Irreconcilable Conflicts, Lies & Character

David Mura

Apr 16, 2015

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 need to re-think and reconceive the basic starting points or parameters of the story?

What follows is a brief description 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.  Everyday 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.  There’s nothing there of interest.  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 the out of the ordinary circumstances or the extraordinary difficulties still 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 occurred to thousands of other commuters on that day.  In dealing with those events my story so far doesn’t differ from 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 which prevent her from obtaining her goal.  These outside forces may be other characters or various other sorts of hindrances which could be physical, financial, social/communal, legal, political, etc.   In an action film 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 ends up revealing anything new about the protagonist.  He is roughly the same at the end of the movie as at the beginning and so is our knowledge and opinion of him.

But in a serious film or in a literary work, the struggle with outside forces leads the protagonist to a place of irreconcilable conflicts.  Granted, the action hero may face irreconcilable conflicts—say, save the President or save his wife and children—but these don’t really constitute a test of his character and a revelation of his psyche and values.  But take a short story where the goal of the protagonist is to become a partner in a law firm, but this protagonist also has a family and is determined to be a good mother.  At the beginning of the story the protagonist is forced to choose between staying at a key meeting or court date and attending her daughter’s ballet recital.  This then is an irreconcilable conflict which forces her to choose which, at that moment, one the two goals she’s pursuing, to decide which she values the most.

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 this irreconcilable conflict.  You can, for instance, imagine a film where the protagonist manages to become a law partner and still be a good mother.  This is the type of film or play, says Mamet, which may move us for a few moments, but which we forget almost immediately afterwards.  Nothing about it sticks with us.  Partly this is because we know, deep in our hearts and minds, that this is not the way the world works.

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.   Again, take the protagonist who wants to be law partner and a good mother.  If she decides that being a law partner isn’t that important to her and that she can have a somewhat lesser but fairly viable financial position as the lawyer for a university, then she no longer has an irreconcilable conflict.  Or if the ballet recital is only part of a local contest and she can be there for her daughter when she reaches nationals, the conflict doesn’t seem so irreconcilable.

So part of the job of the writer is to set up the circumstances of this irreconcilable conflict so that it is indeed irreconcilable.  If it’s not, the writer has 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 this:  Imagine a story about a marriage.  If the protagonist’s wife and mother are arguing, and the protagonist is thinking of divorcing his wife, then that doesn’t present him with an irreconcilable conflict.  The same is true if he’s always had difficult relations with his mother and is no longer very interested in seeking her approval.   

In re-conceiving this story, the writer needs to make the protagonist’s choice of either his wife or his mother truly a conflict, truly irreconcilable.  To accomplish this other factors have to be shifted.  Say the protagonist hasn’t gotten along that well with his mother, but his father has just died and she’s grieving for him.  That shifts the valence more towards the mother.  Or say that the protagonist has found himself faced with a huge debt and he plans to ask his mother for a loan.  Again that changes the valence and makes the conflict in choosing between his wife and his mother more irreconcilable.

Shifting the valences of the conflict sometimes does not require a huge change; sometimes it merely entails changing or adding one or two elements to the story.  But once the conflict reaches a balance of irreconcilables, there will be a sudden increase in narrative and dramatic tension and this increase stems from the pressure such a conflict puts upon the protagonist.

On to the next step:  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 one course of action and thus pursues one competing goal at the expense of another.  The question then becomes, What happens next?

What the protagonist generally does in such situations is lie to herself—and perhaps to others—about the irreconcilability of the two competing goals or desires.  In our case of the lawyer-mother—who has now a massive financial debt which keeps her at the law firm rather than taking the university lawyer position—she chooses to go to the key meeting or court date.  She then tells herself and perhaps her daughter that she will make up her absence at the ballet recital later.  Or she tells herself the ballet recital is a local one; she’ll be there at the nationals.

This is what most humans do when presented with an irreconcilable conflict.  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 warning.  Solution:  There is no such thing as global warning.  A more common example: We want a new computer or new I-phone, and we don’t want to go in debt.  Solution:  We’ll buy the goods on credit; certainly we’ll pay it back later.

But the lie brings us to another principle of story—and of reality.  Part of this involves the gap between our expectations and plans and what actually results from our actions.  In other words, we read a situation in a certain way and we then form a plan based upon certain expectations about what will result from our actions.  We then take the action.  But what results is not want we expected.  Indeed, we may find that the action we took to pursue our goal actually lands us in a place where we are even farther from the goal than before.

This is especially true of lies.  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 that action is not based on a true assessment of our situation.  That is, the lie comes from a mindset that argues that we have more control over ourselves and our environment than we actually do.  In this way the lie comes out of hubris, of 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 our fallibility, of our less than godly understanding of the world and ourselves, of our inability to control completely the results of our actions and thus our fate.

Oftentimes where beginning writers stumble off track is that they become too involved in thinking of the story from the point of the view of the protagonist.  Sometimes this is because the protagonist is a double or in some other way a representative of the author; thus the author identifies herself with the protagonist.  The writer consciously—or unconsciously—does not want anything bad to happen to her protagonist or for her protagonist to act badly since she approaches the protagonist as a version of herself. 

At other times the author is so concerned with creating and describing the consciousness and identity of the protagonist that the author tends to think of the pursuit of the goal in terms very similar to 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 a hindering force; they can also bring up other desires in the protagonist that might conflict with her pursuit of a goal.

On a more general level, as the writer creates the goal of the protagonist and the plan of action of the protagonist, so the writer must create various ways to frustrate the protagonist.  She must create reactions to the actions of the protagonist that the protagonist does not expect; she must devise forces and characters which will thwart the protagonist in her pursuit of the goal.

At the same time, 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--i.e., from the protagonist’s failings and character flaws (or the writer conceives the protagonist as possessing no or only 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 a 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.  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 to create situations where the protagonist is forced to lie. 

In order 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. 

Often, the key sin is pride.   As I’ve said earlier, the God of Job rains down calamities and suffering upon poor Job in order to strip Job of his pride in his righteousness and his belief that he deserves and has earned his abundant life through his righteousness. 

But the Devil author may take the opposite tact.  Rather than punishment the Devil offers pleasures; rather than working through humiliation, the Devil works through exaltation.  Thus 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. 

As in the Bible and the story of Adam and Eve, once the Devil has successfully tempted his prey, once the protagonist has committed a sin, the inevitable occurs: The protagonist lies about the sin.  Inevitably the consequences of this lie must follow, and a path to the end of the story opens up where the lie is ultimately exposed. 

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 he must face irreconcilable conflicts and desires?  Why tempt him to sin?  Why lead him to tell a lie?

There are many answers to these questions; some have to do with story and narrative drive.  Only if you do 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 his 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, through these stumblings and sins and lies, that the character of the protagonist is revealed. 

If the protagonist were in complete control of his life and his environment, if he pursues his goal with no frustration or possibility of failure, he never has to question himself, nor do others question him.  He never has to make a choice which might hurt or betray someone, whether that someone is somebody else or himself.  Does he deny the irreconcilable conflict?  Does he lie about it—to himself or to others?  Does he make a choice between two irreconcilable desires?  Then clearly his choice of one over the other reveals something essential about him that was not apparent or altogether apparent at the beginning of the story.