You may have noticed that the prior two posts on conflict focused on plots which deal primarily with the inner battles fought by the protagonists. There are several reasons for this, the first and foremost being that even the story which focuses primarily on physical action will require inner strength from your hero or protagonist. A tale about two clashing forces that does not tell us why or for what they are fighting isn’t a story proper. It’s a sport, like wrestling or football. And even in those cases, the announcers tend to remind those watching the game about the personal stories of the various players to make the game more interesting.
Now, perhaps your character or characters already possess the internal fortitude to face these kinds of battles and win. A good example for this would be the Captain America films or Gawain and the Green Knight*. (No, not the 2021 monstrosity; the original story.) Cap faces interior battles in each of his films and is forced every time to reassess his position to make sure he is in the right. As Sir (Saint) Thomas More mentions in A Man for All Seasons*: “You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there’s less wind, and the fishing’s better. And “Look,” we say, “look, I’m anchored! To my principles!””
Cap realizes he can make errors in judgment although the principles to which he adheres are eternal and immutable. There are times he can be wrong. He can make mistakes. In every film audiences see him check himself, quietly and introspectively, to make absolutely certain he is in line with his principles and not the other way around.
Gawain is also completely convinced of what is and is not right. The problem is maintaining what he knows to be moral behavior while he is supposed to hold to the laws of courtesy. He can’t insult the lady of the castle in part because she is his host’s wife, in part because it is rude behavior prohibited to a knight, and he is stuck there while she is actively trying to seduce him. The tension comes in that, even if he manages not to break and snap at her, he still runs the risk of caving to temptation.
In each hero’s case, they have very little in the way of flaws or besetting sins to overcome. We discussed this in the post on Iconic Heroes, the post on flaws in characters, and the article on Aspirational heroes: a protagonist does not need to have a built-in weakness so obvious or large you could put a planet through it. What he needs is a plot that tests his resolve and pushes him to his limit, at which point he exercises his will to say “no,” as Crossover Queen illustrates in her post here. Gawain and Captain America’s stories are compelling precisely because, when the whole world is telling them to move, they dig their heels in and refuse to budge.
So that is the first reason to focus the past two conflict articles on interior-centric plots. The second ties into the first: we are not defined explicitly by our words or ostensible beliefs. A man can claim any virtue under the sun – that does not mean he has it or seeks to possess it. Anyone can talk the talk. It takes a real man to back up his talk with action.
John Carter of Mars* is a good example of this. His stories are told from the first person perspective and he is something of an Iconic Hero in that he does not notably change from tale to tale. The fact remains that he backs up his words and beliefs with action. When he gives his word, he keeps it; when he enters combat with his signature battle lust, grinning like a wolf that seeks his enemy’s throat with the pure relish of conquering him and standing victorious, he is proving what he believes.
What John Carter believes is that he is a man of principle: he will kill in honest battle, but he will not commit murder. He enjoys combat and proving himself master of sword and gun, but he will not fight for another’s sport simply to satisfy their desire to see pointless bloodshed. Carter fights for a cause – first to survive, second to make something of himself, and third (only because he sees her after determining the other two items) to stay by, protect, and love Princess Deja Thoris of Helium.
In all three, Carter succeeds. Notice that he fights to survive to make something of himself, though initially he has no idea what he can make of himself on Mars. He simply knows and behaves as a man certain and determined not to curl up and die, or whine about his transposition from Earth to Mars, or to cower in hiding from the aliens he meets in the dead seas of the Red Planet.
Actions speak louder than words, and they tell us as much – if not more – about a character than any words or beliefs he could be said to possess. The bishop in Ladyhawke* is supposed to be celibate. He is supposed to believe in God and act as the minister for His grace to others. Undoubtedly, he manages to put up enough of a façade of all these things to keep outsiders or government officials from suspecting anything more of him. The priests under him and his fellow bishops are either oblivious to his real intentions and beliefs, they are put off like the government officials, or they are terrified of him and don’t dare to cross him.
