Monday Motivation: Why we should welcome contradiction
I’ve written about lies and liars before because writers (of fiction, at least) are, looked at from the right angle, professional liars.
But there’s another way in which lies and lying permeates our craft. Psychologists have noted that everyone lies – and that we lie at a truly prodigious rate. We lie by omission and by commission. We lie about our health and our prospects. We lie about who we’re acquainted with, and who not. We lie about the source of our wealth (if we’re fortunate), and we lie about the reasons for our poverty (if we’re not).
But most fundamentally, we allow a gap to grow between how we feel, and how we behave. We feel resentment that someone has usurped our position as the most amusing person in the room – but we pretend to enjoy the endless flow of their fascinating anecdotes.
We feel envy that a colleague has received the accolades we believe we deserve, but we pin on a smile and congratulate her.
We eye the handsome/attractive man or woman at a dinner party, and later deny to our partner that we felt even the slightest stirring of desire.
Now, this might make villains of us all – or it might just be what human beings do to make their way through a complex world without creating too many enemies en route.
But think about it: this disjuncture between what’s going on inside us, and how we mask our feelings/desires/opinions is the raw material of drama.
Here’s a familiar trope of fiction: one man wants what another man possesses. He sets out to wrest the object (or the person) of his desire from that man. He succeeds, or he fails. The story is dramatic because of the lines of tension that develop between them. One man pulls, the other resists. We wonder who will win. We develop feelings of sympathy or antipathy towards one or the other. We yearn for resolution.
But what’s going on inside one or the other of these characters? The one who seeks to dispossess the other of his wife (say), pursues his goal with mixed emotions: he’s full of desire, of course. But is he also wracked by guilt? Or the sense that he’s making the most terrible mistake? Or doubt about the value of the prize?
In fiction, we tend to oversimplify our characters. We give them single motives. Singular goals. An all-consuming appetite.
We forget the contradictions within. But it is those contradictions that ultimately yield the most interesting, and often the most nuanced, stories. And it’s those contradictions that provide us with dramatic material in every scene.
A woman looks out at a garden. She congratulates herself on its design. She decides to trim back the over-exuberant plumbago. She wonders whether a sundial might not make an attractive focal point… So far, so bland.
Remember, though, that this woman is not just a recreational gardener. She’s also a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis. Her relationship with her husband has grown stale; her children are about to leave home; a good friend has recently died. But instead of fighting to inject new life into her marriage, instead of seeking new friends and activities to help compensate for the empty nest, and instead of grieving properly for her dead friend, she is thinking about pruning the fucking plumbago.
And so, suddenly, the contradictions in your character turn a pedestrian scene into a site of struggle. And struggle is just another word for conflict. And conflict is what drives all drama.
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