I'm not planning on commenting much on the whole Harlequin mess (but if you're interested, here's a long blog colloquy/comment with lots of links and Nora Roberts :),
but I had a conversation about this with a friend, and she said, "90% of the time, people's problems can be traced back to a decision/choice they themselves made .. maybe not recently, but at some point they had a choice or made a decision that led to their current quandary." And it's true, and maybe it's something we might think about when we're creating (or rather discovering) our character's conflicts.
But if we do as my friend suggests and go back to the origins of a disaster or conflict, maybe what we'll see is that the start was a decision, choice, or action that went against "the first principle".
What's the "first principle?" Well, to me it's that sort of personal edict of value or morality or behavior that you've chosen as a guide to action and decision. Not everyone has this, and many would have it but would never have articulated it. In organizations, the first principle usually is stated in the mission statement, or is so essential a part of the corporate culture everyone knows it. Usually these are "positive":
Treat stakeholders (employees, stockholders, suppliers, customers) with respect
Act with mercy
Be thoughtful and conscious of the implications of actions
Let's try some which aren't so wimpy-good but are still action-edicts:
With your shield or on it
You can never be too careful
Never leave a man behind on the battlefield (and how many soldiers have died for this one!)
Don't hang your dirty linen out for all to see (notice this is the opposition to "Be honest")
Don't rock the boat
Never make a scene (how many "ladies" grew up with that as the dominating principle)
Beauty is truth
Always do your best
Always be your best
Always look your best
Don't let the bastards get you down
Don't sweat the small stuff
Some are more practical:
Be the first off the starting block
Avoid the generic (very good first principle for novelists :)
Focus on the bottom line
Winning is the only thing
There is strength in diversity
Concentrate on your strengths
Some are more likely to lead to conflict than others (fictional example supplied)
Expect and reward loyalty (Godfather)
Seek the truth no matter what (Oedipus)
Always think before acting (Hamlet)
Some of these might seem trivial, but we probably all know people who have what we consider trivial principles. "Always look your best" sounds like vanity, but don't we admire those grands dames who manage to wear the right scarf even when they're going to chemotherapy? Think about signal actions like that, and trace them back-- what's the principle that underlies it?
What's the difference between this and a value or strength? Hmm. Well, they're all related, certainly-- principles would be based on values, probably. But I think a principle is a CODE, an edict, not just a feeling or attitude. You'd identify a value as a comparison ("Loyalty is more important than truth to me"). You'd state a principle as an imperative. "Reward loyalty." So the first principle is more aimed at action from the start. Try making a value into a principle statement and see if that helps you imagine more action and conflict.
Anyway, it's useful, I think, to identify a first principle, because you can discover conflict in two ways from that:
1) What happens when you follow your first principle.
2) What happens when you go against your first principle.
A publishing company might, for example, have as a first principle "never forget the reader." Now of course, businesses are trying to make a profit, but that's certainly not the first principle for many companies, or they'd all be seeking new trends constantly rather than sticking to their original business. (In fact, one of the paradoxes of publishing lately has been that companies who have earned steady if small profits for 100 years by focusing mostly on getting books out have started losing money as soon as the focus came to be "maximizing profit". Maybe that's not so paradoxical, or at least, it shouldn't be.)
"Never forget the reader" isn't as immediately and uniformly positive as, say, "Act with love." What's involved in that? Oh, maybe "giving the reader what he/she wants" might mean less challenging books, or a greater reliance on focus groups and market surveys than on the editor's gut in determining types of books to buy. It might mean identifying some little meme readers seem to like and inserting it in book after book (remember the "makeover scene" trend? "Everyone loved the makeover scene in Pretty Woman! Let's put that in all our books!"). But a continued dedication to the reader would lead against an action that puts a lot of energy and work and corporate reputation into making money from making books readers will never read.
Double-edged, definitely. But that's where the conflict is. What do you give up when you concentrate on one principle? That's conflict. You can't innovate much when your first principle commits you to concentrating first and foremost on customer desires. You can't lay off half your employees for better productivity if your first principle is "loyalty". You can't maximize your investment income if "slow and steady wins the race" has been your guiding principle.
So there's conflict to be found in acting within your principle, or rather, in avoiding other possible actions. The older son offers the example of Roland, The Gunslinger in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Roland is the very model of a principled character, and his principle is "Never give up the fight." This is a long series, so the choices and consequences are spread out over seven books. The first book shows him sticking to his principle of refusing to give up the fight, even when he's forced to choose to let Jake, his surrogate son, fall to his death. (The entire series deals with this theme of sacrificing love for principle and the reverse. King is a classical plotter-- his use, btw, of the gun as a motif is a masterclass in how to embed theme in objects.)
This conflict seems to lead to a more traditional heroic story. Here is the man of principle to whom bad things happen because he sticks to his core value. The husband offers the example of the Matthew Broderick character in Glory, whose properly soldierly dedication to the chain of command and following orders leads to him having to accept racist treatment (he is in charge of the black regiment) from his commanders. He kept trying to follow the rules, and finally he does have a bit of rebellion (when he raids the supply shop to get necessities for his men), he could say it was within the rules (he had been promised the supplies by his commander). He even goes against his own morality to follow orders when he orders the flogging of Trip. The conflict comes from obeying his first principle no matter what, and his journey is towards a more nuanced understanding of his duty and of the complicated politics of the military.