Whichever of these things is true, the bishop cursing Navarre and Isabeau for their marriage because he desires Isabeau shows him to be a hypocrite. He cares not for the Church, the souls that should be under his protection, his vows, or his own honor. Lusting after Isabeau, who sent back all his pleading letters unread and sealed, he makes a deal with the devil to curse her and the man she actually loves out of pure spite. For if he cannot have her, then no one will.
“What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” Mark 7: 20-23. Your characters’ hearts decide who or what they will be and become over the course of your tale. This is true whether you are talking about the villains, the heroes, the tertiary characters, the no-name bystander who walks in and then out of that one scene in your novel only die-hard fans recall.
It is what is inside your characters that decides their destinies, not the external pressures they face. Unless you recognize this, even your most action-packed tales of high adventure will fall flat. Whether they are Iconic, Aspirational, or a little less so, your heroes need to face threats to their soul, not just to their bodies. Your villains must tempt them to cross the proverbial line because they want to corrupt them as well as rule the world, win first place in the dog show at any cost, or whatever motivation you find they have for their actions.
A third reason for the focus on the primarily internal conflicts of Man vs. Society and Man vs. Self was touched on by Mary Catelli in the comments for the latter. In neither of those posts on conflict did I broach the subject of romance, partly because I have covered it before elsewhere, but primarily since it is an easy to recognize requirement for the genre. Even if the romantic leads are not “fighting their desire” for one another, they generally have to overcome some type if internal character flaw or blindness before they seal the deal with a ring (or begin cohabitating).
Romance of any kind, whether it is the primary part of your story or merely a subplot, will require a Man vs. Self conflict and perhaps a Man vs. Society argument. Avatar shows Jake Sully’s growing attachment to Neytiri to be part of what leads him to turn against his Society out of loyalty to himself and his principles, but he is not the only one who must face this interior battle. Neytiri also must overcome her aversion to him as an outsider, to say nothing of her prejudice against him for being a symbol of the human intruders who have come to Pandora. It is one thing to make friends with a scientist who is interested in her culture and proves to truly want to cause no harm; it is quite another to fall in love with a warrior of the enemy tribe. Worse, from her perspective, is that Jake’s people no longer have the tribe as a recognizable standard of culture. There is an even greater social gap between them than there would be if he were actually from a separate Na’vi tribe.
Of course, when Jake reveals he gave the position of the Hometree to the military after Neytiri finally admits she loves him, she is understandably devastated. The death of her father does not endear Jake to her, either, and she initially pushes him away. Only when he returns to make amends at great cost to himself and his friends does she re-accept him, though it is implied that she has already forgiven him and still loves him.
A story with a stable or relatively unshakeable romance will still have issues arise between the couple occasionally as well. Rosita and Norman in Sing* are happily married – for the most part. Early on Rosita understandably feels like she is just a cog in the family machine, and indeed she does seem to be unconsciously treated as such by both her children and her husband. She builds a series of Rube-Goldberg devices to run the house and keep it in order while she is gone, and no one notices that she isn’t home until an accident causes the machines to malfunction.
The issue isn’t “big.” It is not enough to make Rosita unpleasant or to lead her to begin seeking elsewhere for a husband. She does not have Ash’s issue, where the young porcupine chose poorly in her companion and was subsequently betrayed by him. Norman and Rosita do love each other, as shown by the climax of the film.
But familiarity breeds contempt, or at least indifference of a type to make it easy to forget the other person is there. While nothing bad happens in Sing or is implied to be close to happening, the blinders that fell over the eyes of Rosita’s children and husband put their family and married life in serious jeopardy. It is no small thing to say that Buster Moon’s singing competition saved their marriage and family life. Who knows how long things would have gone on, how much time and affection might have been lost, if Rosita’s family continued to take her for granted? Perhaps there would have been a divorce in hers and Norman’s future if Rosita hadn’t stepped up to seize her dream and reminded her husband why he fell in love with her in the first place (to say nothing of showing her piglets just what she was capable of and why she was the MOM).
