Friday, October 21, 2011

Politics and Narrative Conflict

One of the truisms of storytelling is that your protagonist is only as good as your antagonist. If, like the Monty Python sketch about the self-defense class, your antagonist threatens everyone with (wait for it) a banana, and your protagonist uses his pistol to save the day, we've learned nothing* from the story because the only stretching the protagonist was forced to do involved reaching for his pistol.

Part of what makes stories superior to daily life is the presence of a clearly defined villain (that and the fact that a good story-teller skips the boring bits). You may object that there are plenty of stories where the villain doesn't have a face or is something that can't be embodied in a single person. While that's true, those stories still ultimately reveal the nature of the antagonist (or antagonistic forces) and show how the protagonist overcomes (or at least deals with) them.

Conflict is the fuel that feeds the story engine. That's why a great deal of writing advice (like the Christopher Walken cow bell sketch on Saturday Night Live) boils down to, "Ratchet up the conflict." But you can't have engaging narrative conflict if the parties and their conflicting objectives are not clear.

When story needs to motivate as well as entertain, the need for a clear-cut antagonist is all the more pressing. If you were told two stories, one with rainbows and bright flowers about puppies who learn they should be nice to each other, and one about oppression and wrongs to be righted--right in your very own neighborhood--which is more likely to move you to do something more than turn to the next story?

The crux of the motivational problem is that we live in a world whose name, if we had to follow the convention of a large, U.S.-based toy retailer, could be, "Ambiguities R Us."

I should have foreseen the present partisan and cultural divide coming: parties need an enemy--a threatening "other"--to call their partisans to action. During the Cold War, one of the partisan battle fields was a tug-of-war (pun intended) over who was strongest on defense (which was code for who would stand up to the Soviet Union). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we've had a parade of mostly Middle Eastern dictators and terrorists. The latter, as a nebulous threat, haven't lived up to their narrative potential to provoke fears entirely out of proportion to their actual activities. So now, without a strong external threat, we have no choice but to look inward and find even more fearful threats at home. In other words, our lust for narrative conflict drives us to turn on ourselves.

For a significant portion of the middle ages, an irrational fear of witches served very nicely to keep village congregations huddled together. We now look back, tut, and shake our heads at such superstitions, and then, in practically the same breath, rise up in righteous indignation at their modern counterparts.

I'm not asking for enlightenment--or even tolerance. I'm simply pointing out something that as storytellers we, of all people, should understand: we're not the only ones who go out of our way to manufacture conflict because that's what a good story requires.

* Except that you should carry a pistol if you're likely to be attacked by fruit-wielding maniacs.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /