In our last post, we created Drago and put him in direct competition with Johnny for a medical school scholarship. I gave you a simple exercise and series of questions designed to help you understand how to exploit "core conflicts" -- conflicts that arise from clashes between people's core beliefs and needs. We also had an external conflict in the competition for the scholarship.
As the comment thread shows, most of you had a relatively easy time putting Drago and Johnny into a position where these core conflicts would have an impact on the progress of the meeting. None of you hunted for common ground between Johnny and Drago -- same major, same age, same career goals, perhaps some other similarities that might form at least some basis for a casual friendship. All of you focused on their differences and on the way their differences create conflict. These differences are the soul of drama. Conflict can be created by two people who want the same thing (a scholarship), but that conflict becomes dramatic when the people involved challenge each other on some deeper level.
I did this on purpose. I created Drago specifically so that he would challenge Johnny and Johnny would challenge him for more than just a scholarship. And now I would like to take a moment to explain how I did that.
One Simple(ish) Method for Creating Foils
Identify the character's core emotional need.
Johnny has a core emotional need for status. We already knew this, and knew some of his other competing needs. But I chose to focus on status when creating Drago.
Figure out what would threaten that core belief.
This is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Imagine something that would take away any possibility of satisfying that core emotional need. Johnny's need for status is expressed through material things. Taking away those material things in another character would call up the emotions for Johnny. See, it's not that Johnny actually wants all the latest gadgets and the shiniest car. He wants what these things represent. (Yes, he might actually want many of these things for themselves, but this doesn't explain why he always buys his new iPhone on the first day of release.) Taking away any possibility of gathering all these status symbols is good, but taking away both their physical presence and the desire for them is even better.
In the comments, some of you have mentioned that you know a guy just like Johnny. Have you ever had conversations with them about what other people own? In my experience, these conversations have three levels:
- envy (He has more than me, therefore he will be better than me until I get it, too.)
- confusion (I don't understand why he thinks this one is better. What am I missing? Do I have to get one of these things now, too, even though I don't understand it?)
- dismissal (They got nuthin. Ha! I win!)
In all those cases, Johnny is comparing what he has to what others have. This is how he relates to people. Remove the possibility of object comparison, and you remove his habitual means for relating to people.
So right away, I knew we wanted a character with nothing. But mere poverty would not suffice, because Johnny would dismiss them easily. After all, in the world according to Johnny, money can be made, even if you're a kid. Babysitting, lawnmowing, paper routes, even lemonade stands. So we needed a character for whom none of this would have been possible. And that impossibility would have been so absolute that even Johnny would see it.
I considered a scholarship student who grew up in foster care. I think we can all agree that foster children rarely grow up with silver spoons. Maybe he moved around a lot, so things like a paper route would have been out of the question. And there would have been some tragedy in his past that would have triggered the foster care situation, so this might have awakened some sympathy in people who met him.
But I changed my mind because of step three.
Make it big.
We talk alot about "big" books, but it's not always easy to explain what we mean. So let's look at an example. Remember, we're evaluating these scenarios in terms of how they challenge Johnny's core emotional beliefs.
Scenario 1: Character's parents are both doctors. He grew up in a wealthy suburb. Went to the best private schools. Drives a BMW convertible. He was raised to believe in service, the old "those to whom much is given, from much is expected" thing. He spends the lunch with Dr. Cannon discussing his volunteer work at the hospitals where his parents work. The discussion of volunteerism might challenge Johnny a little, but Johnny would still evaluate this character in terms of what he owns. There's little meaningful challenge here, so it's a fairly small conflict.
Also, it's worth noting that we're talking about a character with a fairly typical upper-middle class upbringing. There's nothing shocking, nothing to rouse our sympathies, and nothing to make it bold or unique.
Scenario 2: Our foster care student. This guy had little stability as he was growing up, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. We know that Johnny has some stability needs that tie into his status need. Johnny would feel uncomfortable around him on some level, but ultimately he would be able to resolve it. "The guy grew up with nothing and no possibility of getting anything. But it's different now. He got a free ride to a state school for his bachelor's degree. All the foster kids get that. It's guaranteed (stable)." And then, having resolved the stability question at least in part, Johnny would start thinking in terms of whether the free public school was "better" than the high-priced private school he attended.
This character's upbringing is less typical than the doctors' kid. There might be something shocking in his past that led to the need for foster care. Foster care can rouse people's sympathies, and so it's a bigger situation than that of our first student.
Scenario 3: Drago.
I don't think we need to revisit the ways in which Drago challenges Johnny's core beliefs. He does, and we've explored various ways that this might play out.
Let's look instead at the relative bigness of his situation.
Genocide is less common than foster care, which is less common than a middle-class upbringing.
Civil war is more destructive to a person's environment/stability/material accumulation than foster care, which is more destructive than a middle-class upbringing.
Civil war, genocide, being rescued by the UN, being an international refugee -- these are all played on a bigger world stage, where foster care is statewide, and a middle-class upbringing is local.
We could go on. I'll leave it to you to find other means for comparison, and post your ideas in the comments.
But here's your real assignment for this post. People have a fairly limited number of core emotional needs. Some common ones are needs for approval, power, or independence. Choose one of these, or choose another core need if you prefer. And then think of two ways (one smaller, one bigger) that this need could be challenged through a character foil.
Yeah, it's a harder assignment, but it's a fun one. Have at it!