Fourth and finally, I discussed the Man vs. Society and Man vs. Self conflicts because they have different emphases based on the sex of the writer. As John C. Wright notes in his post on the Japanese film Belle* and which I referred to in this article here, the life of human women generally revolves around cyclical work. This isn’t just physical, such as washing dishes and clothes, or weaving or knitting new clothes in older eras (and sometimes today). It is cyclical in that the needs of a husband, children, and wife are re-occurring; the same disputes of one variety or another will replay, if not regularly, then within a certain type of pattern.
This is because, as Mr. Wright points out, people are always works in progress. The above example of Rosita and Norman and Sing backs this up and shows how cyclical life is: Rosita gets up, makes breakfast for everyone, sends her children off to school and her husband off to work, then stays to keep house. Rinse and repeat the next day, and the next, and so on and so forth.
Her children squabble and act out regularly. She’s not surprised when her son Caspar climbs up on the kitchen table and starts comically imitating her to amuse his siblings. That means he has done it before. She also deploys the piglets (with Norman’s help) in Sing 2* because she knows that they can cause A LOT of havoc whenever they have a mind to do so. She has to clean up their messes, enforce discipline, and otherwise ensure that their cyclical antics don’t get so out of hand someone gets hurt or feelings are permanently disgruntled.
Men have cyclical lives as well, but in a different format. As Mr. Wright notes, stories with masculine protagonists show them fighting to overcome some obstacle to achieve something. John Carter only makes a concerted effort to escape the Tharks after his capture to save Deja Thoris; though he always planned to leave, her presence and the threat to her speed up the process. He defeats various foes and even rushes through the thinning atmosphere of Mars to restore the air pumps that allow people to breathe entirely to save her life – and that of their son, who is not yet born.
In all these scenes, Carter is fighting forces to win the hand of his one true love, and/or to keep her alive, safe, and happy. Though A Princess of Mars only vaguely touches on his life as a prince of Helium, it is hinted to be cyclical work of its own kind: fighting the Green Men, fighting Red Men opposed to Helium, and fighting the harsh environment of Barsoom as its resources continue to dwindle.
As No Apologies* by Anthony Esolen points out, this is how men naturally work. They are naturally wired to fight, to “conquer” something, be it man or nature. In science fiction stories such as The Matrix* or The Terminator*, they extend that battle to machines, the creation of their own hands. An episode of the original Star Trek* series touches on this same battle: “I, Mudd” sees the crew of the Enterprise captured by a planet of androids who wish to serve humanity by “tak[ing] care” of them so they don’t have to strive or be hurt anymore. Once they have the Enterprise, they plan to offshore their services to the rest of the galaxy.
Most of Kirk’s crew is quite taken with the androids’ amenities and blinded by them to the danger these machines pose to all intelligent life in the galaxy. Kirk reminds his people that “a gilded cage is still a cage” and sets out to defeat the androids with their humanity. This leads to one of the best scenes in the series, where the crew explains that human striving and the desire to overcome is what gives them purpose. Without it, they simply wither and die:
Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and McCoy outwit the Androids
It’s a hilarious scene from a hilarious episode, but Kirk’s tribute to “that spirit of enterprise” is nothing short of Shakespearean. “That highest reality,” he calls man’s desire to fight, to “conquer” as Esolen puts it, to achieve a dream. Only a human has the imagination to pretend to be utterly crazy. Machines such as the androids lack the capacity for imagination and cannot understand why humans would act insane when they are not.