Another protagonist who sticks to his first principle and runs into conflict for it is Oedipus, of course. His first principle is "seek the truth"-- he is the riddle-solver, the one who figures things out, the one who isn't afraid of the truth. And that leads him to discover an unbearable truth, along the way pretty much destroying his family and his kingship.
When the protagonist sticks to the principle, uses that to guide most of his actions (and especially the early actions), the conflict might come fast and hard. After all, what use is a principle if it is easy to stick to, if there are no consequences to holding it? So stories that use this model might have front-loaded conflict (bad things happen pretty quickly).
(Talk about sticking to principles. I'm watching the Colts-Ravens game, and what an example. Now I'm in Indy, and we love our Colts, and Baltimore loves its Ravens-- won a Super Bowl!-- but Baltimore has never forgotten that the Colts owner in the middle of the night a couple decades ago moved the team from there to here. Anyway, this game is in Baltimore, and the announcer and the scoreboard guys do not refer to the "Colts" or the "Indianapolis Colts"-- they say, "The Indianapolis Professional Football Team." The scoreboard says, "Indy," not "Colts". That's principle!)
While I think we see the "sticking to principle" conflict coming more from truly heroic characters, Moby Dick is a good example of how it can easily become monomania. Ahab's intense dedication to the principle of getting revenge and his unwillingness to swerve from that principle leads to destruction, and Melville definitely doesn't present him as heroic.
Now what about #2? What happens when you act AGAINST your first principle?
I guess the first thing is to make sure that the first principle is established in early scenes. You are going to have him violate it pretty quick, so you won't have the luxury of setting it up over the first half of the book as you do with scenario #1. So how can you show that her first principle is to seek the truth or to be loyal or whatever early on, knowing that you're going to show her going against it pretty soon? If you don't set it up as important, as a principle, early on, then her violation of it will have no dramatic weight-- the action will be only a response to exigency, not a real conflict.
But I think it's also important to get the character acting against principle pretty early-- and to motivate that well. For example, one great cultural principle set up in many classical stories is "Be hospitable." It sounds sort of wimpy, but in fact, the Greeks made such big deal about this, even having myths where the vagrant who appears at the doorstep turns out to be a god. So every homeowner knew that he had to offer food and shelter and treat intruders as honored guests-- and in return, the guests had to treat the host with respect.
So this is the cultural backdrop of the great drama of the Iliad, and notice what happens. Paris comes to Menelaus's kingdom (the myths vary as to how this happens) and they should treat each other with the mutual respect required by the principle of hospitality. But here comes the greatest motivation of all-- he falls in love with Menelaus's wife (Aphrodite's doing), and runs off with her, violating the principle and starting a war.
Macbeth is shown in his first scene as a good soldier, brave and triumphant. But soon his wife's appeal to his ambition (and his male insecurity) turns him against the soldierly principle of respect for chain of command and he kills his king and usurps the kingdom.
The initial violation is usually done because of exigency-- some seemingly good reason, some goal that could be reached just by violating ("just this once") this principle. So maybe it's good to set up the principle and set up a conflicting (but understandable) goal. "You can achieve your goal if you just ..." Also, I think that the character might be quickly rewarded for this pragmatic choice, so that there is a postponement of external bad consequences (so you'll have more action in the second half of the book). But an initial reward for doing the pragmatic/unprincipled thing can also put the focus on the internal consequences that come from violating principle, with the costs of this choice coming from within primarily-- the guilt, Lady Macbeth's madness, maybe.
What are some other examples of this (early) violation of principle? So are there some principles that would lend themselves better to violation? Or rather to creating good conflict by violation? "Act with honor," for example?
I notice that the examples I can think of for #1 tend to be heroic, and the ones I can think of for #2 are not really heroic. That is, maybe we understand that heroes might have to violate their principles, but we want it to be a difficult decision in furtherance perhaps to what they realize is a higher principle. ?
Any other examples, like of characters who sacrifice the first principle early for some other goal, and you regard as heroic?
And how does this affect the trajectory of your plot?
And what would you identify as your protagonist's first principle?
Hmm. Thinking of mine... "Be responsible." I know there's a better way to say that, but I mean he thinks he should always do the right thing, that everything relies on his doing the right thing. That makes me think that I need to have him choose the first action (where he pretends to be someone else) because he thinks it's the right thing to do, maybe, that he has to do it to make things work. I realize now that "tell the truth" isn't his principle, it's more "do the right thing." I'm now wondering if I've made it too easy for him just to start pretending he's someone else. I wonder if he would do that right away, or if I need to make sure it's consonant with that first principle, or make it consonant anyway, change the circumstances so that assuming the disguise is the responsible thing to do. I'm a bit afraid of making him too saintly, so I'll have to check out alternate scenarios.