No one wants to read about a fictional nice day. Great fiction is about one thing, and one thing only . . . problems. And lots of them. Problems keep the pages turning, and the heart of a problem is conflict. Without conflict, there is no plot, which is why every scene needs it. But what, exactly, is conflict?
Conflict is what arises when two characters have opposing personalities and/or goals. Conflict happens when a character wants something, but then . . .
I can hear the objections now. But what about inner conflict? And what about a bad storm, or a huge rock rolling down a hill toward my protagonist?
Inner conflict pertains to character arc. It does not pertain to plot. Until it is acted out in the plot, the character can always take it back. Inner conflict does not rise to the level of plot-moving conflict until the inner conflict results in both a choice that is at odds with another character’s goals and an action that is based on that choice.
As for the storm and the rock, they are simply bad situations. Conflict is about agendas, and we must have a human component for there to be an agenda. A storm or a rock simply are. They have no intention. Conflict requires intention.
Genuine conflict springs organically from plot and themes, as well as from the personalities, backgrounds, and goals of the characters. It’s what happens when we put spiders in a bowl. As writers, it’s our job to place the arachnids in sight of each other and record what happens. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. does this brilliantly. It isn’t just a funny, clever spy thriller, it is an outstanding example of this type of primal, natural conflict.
Three levels of conflict in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.:
The movie takes place during the heart of the Cold War, 1963. The main characters are American CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Soviet KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).
In the beginning, Solo is tasked with secreting Gaby Teller out of East Berlin. Kuryakin is told to stop him from helping Teller at all cost. Two characters with opposing goals and agendas born of the initial plot.
Once Teller is out of East Berlin, Solo and Kuryakin are told that Teller’s father has developed nuclear technology that surpasses that of either the US or the Soviet Union, and that the Nazi-sympathizing Vinciguerra family is using him to make a nuclear weapon of their own. Solo and Kuryakin are suddenly teamed up with the common goal of thwarting Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra. The Vinciguerras are a third party with an agenda that is diametrically opposed to the common agenda of both Solo and Kuryakin. Conflict born of plot.
When it is clear that the Vinciguerras have not only the nuclear technology, but a nuclear weapon set to fire, Solo and Kuryakin are given the new common goal of diffusing the bomb. However, each is also given the individual task of retrieving the nuclear technology for his country, even if it means killing the other. The two characters are both at odds with the Vinciguerra agenda, but are once more in direct conflict with each other – all tracing to the plot.
Solo is a reluctant CIA operative, pressed into the clandestine services as an alternative to prison after he is busted for a high dollar art theft. Once in the CIA, he determines he will be the best agent ever, as his own sort of personal “screw you” to the powers that be. Debonair and unflappable, he is a metrosexual, silver-tongued womanizer at the top of his game.
Illya Kuryakin is a Soviet KGB agent whose father was sent to Siberia, and whose mother had a reputation for being overly friendly with his father’s friends. He carries the burden of the family shame by excelling at his work and his dedication to Mother Russia. Cold and reserved, he is renowned for his outstanding size, strength, and anger management issues.
It’s in Solo’s nature to want to solve problems smoothly and discretely, preferring wit and stealth to an open fight. It is Kuryakin’s personality to meet all enemies head on, even if it’s not the best approach for the mission. While the two have common agendas through most of the movie because of the plot, they have conflicting methods of addressing their goal because of their personalities. Natural conflict.
What is more valuable, the man or the mission? Where do an operative’s loyalties lie? With his country, or with the partner who just saved his life?
In the beginning, it’s all about Solo’s and Kuryakin’s loyalties to their countries. They are more than happy to kill each other, and they try with all they have to do so. But because the plot put them together in a common goal against a common enemy, they have arced to a different place emotionally. So which will prevail in the end, the man or the mission?
In spite of Hollywood notions, spook team members don’t simply turn on each other because a bureaucrat tells them to do so. In the end, Solo and Kuryakin come together for a creative resolution, like real spooks sometimes do, because as the theme song to another spook fiction goes, “. . . what matters ain’t the ‘who’s baddest,’ but the ones who stop you fallin’ from your ladder . . .”* Among the “good guys,” loyalty overcomes any conflict.
Conflict is born when a character wants something, but another character stands in his way. It happens on a spectrum from a microcosm between two conflicting personalities to the larger scales of plot and classic themes. It’s these problems that pull us in and keep us turning the pages until we reach the resolutions. Why? Because we all have problems in real life, and in real life, we sometimes get to solve those problems. In great fiction, we always get to solve the problems, and that satisfaction keeps us coming back for more.
*Quote from Strike Back theme song “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy.
Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE, to be re-released in September, 2015.
Keep in touch through updates at Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing.
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