Story From The Start 4: Conflicts and Antagonists

All stories have a conflict in them. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs Himself . . . there are lots of possibilities. Some conflicts are universe-shaking, others are far quieter. The English have a sub-genre of domestic dramas nicknamed “Aga Sagas” after the Aga stoves found in many homes, which gives you a sense that the stories are not about saving the planet from invading alien hordes.

Which leads to a question about your conflict? Do you have an antagonist or a villain? The two are not mutually exclusive, but you do not have to have a villain in every story. Some don’t call for it.

So, to use the stories I’ve been working on in this series, let’s look at the first one, the short story about the magic using piano tuner and his Familiar/ seeing-eye dog. When we left them, a woman had come into the workshop, insisting on having a piano tuned that day. For a concert at the end of the week. That is not normal, which set Imre and Csilla (the Familiar) on alert. The woman carried magic with her, but did not seem to be a magic user. The piano, previously unnamed because I needed to do research, is an 1872 Bösendorfer concert grand piano. Thus the question of how it stayed in private possession, if indeed it was a family heirloom.

I am working under the assumption that my readers know a little modern history. I may go back and make the problem clearer, since younger readers probably didn’t learn about Hungary’s experiences between 1945-1989.

So, we have an amazingly valuable instrument that is hard to hide and that “has been in the family” for a long time. That suggests something odd. Since the story is set in the present day, we likely won’t collide with a real pre-1956 individual. But the legacies of that time . . . We have an antagonist.

I’ve omitted material, including Csilla and Imre noticing problems as soon as they reach Asszony [Mrs.] Nagy’s house.

Story 1.

Imre chuckled despite his sense of trouble. He felt the rough texture of the thick floor covering through his cane. It must be one of those sea-grass covers that people bought for summer rooms. That might be part of the tuning problem, or it might not. The room smelled of plants and water, and felt humid. “Where is the light?” he asked under his breath.

“On the instrument, makes it warm. Three steps, two, one.” She nudged him firmly to the right. He let go of her lead and touched sun-hot wood. He winced. “Too hot,” she informed him.

“Yes.” Imre removed her leash and placed it and his cane under the piano bench, after pulling the bench away from the instrument. He took off his backpack and jacket. The jacket too went under the bench, while his backpack remained on the smooth wood surface. He kept one hand on the piano as he walked around it. It stank for lack of a better word, magic tainted. He shielded even higher and lifted the lid, finding the prop on the second try. Then he finished his round, Csilla beside him. “I shield as I work.”

“Yes.” He sensed a shift around them as Csilla opened more power to him. She sniffed, saying, “The instrument carries magic, but I do not know what kind. Not blood magic, and not a spell like we do.” She thumped down onto the floor. “We need to clean it, lift the magic.”

“Could it be an accident?” He ran his hand along the edge of the keyboard cover, pushing up with a light touch. It lifted just as his fingers found the latch. “Ow.” Something sharp pricked his finger. Power tried to jump from the instrument and he blocked it, hard. “A curse.”


He opened the backpack, found the little envelope of sticking plasters and bandaged his finger. Whatever afflicted the piano did not need more of his blood. Then he sat on the bench and played a few notes. Csilla whined. He agreed. The grand piano should have been tuned at least six months ago. “St. Cecilia, guide me; St. Imre protect me, in the Lord’s name,” he prayed.


The upper treble notes and mid bass seemed to have suffered the most, although all eighty-eight keys sounded off. Imre stood, felt the ends of the music rack, and lifted. The sliding rack came out, and he set it behind the bench, updating his mental map. He couldn’t see the rack with his magic sight once he removed it. How interesting. Nor did the bench appear, only the piano proper. He unzipped the main pocket of the backpack and removed a tuning fork and tools. He tapped the fork, locked Middle C in his mind’s ear, and began working.

Imre tuned one octave, then paused and stretched. The piano had not fought him, at least not yet. Perhaps whatever magic ailed it only lay on the surface. Every magic worker encountered those sorts of inadvertent curses, the kind that only required strong feeling and concentration. Csilla remained quiet. After another octave, he asked, “Do you need out?”

