Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Core Conflicts

Let's start by reviewing the way we've worked over poor Johnny the status-seeking pre-med student. (He would object to being called "poor Johnny." He deserves better than to be manipulated and exposed by a bunch of starving artists. Really, who the hell do we think we are? lol)

We started with a few key pieces of external behavior and worked inward to get to his core emotional need.

We used that core emotional need to predict simple, controllable behavior.

We used that core emotional need and companion needs to demonstrate how seemingly contradictory behavior can be consistent with that character.

We examined self-image as a facet of emotional need and as a predictor of behavior.

We looked at how Johnny's desire to hide pieces of his personality might influence behavior in a common social situation with zero conflict.

And this has all been leading up to this post. Now we'll look at how to exploit core conflicts.

Meet Drago

What we haven't done yet is create a second character with an external goal which puts him in direct conflict with Johnny. Remember, the pretty party girl was not a developed character. We let you all stand in for her and imagine how you would respond to Johnny. We didn't give her her own set of needs and goals. This is why we need Drago now.

Drago is a survivor. He grew up in a region of Europe torn apart by civil war. The wars left his remote village intact for the first few years -- his village is so remote, in fact, that the communist government never could figure out how to get electricity to them. They didn't import much of anything, but they did a little bartering with neighboring villages. As a child, Drago sometimes walked the three hours through the mountains to the next village with a load of homemade cheese in a pack on his back. He enjoyed the return trip more because he could spend his time in anticipation of his village's excitement to see what he managed to get in trade for the cheese.

One day when Drago was making this trip, rebel soldiers came to his village, collected all the men and boys, and slaughtered them. Then they moved on to the next village and did the same. Drago survived only because he was on a mountain path that the soldiers didn't know about. Drago, his mother, and all the other surviving women and girls were taken in by the UN, moved to a refugee camp in another part of Europe, and eventually were settled in the US.

Drago's self-image is "survivor," and his core emotional need is justice. He wants to be a doctor because he wants to right the wrongs committed by bad men, brutal soldiers. He has watched his mother struggle to adapt to her new environment. She may have been the best cheese-maker in the mountains, but her lack of exposure to modern living has made it impossible for her to even find work as a cleaning woman. This has also made Drago hyper-protective.

Drago, Meet Johnny

Drago got a scholarship to college, and he needs a scholarship if he's going to go to med school. He and Johnny have both applied for a prestigious internship that would pay their tuition and expenses. In addition to these benefits, the intern would be allowed to work during school breaks under the mentorship of a famous surgeon at an internationally-renowned NYC hospital. This surgeon is heavily involved in Doctors Without Borders.

The selection committee uses a precise calculus to determine the winner of the internship/scholarship. In the event of a tied score, the selection committee interviews the two candidates, and they have lunch together with the famous surgeon. (Let's give her a name. Dr. Cannon. Assume she's a placeholder character much like the pretty girl at the party. You may stand in for her if you want to.)

Johnny and Draco are meeting each other and Dr. Cannon at this lunch for the first time. The lunch is at a white-tablecloth place. Hushed music. Heavy silverware. Well-trained waiters.

They have an external conflict. Obviously. They're competing for a scholarship.

But here is your assignment. Just by being in the room together, even without the external conflict, these two will be projecting needs, values, goals, and hiding aspects of their shadow selves. Your job is to think through how they interact on this level. Consider:

-- What do they see in each other that makes each of them feel uncomfortable about themselves?

-- How do they each handle that discomfort?

-- What do they see in each other that makes each of them feel good about themselves?

-- How to they each handle those positive feelings?

-- How does the environment impact their interaction? What does it highlight about their interpersonal conflict? What do they order for their meals, and why?

-- Finally, how do they try to control their self-image to each other and to Dr. Cannon?

AFTER you've considered these questions, write the scene. But do think about the core conflicts first. Don't settle for what is easy and obvious. Dig deeper. Think it through. You might find some surprises along the way.