But the point of the scene goes deeper than simply discombobulating the androids. It shows what happens when man has nothing to strive for, to seek to defeat something and prove himself a man. He goes nuts – or he becomes depressed, which as an acquaintance pointed out, means he turns his anger at his inability to act in a meaningful way on himself. Depression isn’t sadness in men; it is anger born of being trapped in a situation that cannot allow for meaningful action. Esolen’s image is of a river dammed up to prevent its flow in one direction; if it cannot continue in its natural course, it will spill over in a different direction entirely.
And that direction might not be a healthy one, for the person in question or those around him.
Women get depressed when they feel useless to those they love, as Rosita does in Sing. Men become depressed when they’re caught in a prison – mental or physical – that does not allow them to act on their natural instincts in a healthy way, which Norman’s job does to him in the same film. It’s the exact phenomenon Tolkien noted in his essay On Fairy-Stories; if a man can’t get out of prison, he tries to find something other than prison walls and jailers to talk or think about. When even that isn’t an option, he breaks – and not necessarily in a way that is reparable or at least mildly detrimental to society as a whole.
This is why “boys don’t cry,” as I wrote here and Anthony Esolen expands upon in his book. It’s not that they’re repressed, or trained by society to act in a certain way. It’s that they are naturally active and inclined to fight with either nature or each other in a recurring cycle of seeking triumph and being gracious in an honest loss. It’s the action that they crave, where women generally prefer to stay out of the way and do work with people to maintain social bonds. Which means, of course, they have to be on hand for men – their brothers, fathers, uncles, boyfriends, husbands, or just plain friends and strangers – when men actually need women’s people skills to help sort out a problem that baffles them to one degree or another.
For this I will return to the MCU. Remember that scene where Black Widow remains in the room when Hawkeye is recovering from Loki’s brainwashing? She isn’t there simply because she has been where he is now. It isn’t just that he trusts her and can be vulnerable with her in a way he cannot with anyone else, perhaps even his own wife.
She is there to prevent his masculine inclination to action, forcefully stifled and redirected by Loki, from turning back on him. Renner himself noted that the relationship between Black Widow and Hawkeye was, if memory serves, a “left-hand, right-hand” thing. “They coexist,” he said in at least one interview.
Men and women naturally do this. If left to their own devices, they will figure out how to balance and support one another. Widow helps Hawkeye return to an even level, an even keel, and directs his masculine need for action and retribution from an unhealthy direction (himself) to a more constructive and (for him personally as well as men generally) healthy one: taking down Loki so the god of mischief cannot hurt anyone else.
Cap returns the favor to Black Widow in The Winter Soldier*, saving her life after the bunker is bombed and keeping her with him to recover at Sam Wilson’s house. It is very, very likely that having her entire life – her reason for existence that she fought so hard for after she finally severed her ties with the Red Room – explode in her face would have sent Black Widow into a depression of her own. That type of depression might have had an unhealthy outlet similar to the one she prevented Hawkeye from taking (self-harm or suicide), but it could easily have taken a far more destructive path.
What if she had decided to take down SHIELD/HYDRA on her own? Or the entire U.S. government? “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and HYDRA laughed in her face via Zola for thinking she had “made a clean break” from the life she had been trained for from infancy. She thought that she was lying and killing for the good guys now instead of the bad guys. Zola tore off the curtain to show her a funhouse mirror that would make all her efforts twist, bend, and become the exact opposite of what she wanted.
If Cap had not been there to balance her devastation and anger with his masculine ability to “put aside emotion and do the job at hand,” as Esolen says, what would Natasha have done? What would a woman in despair with her skillset be capable of accomplishing? Better question: what couldn’t she have accomplished? Three Helicarriers in the Potomac is what a controlled, calm, clear-eyed Steve Rogers did to preserve innocent life. As noted here, this means that he kept the civilian death toll almost freakishly low.
How likely was Natasha, in her state of mind, to be able to do that if he hadn’t been there to calm her natural (and extremely understandable) ire and channel it toward a safe target?