“No. I need to stay here. Something may stir, or it may not.” Her tail thumped on the rug. “Only two other people move in the house, neither with magic in them.” She hesitated. “The shop woman . . . her scent and the piano match almost.”

Hmm. Imre blinked a few times. Could the piano have afflicted its owners and players? He’d heard of a violin doing that until it was exorcised and blessed, but not a piano. He sat once more, changed tools, and then stood again and resumed tuning.

The third octave fought. Black power, not shadow magic but a true curse cast with malice and power, began oozing out of the instrument! “Holy Lord, giver of strength, light of lights, be with us,” Imre prayed. Then he drew power from Csilla. She leaned against his leg as best she could, squeezing between the bench and the instrument. “Out of the darkness a light shone, out of darkness evil came, into darkness let light shine, into darkness evil go,” Imre chanted, shoving clean magic under the curse, lifting it out of the sound board and the very wood of the instrument, making a glowing pouch to hold the malediction. It did not feel truly old, not like some places he’d visited, but intense. It had fed on fear and suspicion. Perhaps that explained how the piano had come into the family. Had it been owned by a Jew? No, the curse did not have the sense of justice and age-weight that Jewish spells supposedly had. It was not born into the instrument, that he knew. As more strings returned to their true sound, the curse struggled harder. It resisted harmony, preferred chaos, sorrow. “Ah, now I know you,” Imre murmured. Csilla growled a little at his hip. “Yes,” he agreed.

The moment he finished the last string, Csilla lay down, shoulder against his leg. Imre pulled the bench closer and sat as well. He called still more power, rested his hands on the keys, and began playing. Magic poured into the keyboard and thence the strings, each note a blow against the curse. “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” Bach’s setting, echoed through the room. As soon as the last chord faded, he began “The Moldau,” by Smetana, a love song to place and to a river, a river that washed everything clean, just as his magic washed through and around the piano. Oh, the curse fought! Imre played the first and second movements of Kodaly’s “Psalmus Hungaricus.” He could feel himself growing tired. The curse struggled still, but weaker. Imre gathered himself and began chanting as he played the beginning of Gjello’s setting of the, “Ubi Caritas Et Amor.” The dark power shivered, then dispersed the way low morning clouds and river fog faded with the rising of the sun. “And he shall be as the light of the morning when the sun riseth,” Imre recited, finishing the piece.

Weeping sounded from behind him, bitter tears, a heart breaking. Imre reached into his bag and gave Csilla a large piece of dried meat. She devoured it, then stood and walked. He heard her whining as he put his tools in the bag. On impulse, he touched the keyboard once more, calling up a simple soothing lullaby, one of the tunes every Hungarian child heard in the cradle. “I didn’t know,” Asszony Nagy sobbed. “I did not know. Oh how can I ever make it right?”

“What did you see, my lady?” Imre asked, voice gentle.

“My late husband knew! He knew. He said the piano had been in his family, that it came from his uncle, had been in the family since after the first war.” She gulped and sniffed. “I saw men of the AVH arresting a musician, an innocent man. He screamed, black settled on the instrument. A different man,” sniff, “gave the piano to his daughter, she fled, heartbroken, in the 1970s, defected west. Party men reclaimed the piano, my husband, I didn’t know! Dear Lord hear me, blessed Virgin Mary hear me, I did not know! He was killed by a tram two years ago, fell in ice, please God have mercy I didn’t know.” Sobbing resumed, bitter and dark, the sound of innocence shattered.

“My lady, Our Lady knows your sorrow, all of our sorrow.” Imre replaced the music rack, thinking as he did. Csilla had returned to his side.

“Asszony Nagy,” Csilla spoke at last. “Speak to your priest or minister, tell him what you saw. Go today, please, for your soul’s ease. The crime was not yours, the curse not aimed at you, but at the AVH informer. It missed.”

“Yes,” Imre said. “It hit the piano, and hurt more people, including you. It is gone. The piano is only a beautiful instrument, nothing more.”

“Are you certain, Uram Farkas?” He heard fear, smelled fear.