There are no wrong answers to an exercise like this. No two writers will handle the same core conflicts in exactly the same way. Your interpretation of character and behavior is part of what gives you a unique voice.


By the way, Drago's story is real, except that he did not survive. Author Kate Rothwell a/k/a Summer Devon works with the women who did survive that day. Look here for photos of the sock booties they make and sell. Look here for details on ordering their handiwork. They make great holiday gifts. Just sayin.


Wes said...

GREAT questions to consider! Thanks.

Gourmet Candles Distributor said...

Good way to question. In today's age it is call survivor.

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, Theresa , I answered the questions and got a good feel of how my scene would play out between the two. Then I came to your last question - how do they try to control their self-image to each other and to Dr. Cannon, and Houston? We have a problem! By trying to control certain aspects of themselves from the initial ‘sizing the other up’ - the whole meeting goes to hell in a hand cart and neither man is effective in winning the day. Drago comes off as being over-anxious to please and not much of a leader and Johnny, well, much to my surprise, he’s reserved and almost condescending in his manner throughout the lunch meeting. Good luck to the Doc for trying to pick a winner out of those two.:D Maybe your next post will be an exercise where the generous Dr. Connor, gives them both a second chance?

Actually, I found this exercise really, REALLY enlightening because I let the scene unfold without a purpose in mind on how I wanted it to finish. Have I mentioned that I’m a bit of a control freak? So, this was great! The characters, by playing off each other, did things that I wouldn’t have made them do. Crap, does that mean I’m not God? Gee, thanks for pointing that out. You’re a real pal!;) Seriously, by giving them some room, you’re right. I now know things about both of them that I wouldn’t have known before. I love it when I learn something! Thanks Theresa!

Edittorrent said...

Murphy, this is character-driven storytelling in its pure form. If you had picked the end point, you would have been introducing a plot-driven element.

I'm glad you're finding this useful. Keep this exercise in mind when you need to understand your characters better and when you get stuck over what should happen next. :)


Riley Murphy said...

This exercise was very clever. Something about it has resonated with me. I'm still thinking, but I would encourage all those who didn't do this to take the time and do it.
The most important thing you added in comments? Character-driven storytelling as opposed to a plot-driven element. I went, OF COURSE!
Do you know what I noticed? (Now you're thinking, sheesh, why did she even ask? She's going to tell us anyway (*I shrug* because you're right!) Well, there were a couple of things I noticed. Details I would have missed before, because without paying attention sometimes a writer can assume a certain character's reaction - and go for the big stuff - that’s easy, but in this exercise, character to character, it was the little things, the telling things, that they did between them, that really got me and made them far more real in my eyes. What a great learning curve.
Thanks again!:D

Jami Gold said...

Teresa & Murphy,

It's interesting that Murphy mentions how she let the scene unfold without a purpose in mind and so the characters did things she didn't expect. I guess that's the way I always write - but then again, we've already established that my characters talk to me all the time, seriously, they never shut up. (Reason #1 I started writing this story...) Anyway, I go into a scene knowing why it exists, but I leave all the details up to the characters. I'm often surprised when I reread what I wrote the night before (I wrote that???). :)

Jami G.

Jami Gold said...

BTW, I do agree with Murphy, the lunch does not go well for either of them. :) Johnny's comfortable in the fancy restaurant environment, Drago is intimidated. Johnny gets cocky and arrogant when he sees Drago's discomfort. Drago gets overeager and almost pushy in his efforts to get the Dr. to see his positive qualities. Johnny orders something impressive-sounding to show his refined tastes, Drago orders the chicken (how weird can chicken be, right?). When the Dr. orders a simple salad, Johnny feels like he overstepped, Drago feels relieved, etc., etc. These two boys just can't keep from playing off of each others' weaknesses and they both come off looking bad. :)

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...

