slaughtered. Slautghter is justified by superiority (or God, or Darwin, or history, or genetic superiority). Accusations are made. Accusers are made enemies. One's own people become targets of slaughter. Slaughter is justified by security . . .

You get the idea.


Of course, this can't go on. The ethical systems of the out-of-balance mind will eventually collapse out fo realization or drive the person or people who are out of balance to some insane action. At this point, rational thought and perhaps even logical self-preservation are long gone.

Then, coping with what has been done begins. I imagine many a murderer, after a moment of stupidity, wondered just what they'd done - and knew they couldn't fix things now that someone was dead. There's many a leader who looked at a war the same way.

In "Maps of the Mind," this out-of-control process was titled Schizmogenesis, a term originated by Gregory Bateson, originally referring to "splits" or "gaps" in communication. Since it means "generating a split" more or less, I like to use it to refer this entire out-of-control process.


To review, the theory is that the normally balanced human mind can get out of wack when an idea becomes an obsession and the rest of the ethical system of that person (or people) feeds the obsession instead of correcting it. As the ethical system spins out of control, it makes its problem worse by continually justifying actions as opposed to correcting inconsistencies.

When writing, first of all, keep this in mind - people don't just turn evil and do nasty stuff. There are reasons, and that reason is usually a case of the ethical system spinning out of control. The person or people have ethics, have values, have morals - but they've become co-opted to justifying an obsession, then justifying the actions around it.

Secondly, Schizmogenesis does not happen to "bad" people, it can happen to anyone. Ask yourself if the "heroes" in your story aren't suffering from this - maybe on some great crusade and/or totally convinced of their superiority. Maybe one of them is currently in this unbalanced state and will mess up, having to learn and correct themselves.

Thirdly, the obsessive actions of one person or group may result in other persons or groups becoming unbalanced themselves. Trying to cope with the seemingly insane or evil actions of others does not necessarily lead to rational, balanced behavior. You can become the monster you fight all to easily.

Fourth, people may do some pretty nasty things without being out of wack mentally. If you've ever had to face a tough ethical decision, I'm sure you know you can truly think things over, deal with the ethical issues, act - and still feel like scum.


I find keeping this concept of Schizmogenesis in mind helps me write a lot. It also helps me write more realistic conflict and characters.

All it takes is one idea going too far and no attempts at correcting the ethical inconsistencies, and you have a conflict.

And its results.