“We are,” Csilla stated, voice firm and sure. “A blessing from your priest or minister will seal our work, but the instrument is only that.”

Imre packed the rest of his things. “However, please move it out of the sunlight, Asszony Nagy. Pianos are not as temperamental as harpsichords, but they do not do well in changing heat and cold. Play it with love, use it with love, and it will be an instrument of love and light, as it was made to be.”

End Excerpt

The conflict is very real, and very strong. But there is not a villain per se for the protagonist to defeat. Instead it is a sort of ghost, a curse from Hungary’s past. In the notes for the book, I will include information about the AVH, the Hungarian Stalinist secret police. When the 1956 revolution came, they were the first to go, often in direct and unpleasant ways as people opened the records and hunted down the agents.

Since this is a short story, I can “get away” with having the curse lifting be the conflict. I will probably revise this scene, add tension and resistance to Imre’s magic. You are seeing the very raw draft, with bits removed. For a novel, I’ll need more. I also have more room in a novel. So there is more likely to have a villain.

Some time back, I mentioned that the Cat Among Dragon books did not have a single villain, but that the Traders were antagonists. At least one reader protested, saying that while I did not focus on a single Trade Master or Mistress (until book 10, and then only relatively briefly), given the evil committed by the Trader clans as a whole, they collectively counted as a villain. Those readers had a point. Villains do not have to be an individual on screen, although we as writers absolutely must be careful about over-troping the hidden villain if we choose to go that way.

[A note about the religious references. The Familiars stories are faith-positive, so to speak. Hungary is the second most devout country in Europe, and quite Catholic or Calvinist. For Imre Farkas and Mrs. Nagy to turn to clergy would be very common. This also applies to my Polish mage and Familiar as well. Since this will be in book 11 of the series (!), readers know this. If you write religion into the story, be careful and make it plausible.]

Since this is already long, I will wait until my next installment to do a villain. The Indo-European novel needs a villain, someone to be the focus of the good-guys ire. Someone who knows the rules and breaks them for personal and tribal gain, someone who has gone too long unpunished because too many other people have benefitted . . .


(C) 2020 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved


If you are interested in the main series, here’s a new little tidbit, hot off the e-press:

 How do you define “normal” in a world with talking animal Familiars, “the needs of the Army,” and other dreadful things? For Lelia and her friends, you don’t. Life continues on, with magic, arthritis, winter sniffles, dry-cleaning, and . . . a ghost?

6 thoughts on “Story From The Start 4: Conflicts and Antagonists

  1. I’m so weary of perky-snarky young female protagonists of at best accidental competence, frequent flyers in cross-worlds plots to save the universe, that this indeterminately-aged fellow, quietly working as an expert in his field and deep in his own world, is a breath of spring air. At this point I don’t even *care* if there’s a conflict, or a villain; I’m ready to follow around a mature character like a reading puppy.

    1. Thank you! One of the themes in this series is that magic doesn’t put food on the table. Most magic workers need a real job (teaching mundane things like forestry, logging, tuning pianos, having a vet practice, waiting tables, being a financial planner and investment specialist . . .) A lot of readers seem to like an occasional break from people saving the world/solar system/galaxy/universe.

    2. A good example of a mature character/little conflict story is Nevil Shute’s “Trustee From the Toolroom”. It’s long been a favorite of mine.

  2. That story should come with a CD. I had to google the Kodály one. 🙂 But I love the scene of the piano tuning … erm, exorcising.

    Well, big epic Fantasy needs large scale magic and a villain / antagonist, or several. But that doesn’t mean it can’t also have everyday use of magic, though the one in my book is so powerful that one should be careful about using it to warm a cold cave – not that Alastair cares about that. 😉 In a way, the magic itself can become the enemy. Powerful, dangerous, tempting, it may overcome even some characters on the ‘good’ side. And a villain ma redeem himself, who knows.

    Not I, since I’m a pantser. 😛

  3. I’ve borrowed it from KU. The timing feels like a reward for my leaving a review on Furiously Familiar. Thank you muchly! 😉

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