Hmm..JG, I had it that Drago was so busy trying to explain to the Dr. why he'd be excited to do the internship and stuff, that when the waiter came to the table he was unprepared to order as he hadn't looked at the menu - the waiter asks the Dr. for her order. She orders a Caesar salad - no anchovies, no bacon, no croutons and dressing on the side. The waiter turns to Johnny. Johnny knows Drago is unprepared, so he graciously offers to allow him to order before him. Drago doesn't want to fumble looking at the menu, so he says that he'll have the same as the Dr. When the waiter turns on Johnny, instead of ordering right away, Johnny asks the waiter how he is? The waiter is noticeably put at ease and is pleased that he's been acknowledged. Then Johnny orders his lunch. It's very precise, although it's a switched up version of something they have on their menu and will need to be changed - it's not so outrageous a demand that anyone would balk at it. The point my Johnny was making? Was finesse. Who had it, and who didn't...We're so close there JG.:D

Natalie said...

This really is fun. I don't necessarily see the meeting as being a disaster the whole way through. Yes, Drago's lack of comfort in a fancy setting is clear and Johnny gets even more suave in the face of it. But Drago also has something in common with the Dr.: his story. She works with Doctors without Borders, so she's presumably gone to places like his country of origin. They may be able to talk about very specific things that Johnny has no clue about, and when someone else is talking genocide, you can't switch the topic to the country club without looking like an ass, so he sits with the same fake-sympathetic smile on his face that he'll use on his patients when he is a doctor.

But Drago will get too passionate about the conversation, about what he would do in his future, about how he would treat his patients. Johnny moves beyond irritated to angry -- how can this guy think he'll be a good doctor, doctors need to be dispassionate, not all into the lives of their patients. Johnny gets cooler when he gets angry, so he's able to introduce this topic at the uncomfortable moment with only the barest extra vibration in his voice. "It's interesting how different experiences lead to different philosophies of patient care..." He will charmingly turn the conversation in a more theoretical direction, highlighting his strengths. I think it's after this point, after each man has presented himself most fully that the lunch turns disastrous for each man: they turn each other into a caricature and "beat each other up" (not actually, just conversationally) such that neither looks good by the end, although both were awesome in their own way at the beginning.

em said...

Murph, I've been sick so I'm playing catch up here. I'll have time to try this, this afternoon. It does sound like fun.

Jami Gold said...


Interesting that we both had the Dr. ordering a salad! :) Yes, I could easily see things going the way you mentioned.


Yes, I also saw Drago's story resonating with the Dr., but as you mentioned, I thought he'd get too eager/pushy/passionate about his opinions. (Almost going into a socio-political conversation, but not quite.) So I can see how Johnny would attempt to take "the high road" as you suggested in that situation. Good job, this is fun!

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Natalie, I think that's an excellent and compelling scenario. And it would make an intense scene, wouldn't it? There's so much simmering under the surface, and yet it's a civilized meal in an elegant setting. Not all conflicts are fistfights.

I wonder if Johnny might also feel a little niggle of self-doubt somewhere along the way. He's got to understand on some level how shallow his concerns are when compared to Drago's experiences, but I think he would quickly reach the, "Gosh, I'm lucky, yay me," attitude and sweep any self-doubt aside.

Jami, I like the way you characterize Johnny's response as taking the high road. He would see it that way. I think you've found an honest way to express his character, even though he's not entirely sympathetic. But finding a way to do that -- not to *get* inside a character's head, but to *be* inside it while you're thinking through his responses -- goes a long way toward making compelling characters. It's not always about whether we like, respect, or agree with a character. But it is always about making them accessible to the readers, and it sounds like you're getting there.

Here's a question. Drago might not know a fish fork from a salt cellar. Does he try to cover up his ignorance, or does he flaunt it?


Edittorrent said...

OK, just have to share this.

Word verification for my last comment:

Go figure.


green_knight said...

I'm afraid I don't like Johnny. I don't like his entitlement, I don't like the sneer he gives when he walks in and compares Drago's matching jacket-and-trousers with his own expensive suit; I don't like how he's researched Dr. Cannon's background so he can make a little quip about her hobbies, or the way he manages to bring up his unblemished school record and the extracurricular activities he's managed to fit in.

