Irreconcilable Conflicts, Lies, and Character
When things go wrong with your fiction, you may need to ask yourself: What do the principles of story tell me about what’s missing in this story or novel? What do those principles tell me about what needs to be changed or added? How do the principles suggest ways I could rethink and reconceive the basic starting points or parameters of the story?
The following is a brief description of what this process might entail.
Let’s start with the basic facets of story: A protagonist discovers a goal or a desire and takes actions to achieve that goal or desire.
But this is just a starting point. A story must involve more than the protagonist’s pursuit of a goal. Every day we wake up, and we formulate in our minds a set of actions, and these actions are related to various goals. But if there is no difficulty or problem with our pursuit of the goal, there really isn’t a story. If I commute to work every day over the Bay Bridge and the trip takes thirty minutes, and yesterday morning, I took that trip to work and it took thirty minutes, I don’t tell a story about it to others. Now if there’s an earthquake or a huge traffic jam and the trip takes two hours, well, I might tell a story about it. But even out of the ordinary circumstances or extraordinary difficulties don’t really make a story, other than perhaps some little anecdote that I might tell people I know.
Why is this so? For one thing, the difficulties so far are merely external—the earthquake or traffic jam. Those difficulties affected thousands of other commuters on that day. In dealing with those events, my story so far doesn’t differ from that of the other commuters in any significant way. Moreover, the difficult circumstances of my morning commute don’t yet reveal anything about my character.
So how is character revealed in story? In the pursuit of her goal, a protagonist may encounter outside forces that prevent her from obtaining her goal. These outside forces may be other characters or various other sorts of hindrances—physical, financial, social/communal, legal, political, and so on. In action films like The Terminator or a James Bond movie, the main focus is on these outside forces. Very few of the struggles the protagonist goes through in such films end up revealing anything new about him. He is roughly the same at the end of the movie as at the beginning and so is our knowledge and opinion of him.
In David Mamet’s critique of the problem play or film in Three Uses of the Knife, he argues that a lesser work will somehow keep the protagonist from really being forced to wrestle with irreconcilable conflicts. This type of film or play, says Mamet, may move us for a few moments, but we forget it almost immediately afterward. Nothing about it sticks with us. Partly this is because we know, deep in our hearts and minds, that the world doesn’t work this way. One way that a “romance” or “problem play” keeps the irreconcilable conflict from actually being irreconcilable is that the valence between the two terms shifts. Often a type of deus ex machina swoops in and, poof, the conflict disappears (someone else pays a debt, your fiancé did not sleep with someone else, a chance meeting provides the key clue that frees the client).
But in a serious literary work, the writer’s job is to set up the circumstances of this irreconcilable conflict so that it is indeed irreconcilable. If it’s not, the writer needs to shift the valances of the conflict so that it is irreconcilable.
So how does the writer shift these valences?
Here’s one example of the process a writer might go through in doing so: Imagine a story about a marriage. If the protagonist’s husband and her mother are arguing, and the protagonist is thinking of divorcing her husband, then that doesn’t present her with an irreconcilable conflict. The same is true if she’s always had difficult relations with her mother and is no longer seeking her approval.
In reconceiving this story, the writer needs to make the protagonist’s choice of either her husband or her mother truly a conflict, truly irreconcilable. To accomplish this, other factors may have to be shifted. Say the protagonist hasn’t gotten along that well with her mother, but her father has just died and her mother is grieving for him. That shifts the valence more toward the mother. Or say that the protagonist has found herself faced with a huge debt, and she plans to ask her mother for a loan. Again that changes the valence and makes the conflict in choosing between her husband and her mother more irreconcilable.
Shifting the valences of the conflict does not always require a huge change; sometimes it merely entails changing or adding one or two elements to the story or reshaping/reconceiving some aspect of a character or situation. But once the conflict reaches a balance of irreconcilables, there will be an increase in narrative and dramatic tension; this increase stems from the pressure such a conflict puts on the protagonist.
Let us say that the writer has created a situation where in pursuit of her goal, the protagonist faces an irreconcilable conflict. The protagonist chooses to pursue one competing goal at the expense of another. The question then becomes, what happens next?
Often, as I’ve said earlier, we lie to ourselves about the irreconcilability of the conflict. To pick a current obvious lie: we want fossil fuels, and we want to be safe from global warming. Solution: there is no such thing as global warming. A more common example: we want a new computer or new iPhone, and we don’t want to go in debt. Solution: we’ll buy the goods on credit; we’ll pay it back later—surely we will. In both instances, the lie involves our ignoring or wishing away the consequences of our actions.
Why does a lie invariably call forth the gap between our plans and expectations for our actions and what actually results from our actions? For one thing, lies to ourselves and to others are a denial of the truth, of reality. Therefore, if a lie is the action that we take, that action almost inevitably does not succeed because it is not based on a true assessment of our situation. Indeed, in difficult tasks or situations, we may find that the action we took to pursue our goal actually lands us even further from the goal than before. Thus the lie reflects a mindset that believes that we have more control over ourselves and our environment than we actually do.
