No, this isn’t another post about the Amazon-Hachette imbroglio.
I recently took part (along with WU’s Donald Maas) in the Surrey International Writers Conference outside Vancouver, absolutely one of the best literary powwows I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to scads. (Sadly, I’m unable to attend the WU Un-conference beginning today. I have no doubt it’s even powwowier!)
One of the workshops I gave at the Surrey conference was titled Beyond Good and Evil: Using Moral Argument to Develop Plot & Character.
Moral argument as a structural device expands the thematic range of the conflict from a battle of individuals to a contest of moral visions. Each character is seen as seeking to create, maintain, or defend a way of life – an idea of what it means to live well among others – and if the conflict in the story is crafted well, these ways of life are ultimately antithetical.
This is what Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing) meant by the Unity of Opposites – a tightly woven conflict in which the protagonist and the opponent (or the problem/challenge the protagonist faces) are inextricably bound together, so that escape or compromise is impossible. Either the opponent must be defeated (or the problem solved, the challenge met), or the protagonist fails in a shattering, life-changing way – in a sense, she dies, if not physically then emotionally, morally, professionally.
But the stakes are also ultimate for the opponent – otherwise the protagonist’s victory or success is diminished. A hero who overcomes a facile, underdeveloped or unconvincing opponent – or solves an unimpressive problem, meets a humdrum challenge – will fail to engage the reader in a memorable way.
[pullquote]We need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance. [/pullquote]
To stage conflict meaningfully the stakes have to be ultimate for all concerned, and this requires understanding the opponent’s perspective just as fully as the protagonist’s.
This requires that we justify – not judge – our opponent’s worldview. We can’t remain outside this character, feeling toward him but not for him. Stepping into his shoes is just the beginning. Sooner or later, we have to inhabit his heart and soul.
This often means we need to see life through the eyes of someone we would most likely flee, berate, or even despise if we made their actual acquaintance. And this requires that we not just accept but champion, embrace — dare I say it, love — someone we consider fundamentally mistaken, hurtful, even evil.
I know. Writers have all the fun.
And yet… [Read more…]