Drago is nervous and feels the pressure, and that makes him less talkative and more confrontational. He's got nothing to match Johnny's tales of the Vineyard with; talking about a hut with outdoor toilets just won't do, particularly not in this softly-lit, softly-spoken environment that is too fragile, too unreal.

Johnny orders lobster after confirming its origins. Drago asks the waiter for a recommendation and winces at the cost; no, he's *angry* that so much money should be spent on food when it would do more good elsewhere. Johnny orders a bottle of a mid-range vintage, Drago nurses a single Budvar.

As the evening unfolds, Johnny becomes bolder. He and Dr. Cannnon seem to have so much in common - acquaintances, lifestyle, background. He flirts with Dr. Cannon - not too much, but enough to flatter her. Drago listens, stone-faced, until it bursts out of him: "Why are we here?" he asks angrily, and slams the bottle back onto the table. "Why are we talking about golf handicaps?" He starts to lay out what _he_ wants from an internship: not just the rich, private patients, but an assignment abroad, at the front lines of medicine, so to speak. He becomes more passionate, more animated.


Edittorrent said...

Green knight, that's very powerful. I like how you've created an explicit emotional context for each character, and have shown how these contexts influence each other. I like this image of Drago as a volcano, simmering with pressure until at last he blows. There's a lot of drama here.

It can be hard to *like* all of our characters, but fortunately, it isn't necessary. It's better if we avoid reducing them to caricatures, but that's a different issue. :)


green_knight said...

that's very powerful

Thank, Theresa. I think the danger for me would be to turn Johnny into a cardboard caricature (and I've just had an exchange with a 60-odd year old member of that species, so no, they don't necessarily grow up and change.)

If I were writing it, I would be spending more time in Johnny's head to find out what kind of guy he is at the core, to learn his good sides. And the story I'd go for is the one where Dr. Cannon weighs them up and finds both wanting - because while Johnny might lack compassion and ability to adapt, Drago has too much of a temper, is too angry. What she'll do in my story is to offer to split the post - it'll still pay their bills, but barely. Not a problem for Johnny, and Drago knows he can rough it.

At that point, they'll have to learn to work together, and that's when I would try to develop the relationship between them.

And, y'know, I can see it working as a book.

Wes said...

Excellent story line. That's a winner.

Wes said...

I'm playing catch-up on this thread. Green Knight, you've got a winner there too with a very different approach.

This excercise has produced some complex characters and interesting scenes. Great blog!

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Natalie!
I agree. In my version it didn't become uncomfortable for all of them until the end. And, you have to keep in mind, that I focused in more on telling Johnny's side of things, as I dated the darling boy in the last post we did on him.:) Yes, (insert sigh here) even though he dumped me like a hot potato, I'm kind of loyal that way...

Natalie said...

Wow, Green Knight, your story had my stomach in knots. I admit your preference for Drago over Johnny.

How far are we going to keep going with Johnny et al? This is really great.

John said...

My Draco has become almost robotic because of his past history. He has had to work tooth and nail, scraping every dollar together to start his new life and get to where he has.

Thus Draco thinks he is superior to others and has no sympthay for anyone who hasn’t gone through what he has, i.e everyone around him. They think they have hard lives but they have nothing on him.

So Draco is a bit aloof, sees himself as stronger than others, like Johnny, that he has earnt this scholarship that it should be his.

He views the world throuh cold staring eyes, with disdain at everyone.

But with all this, he is still down to earth, living with his mum, looking after her, making her meals everynight (he has never had takeout, such a wasteful thing, takeout)

Come the fancy restaurant and like everyone else says, Draco is a bit flummoxed. He hides his insecurity as he knows he can't fail.

Johnny however shows him up with apparent knowledge on things upperclass which make Draco begin to think that perhaps Johnny has done his homework and is a serious opponent.

