“In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.” – from The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
I love conflict. I love messy entanglements, vicious fights both physical and verbal, estrangements and inner struggles, war and strife, murder and mayhem. I love damning secrets, shadowy maneuverings, sibling rivalries, forbidden romances, fistfights and poisonings. There is nothing I love more than a good old fashioned dust-up, either literal or metaphorical.
I also have a book on my shelf called The Coward’s Guide to Conflict, because in my own life I hate every single one of the things I’ve listed above. (I haven’t read that book yet, by the way. It sounds too confrontational for me.) I am completely ill-equipped to handle any sort of squabble. If two random people on the train start having an incredibly mild disagreement, I’m mortified.
Gentleman 1: I say, old fellow! You’ve just bumped my elbow, wot.
Gentleman 2: Oh dear me, I’m dreadfully sorry old chum, but I daresay you needn’t take that tone with me. Perhaps we should discuss the matter over tea.
Me: Oh god please let the train crash and kill us all, I can’t handle this level of animosity.
If people I actually know are having a full-blown argument, forget it; it’s like watching your parents fight, and I’d rather run away to Tibet to become a yak-herder than even have to witness it. I can’t even blame parental drama; mine weren’t together anymore by the time I was born, and as far as I remember nobody else in my family was the type for full-blown fights either (we seemed to have a preference for cold wars, or possibly I just ran away at the first sign of trouble and just never actually witnessed any fighting first-hand). Maybe there just wasn’t enough strife in my household when I was a kid; I never learned how to cope. At the first sign of incipient conflict, I freeze up like a startled rabbit and start singing Soft Kitty to myself.
Maybe my inability to handle that sort of thing in my daily life is why I’m such a junkie for it everywhere else. If there’s one thing that I want from my entertainment, it’s conflict. I want the characters to be struggling with themselves, with each other, with their environments and their societies and possibly with giant radioactive jellyfish from the deep. I want them to be fist-fighting cougars and experiencing all sorts of heart-rending angst and wrestling with their inner demons or their own personal arch-enemies. Conflict is a great way to poke your characters and provoke a response, and of course the response is the satisfying part; that’s where we learn what our characters are made of. We figure out who they are — and become invested in their lives — by seeing them freeze or fight back. If Romeo and Juliet had successfully hidden their relationship and eloped to Las Vegas and been blissfully happen together until they were old and grey, that play would’ve been boring as hell and furthermore, we wouldn’t have really cared about either of them. The meat of the story is in what happens when everybody else finds out about the secret forbidden love affair, and how our heroes react to it all. (In Romeo and Juliet’s case, of course, they reacted by being overdramatic emo teenagers, and look how that turned out.)
Spoiler alert: They totally both die.
This issue of conflict is, I believe, why it’s so impossible these days to find a good romance film. I love romance movies, the sappier the better, so my standards are not unusually high. I have, in fact, watched Chasing Liberty more than once, though mostly that was so I could look at Matthew Goode. That movie at least has a bit of conflict as an obstacle to our heroes’ love, though mostly it’s just Mandy Moore throwing endless hissy fits. But contrast that with Leap Year, another romance movie that I watched just for Matthew Goode (damn you, man), and you begin to see the problem.
See, Leap Year should’ve been a sure thing. It’s got Matthew Goode and Ireland and I’ve liked Amy Adams since she did Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (Lee Pace for the win!). But mostly Matthew Goode in Ireland, okay? Two gorgeous things that look gorgeous together. Only the trouble with the whole concept is, there really aren’t any obstacles to our characters becoming romantically involved. Sure, she’s got a boyfriend she’s trying to reunite with so she can propose to him, but in these sorts of films the boyfriend is always a bit of a tosser and the relationship is always devoid of human warmth, so you can’t figure out why our girl wouldn’t just go for it with the hot Irishman in the goatee. (Except in those cases when the current partner — who is eventually going to be dumped by our romantic lead — is quite a nice person and overall gets shafted, and then you get distracted by what a couple of dicks the “heroes” of the film are. For an example of this, see Colin Firth in The Accidental Husband. It’s not even remotely a good movie, but it does have Colin Firth and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in it, so. Now if they’d made Jeffrey Dean and Colin the two romantic leads, that would’ve been a whole different and much more interesting film. TAKE NOTE, HOLLYWOOD.) Lacking any substantial reason to keep the movie going for the next hour and a half by keeping our lovers apart, the writers seem to default to artificially creating conflict by making the two romantic leads so obnoxious that even the viewer can’t stand them.
“Hey there, I’m hot and we’re in Ireland, you want to hook up?”