In this way the lie arises from hubris, from excessive pride, and as we know from the Greeks, pride always leads to a fall. We think we are gods and can act like gods. The gods—who are incarnations of fate and reality—tell us otherwise. They remind us of and instruct us in our fallibility, our less-than-godly understanding of the world and ourselves, our inability to control completely the results of our actions and thus our fate.
Beginning writers sometimes stumble off track by becoming too involved in thinking of the story from the point of the view of the protagonist. Frequently, this is because the protagonist is a representative of the author—that is, the author identifies herself with the protagonist. Since she approaches the protagonist as a version of herself, the writer consciously—or unconsciously—does not want anything bad to happen to her protagonist or, even more so, for her protagonist to act badly.
At other times the author is so concerned with creating and describing the consciousness and identity of the protagonist that he tends to think of the pursuit of the goal in terms very similar to those of the protagonist. When the protagonist makes an assessment of a situation and creates a course of action, when the protagonist takes an action and expects a certain result, the author thinks only in terms of what the protagonist expects and desires.
One solution for these tendencies is for the writer to identify with and explore the desires and plans of characters who may be in conflict with the protagonist. These characters can act as hindering forces; they can also elicit other desires in the protagonist that might conflict with her pursuit of a goal. I tell my students to think of the director’s instruction to Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry McGuire: Cuba, your job is to frustrate Tom Cruise’s character as much as possible. In other words, as a fiction writer, think a bit like Cuba Gooding Jr. Find ways of annoying, goading, wreaking havoc with your protagonist.
The writer’s identification with the protagonist may also lead to the writer wanting to protect the protagonist not just from others but from herself—that is, from the protagonist’s failings and character flaws—or the writer may conceive the protagonist as possessing no or just a few failings or character flaws. Here again, if this is the case, the writer must detach herself from the protagonist and work to create situations where the protagonist may be in such internal conflict that she does act badly, that she does lie to herself and/or to others.
The writer must then see that once the protagonist lies—either to herself or to others—the lie will create its own repercussions, its own penalties and circumstances of revelation. One lie so often leads to another and another. The writer’s job then is to pursue these repercussions, to find or create these penalties and the ways through which the lie is revealed.
A simple principle therefore is create situations where the protagonist is forced to lie.
To devise situations where the protagonist is forced to tell a lie, a useful figure for the writer is the Devil. Like the Devil, the author actively searches for flaws in a protagonist’s character and seeks to exploit those flaws. If the character possesses a hair-trigger temper, the Devil author seeks to create situations where that temper can explode. If the protagonist is particularly susceptible to one of the seven deadly sins, the Devil author seeks to create and put a vehicle of temptation right smack dab in the path of the protagonist—a chance for money, power, sex, social status, revenge.
Rather than punishment, the Devil often offers pleasures; rather than working through humiliation, the Devil works through exaltation. Thus, unlike God in the book of Job, the Devil might increase Job’s abundance and feed his ambitions in order to puff up his sense of himself, in order to let Job inflate his own sense of self-worth to a point where he will invariably fall; where an overblown or overconfident Job will create his own enemies or turn others against him.
As in the story of Adam and Eve, once the Devil has successfully tempted his prey, once the protagonist has committed a sin, once again the inevitable occurs: the protagonist lies about the sin. As a result, the consequences of this lie must follow, and a path opens up to the end of the story, where the lie is ultimately exposed. Pressure should be applied then, questions asked or situations created that force the protagonist to either reveal the truth or lie further.
As an author, your job is to find ways of exposing the lies of your protagonist.
In doing this, you are invoking an age-old dramatic structure. As David Mamet has observed: A play begins with a lie. When the lie is revealed, the play is over.
Why frustrate the protagonist in his pursuit of the goal? Why create situations where she must face irreconcilable conflicts and desires? Why tempt her to sin? Why lead her to tell a lie?
There are many answers to these questions. Some involve narrative drive. Only if a writer does these things will the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal be difficult enough to create tension and anticipation. Only through such means can the writer create a series of rising and falling, so that the question of whether the protagonist will reach her goal is, in the mind of the protagonist and in the mind of the reader, a real question. Or one could say simply: These things make the story more interesting
But of course, in addition to the dictates of story, there is also the question of character. It is through these tribulations and trials, these frustrations and conflicting desires, these stumblings and mistakes, sins and lies, that the character of the protagonist is revealed.
If the protagonist were in complete control of her life and her environment, if she pursued her goal with no frustration or possibility of failure, she would never have to question herself, nor would others question her. She would never be forced to make a choice that might hurt or betray someone, whether another person or herself.
But if the journey to the goal is sufficiently difficult and set up correctly, key dramatic questions arise: Does the protagonist deny the irreconcilable conflict? Does she lie about it—to herself or to others? Does she make a choice between two irreconcilable desires? Then clearly her choice of one over the other reveals something essential about her that was not apparent at the beginning of the story. The protagonist—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—must reckon then with a new understanding of her character and who she actually is and her place in and relationship to the world.