Draco must rely on his passion and nobility of purpose. He thinks himself stronger than Johnny, but his past has made his aware of the fact that being different makes him the scapegoat or the 'nearly ran' so becomes paranoid of this fact and tries harder and harder but just makes things worse for himself.

Meanwhile, Johnny, the cool, fast thinking Johnny, just plays his natural game and watches Draco self destruct. He doesn't even seize on the opportunity, just gives Draco a sad nod in compassion.

This was calculated and fires up Draco even more.

The doctor knows that being a doctor is about handling stressful situations and dealing with people. Draco may have the right ideas but he is doing it wrong, so he fails and Johnny wins.


Not sure if I went deep enough here, but I did do the in and out analysis to see how Draco's past effects him now. I didn't really figure out how to show your first two questions.

Jami Gold said...


I like how you've identified that Drago has his own brand of arrogance. Very cool!

Jami G.

Unknown said...

Murph, and JG, you started all this with the condescending/ comfortable/uncomfortable aspect of the characters. I like the gauche vs finesse line. In my scene, Drago ,ordered fish and had to have the Doctor point out the right fork to eat it with. Johnny was inwardly ecstatic. Brilliant. Thanks for the nudge Murph, this was fun.:)

em said...

I did it!
I see that Drago feels socially inadequate. He tries to make up for it and he loses because John, and he goes by John in this meeting, uses this against him. Drago wants to get his passion across so badly that he forgets everything else. I like Dragp not having time to look at the menu when they all have plenty of time to do this. Then John just lets him continue on in his downward dip. If you were the Doctor who would you want to hire?

em said...

Hey green_knight, Welcome back! Hope you got your posting problems squared away? Great comment.

Riley Murphy said...

I like the idea that Drago has an edge.

@Em, What? Are you having a crisis, I should know about?


em said...

LOL! Murphy! First I'm sick and then my computer goes on the fritz and I'm using my brother's laptop dinosaur. I can't cut and paste from WORD as good with no mouse.:) one half of that should have been on the previous post and the other comment pasted under your lightning bolt comment. Sorry.:) Crisis, Yeah, this stupid technology is getting me down.:(

green_knight said...

no, still getting far too many crashes from blogger, but can't stay away - but if I comment early, I can get comments e-mailed and don't have to refresh as much. Can't stay away for long.

I don't think that Drago loses. If Johnny is pitched against someone who competes on the same turf - only with less money and less self-assurance, he will win. Drago can only win if he shifts the battleground. In my scene, he
is saying 'I don't care how big the muckheap you're crowing on is, *this* is what is important.' That makes Johnny look like a spoilt brat, and gives Drago the edge.

Sarah said...

Wow! I liked this. I was pulled in because a close friend of mine is from Bosnia- she moved here after the war. I visited the mountains in central Bosnia with her this summer- amazing and sobering experience.

Anyway, I'd like to throw some thoughts in about Drago.

He might have a sense of physical invulnerability. He survived when no one else did. This is not a guy who's going to be scared of walking alone at night. (And he might take it too far.) However, he might also be overly protective of those really close to him. He knows that the worst can happen. It can happen again and again.

I think while most of him is ticked off by Johnny, part of him will envy Johnny- not Johnny's social status per se, but the fact that Johnny is normal. Johnny never went hungry. Johnny never worried that he might die. Johnny never saw others die. Johnny doesn't still dream about it. And that twinge of envy could make Drago resent Johnny more.

In fact, I think normalcy might be a big motivation for Drago- a huge desire in his personal life. He doesn't want to be the refugee- especially to people who have no idea of what it's like to survive genocide. He wants to be the guy with the normal life. And a return to normalcy is part of justice, if you think about it. Any sort of violence removes normalcy from a person's life.

I hate to hit and run so deep in the exercise, but I just had to chime in.

Jami Gold said...


Oh, a need for the sense of normalcy on the part of Drago... I like it. :)

Jami G.