If you are a man writing fiction, this is something you must keep in mind for your female characters. Female “energy” is highly excitable, both to help facilitate connections with others and to be able to defend themselves if they are all the defense they have left. Relationships are the arena where women fight – connections mean everything if you’re trying to advance your son above the other concubines’, or to push your man to the headship of the village, or to convince the neighbors that you are not from a poor family and trying desperately to fit in with “high society,” as Hyacinth Bucket does in Keeping Up Appearances.*
As delineated above regarding Natasha, her skills depend on her ability to be faster, quicker, and surprisingly dangerous in close quarters. If a woman has none of those skills or training, she will become a whirling, screaming dervish trying to protect herself. Some women will keep their heads while doing this but others won’t, and those are the more dangerous ones. Not only do you not know what they are going to do, neither do they. Especially if they have let fear or anger cloud their judgement and render them insensible but highly excited, to the point they may scratch out a man’s eyes and wonder later why there is blood under their nails and on their hands.
Male “energy” is focused and direct because there is no time in a fight with an angry bear or a pack of hungry wolves to lose composure and self-control. The story of the Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi, a man who goaded his opponent into making a critical and fatal error, proves the ideal. The man who lets his passions rule him is probably going to be a dead man.
It’s not that men do not feel. It is that they keep – or ought to keep – their feelings reined in so that they do not act out or freeze in an inappropriate moment. As Esolen explains, boys learn to get up and not cry after losing a game or suffering a bad call in said game because it is counter-survival. Men’s games and boys’ games are naturally oriented to this type of behavior the world over. Whether it is Japanese boys playing samurai or American boys playing baseball, they are learning to channel their emotions in healthy directions so they become good men. If female writers do not grasp and understand this, then their male characters will not only be unrealistic, they will be highly insulting.
Each sex has its general weaknesses and general strengths. Understanding that is key to understanding how a male character such as Jake Sully approaches his dual internal conflicts in Avatar and how Neytiri fights her own interior battles in an effort to avoid falling in love with him. Jake treats it as an actual confrontation, after a point, shown when he bonds with the various Pandoran animals and has to exercise his will over them by, essentially, fighting with them. Neytiri’s is much quieter, demonstrated in small glances and quick head turns to prevent Jake from seeing the flash of attraction that her face and especially her eyes betray.
This is why I spent so much time on Man vs. Society and Man vs. Self. Without the latter conflict, you cannot have a good story, and a character fighting him or herself in a way that doesn’t reflect the general reality of their sex is going to come across as hollow or a shadow of an idea. It will also affect how they fight in their respective societies – Neytiri doesn’t fight Jake or any of the tribes he goes to convince to take action against the humans. She stands by his side and translates for him. His is the active or directive force, hers the energetic shoring up of and support of his role in gathering the tribes to lead them to fight.
There are exceptions to every rule, it is said, and that is true. What is often left out is that the exceptions prove the rule. Generalities and averages exist not in an arbitrary space or to diminish the individual. They simply show us where the laws of reality generally do not permit an exemption. Pandora’s floating mountains do not negate gravity. They are simply an exception to its rule that proves gravity has more teeth than the “banshees” that nest in the mountains.
Reality has teeth. Don’t let it bite you. Even if you don’t bleed to death or find yourself permanently maimed, it’s going to hurt.
Next week we will resume the discussion of conflicts. Today was something of an impromptu inspiration prodded into being by reading No Apologies and the realization that rushing straight through to the next exposition of conflict was probably not a good idea. An intermission would let us all catch our breath and absorb what had been said before, so there would be time to consider the next set of conflicts in-depth and without hurry.
For now, though, think on your conflicts. See where you might need to make some adjustments. And above all, don’t give up. We are all works in progress, after all.
And a work in progress proceeds at its own pace, not anyone else’s. Remember that and keep going.
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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue, Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue, and another may be read over at Ember Journal. Vol. 1* and Vol. 2* of her series – The Guardian Cycle – is available in paperback and ebook as well. Order them today!
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