“LOL nah, I haven’t showed you all of my personality defects yet. Before we can get to the snogging at least one of us has to suffer a hilarious concussion and there have to be a few jokes about sex and/or bodily functions.”
(Oh, and lest I give you the mistaken impression that Matthew Goode only does films that are moderately to severely dreadful, I’d like to encourage you to watch A Single Man. His part is rather small on screen but is the center of the whole plot, and it’s just a gorgeous, heart-rending film in general. Also, it made me cry like a tiny little girl. But if that’s not your sort of film either, then surely you liked him in Watchmen. SURELY. ILU, Matthew Goode. Call me.)
For an even better example of this phenomenon of hard-core lack of anything compelling happening, you could try watching the worst romantic comedy I have ever had the misfortune of viewing, namely The Back-Up Plan. Or, you could stab yourself in the eye with a rusty spoon. The latter would probably be less painful. The thing is, in our modern world, when you take two single and unrealistically attractive people who live relatively normal lives and are not secretly werewolves or engaged in centuries-long familial blood feuds or whatever, there really just aren’t that many reasons for them not to make it work. Sure, relationships fail all the time for a ridiculous variety of reasons, but when it comes to our entertainment we’re generally not interested about a story of boy meets girl where they meet and rather painlessly get together and then discover that ultimately they’re just not compatible because one of them leaves wet towels on the floor. When it comes right down to it, you’re going to need just a touch more drama than that.
(At this point I feel like I should maybe apologize to people who loved Leap Year — I know you’re out there — because god knows we all have those movies that we love even though logically we shouldn’t, but if you really genuinely loved The Back-Up Plan, then I think YOU should apologize to ME.)
Luckily, we have plenty of types of conflict to make our characters’ lives more interesting, even if we don’t necessarily want to introduce any of those forms of conflict into our own existences. (Existensi?) The generally accepted classifications that I learned in school were Man vs. Self, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Man, Man vs. God and Man vs. Machine. The really juicy characterization comes in when these are used richly and in combination. Take The Avengers, for instance. Bruce Banner — perhaps better known as The Hulk — is a classic and quite literal example of Man vs. Self, because the thing he’s most afraid of and struggles with most is himself. But he’s also got some serious Man vs. Man (with the enemy and with his own allies) and Man vs. Machine going, on account of the faceless alien invasion and all that. You could even call some of his struggle Man vs. Nature, even though the wild beast he’s fighting is a part of him. (There’s also an added element of Man vs. God, and I’m pretty sure we all enjoyed how that turned out. Well, everybody except the god in question.) And that’s just one character in an ensemble of other characters who are just as richly drawn. I’m pretty sure when Joss Whedon was making this film his big decisions were which conflicts to cut out because he had too damn many good ones, rather than trying to think of some contrived problem to shoehorn in to liven things up a bit. (I find that, as a general rule, things never need livening up when The Hulk is involved.)
If your story is lacking in conflict, maybe you should outsource the job to The Hulk. Just tell him to smash and watch as he creates a multitude of glorious explosions, plane crashes and other catastrophes for your entertainment.
By sheer random happenstance, just as I was deeply pondering the nature of conflict and how much I hate pretty much any movie with Matthew McConaughey in it these days, I stumbled across a series of writer’s workshops being put on by a local library. The first talk, by local fantasy author Paul Genesse, was all about conflict: why every story needs it, and how to find it without forcing it. (You can find Paul’s presentation notes over here on his blog if you’re interested.) Paul gave a great presentation and we had some terrific insights from the audience as well. I picked up a few great pieces of advice I hadn’t heard before, and was particularly intrigued by the extremely strong opinions some of us had about what qualities in the face of conflict make characters either heroic or utterly intolerable. It seemed we all quite vociferously agreed that characters who let situations push them along, rather than acting to create their own destinies, are pretty much too irritating to be borne. Paul summed it up rather well this way:
Conflict means letting your character make choices. The stronger the character, the more difficult the choices.
The rest of my notes are, I’m afraid, less eloquent. Paul was discussing at one point what sorts of things don’t actually work in creating conflict… like making characters argue for no good reason. (Are you listening, Leap Year? ARE YOU?! I will punch you.) He also brought up my favorite point of writing ever, which is that we can best reveal who our characters are not by giving extensive descriptions of them at every opportunity but by putting them in uncomfortable situations and letting them sort it out. I might have transcribed his thoughts a bit unfaithfully though when I wrote a reminder to myself that read, “When writing lots of exposition, kill yourself.”
See? That’s a great example right there. I could’ve just written a straight-up description of what Paul told us, but instead I added a little Woman vs. Self drama in there. I’m just trying to keep it real. Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk of conflict is getting to me, and I think I need to go find a shark so I can punch it in its face.