Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Internal Conflict in LurkerLand

Have you ever had the feeling the world is trying really hard to teach you something? If I was a religious person, I would say that God/Buddha/the White Stag or whatever is working on me ... that somewhere, somebody who is made up of mostly vapor and good ideas is knocking desperately on my skull and shouting in my ear: "WAKE UP, YOU TWIT!"

What am I talking about? Oh, jeez. I can't really say -- or, I guess I don't really want to say. But the last 24 hours in LurkerLand have been like falling through the rabbit hole. No, I didn't get The Call. That would be straightforward and simple. And no, I didn't get a rejection. What I got was a Message. More details to come. Maybe. 

Anyway, in light of all this, let's talk about conflict in stories. I have a tendency to write characters who are deeply internally conflicted, or who are willfully self-delusional. My characters are always in conflict with external forces, yes, but the real conflict -- the meaningful one -- is internal. They have to overcome whatever is inside of themselves, or learn to tell themselves the truth, before they can adequately defeat whatever external forces are arrayed against them.

Now, when I put it in writing like this, it sounds good, right? It does to me at least. Because maybe I take a dim view of humanity, but I tend to think that most people are internally conflicted or not exactly honest with themselves. Just speaking for myself, I know it's a constant struggle not to start buying my own bullshit, and I know that I'm deeply conflicted about some very fundamental things. Here's a quick example: I'm basically a pacifist at heart. I think that war is wrong, that there is no such thing as an "honorable" war, and that violence can never be done in the name of justice. I think that all militaries target civilian populations, no matter what they say, because that is the nature of warfare: to break your enemy by destroying him and his way of life. However, I also recognize that some threats are existential in their gravity -- that fascism posed an aggressive, violent threat to everything I value. How to reconcile these values?

But here's the thing: THIS DOES NOT WORK IN MG FICTION.

It just doesn't. I spent some time thinking about this last night, and I couldn't think of any significant lead characters in MG fiction who are deeply morally conflicted or self-delusional. They might be misguided; they might be self-destructive; they might be immature and willful and stubborn. But they're aren't morally conflicted or wrestling with their own misbegotten psyches. And the best protagonists in children's literature are simple and sure ... they are brave without thinking about it, good by nature. They are models for the rest of us. In short, they are fictional.

This naturally brings up character motivation. In a kid's book, it doesn't work to present false or misleading motivations for a character, even intentionally. Even if you double back on it later and show why it was false. Readers just aren't conditioned that way. The motivation has to be on the page. It's that simple. The reader has to understand at any given moment why the protagonist is doing whatever they're doing ... and this reason has to be the real reason, not an incubating lesson on which you'll pull the trigger in 50 pages. I've tried to pull this off twice now, and the truth is, even very savvy readers still come back and say, "But ... why did he do BLANK? I just don't get it." 

I hope this makes some kind of sense. Even to me, it seems like a weird issue. But I think I can say that I've earned my insight into this issue. So from now on, when I sit down to work on my kid's books (my favorite kind), I'm going to stick with a rule my mom taught me in my own childhood: Keep It Simple, Stupid. 


Mark Terry said...

I think I see what you're saying. Characters in kids' books can be complicated, but, er, maybe not byzantine.

In kids books I prefer if the motives are fairly straightforward. (I'm not quite so sure in adult books. In adults I find motives to be fairly complex and ambiguous in general). If nothing else it gives the readers a handle on the character.

Have you read any of the Alex Rider novels by Anthony Horowitz? The character's motives for getting into the messes he's in tend to be straightforward. He's pushed into them or he's trying to do what he thinks is right. But his reaction to the trouble he gets into is very complex.

LurkerMonkey said...

Never read those ... but I'm always looking for new reading material.

And I think, yeah, that's a good point. Readers quickly form opinions about characters and it's nearly impossible to shake them free from that opinion in MG fiction. This is nothing against kids -- most of my favorite people are kids -- but there's just not that level of sophistication there.

Mark Terry said...

Oh, Dude, check out those books. They range a little higher than MG, I would think younger-level YA. They're serious boy books. He's like a young James Bond. Start with the first one, I bet you'll be hooked. It's Stormbreaker.

He also has a couple other series that my sons reads, but I haven't gotten to them yet.