Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Competing Goals

Often when we think about goals, we think about external goals that come in the form of antagonistic opposition. That is, Character A has a goal and takes (or attempts to take) action to advance the goal. Character B says, "Bitch, please," and takes (or attempts to take) action to prevent the completion of Character A's action. This is the classic character-versus-character form of external conflict. But what happens if there's no Character B, no "Bitch, please," no antagonistic opposition from outside forces?

There can still be conflict. You can put one guy in a room all by himself, and he can be overflowing with conflict without any help -- or hindrance -- from anyone else. This doesn't have to be angsty, actionless conflict, though it can be purely internal. Or it can still directly connect to the outside world and outside acts. It's all in how you manipulate it.

The basic technique is pretty simple. Give the character two positive goals, and then make it impossible for her to achieve both goals at once. Create a scarcity of time (if she spends Friday night on a date, she can't also spend Friday night building a new porch swing) or of resources (lost in the desert, and just enough gas in the tank to drive to the sheriff's office before nightfall or deeper into the wilderness where the villain's secret lair might be). Create geographical limitations (if she goes north for a job interview, she can't make it back south in time to stop the bank from foreclosing on her grandmother's house). The point is to put the character in a position to have to choose between two positive, worthy goals.

Then, with the choice clearly delineated, the character's actions will show her values. For example, let's consider the character who is lost in the desert with limited gas in the tank. We might be tempted to describe this limitation as a conflict, but actually, it's probably better to call it an obstacle. She has two goals: (1) go to the sheriff's office to report a crime, and (2) pursue the criminal, who is racing toward a hidey-hole. She can achieve one goal, but not both, because the limited gas is an obstacle to achieving both. This obstacle creates conflict because now she must decide between two competing goals. What does she value more?

-- Safety. Going to the sheriff's office guarantees she won't be stranded in the desert at night, and what is she doing chasing badasses with secret lairs in the first place?

-- Justice. Chasing the criminal will allow her to bring him to justice and see order restored.

So her choice is about more than which way to point the car. The choice is between her values. If she values safety over justice, she goes to the sheriff. If she values justice over safety, she finds the lair and kicks the door down. But this is only the starting point for the negotiation. The next question is whether she can satisfy both values with either choice.

-- Safety. Going to the sheriff is safer, and she might also get justice if the sheriff helps her track down the baddie. (Or not.)

-- Justice. Chasing the criminal makes it more likely that she'll catch him, and she doesn't have to kick the door down. She can find some other, safer way to capture him. (Maybe.)

This analysis is interesting to readers because it portrays an inner conflict and an attempt to solve a problem. The reader might agree or disagree with the rationale or with the ultimate decision, and either way, they'll continue to read to discover the outcome of this choice. But it's important to remember that when we set up these kinds of value-based choices, close calls are more interesting than clear winners. That is, if the heroine knows she has a gun and the baddie doesn't, the safety concern is diminished. If she suspects the sheriff is in cahoots with the baddy, she's less likely to get justice from that choice. But if the choices are roughly equal, then the decision becomes harder to make. And the importance of values becomes more exaggerated.

Notice, too, the lack of antagonistic opposition. Nobody is in the passenger seat arguing with her. She doesn't say, "Let's chase the baddie," and have to argue with the passenger, who wants to go to the sheriff. No outside force is trying to prevent her from reaching either goal. It's merely that she can't possibly accomplish both.

Think, for example, of a high school senior trying to choose a college. He wants to be an engineer, and he's accepted into the two top engineering schools in the country. His parents will approve either choice, so there's no opposition from people whose opposition might act as a veto. Both schools will give him full scholarships. (It's a fantasy. Stick with me.) In fact, let's say everything is equal except for climate. One is located in a warm and sunny beach town, and the other is located in a cold mountain climate. If he likes to surf, he chooses the beach. If he likes to ski, he chooses the mountains. But what if he likes both, and likes them enough that he would really hate to give up one sport? It's the roughly equal status that makes it a hard choice, and his ultimate choice will tell us which sport he truly prefers.

Of course, it's rarely that easy. If we start layering in other choices, in fact, the problem grows more interesting. The mountain school is large, with hundreds of students in a class, and he gets a little anxious in crowds sometimes. But he was on that beach campus for a visitation day, and half the students wore bathing suits and shorts to class, and that won't help his concentration much, either. (Social anxiety versus sexual temptation -- how else might these two factors affect his decision?)

In any case, this is how competing goals can cause conflicts even when both goals are good and there is no direct antagonism to either. And the resulting decision can say a lot about a character's values, so make sure they choose carefully. :)



Anonymous said...

"close calls are more interesting than clear winners" is very well put.

I like the scene where a goal that has been pursued for most of the book must yield to a new goal which is even better, while the reader is thinking "No! Don't go there!" because the reader has identified so strongly with the first goal.

Done skillfully, this torture of the reader ends with an even-stronger identification.

And then the reader can think back and see the hints pointing to the new goal all along, and 'get it.'

Edittorrent said...

It's like Scarlett O'Hara, except that in that case, the reader was pulling for a change of goals long before Scarlett made the switch.