Last night I had one of those stressful dreams, the kind where you need to be in two places at once as the universe throws up every possible obstacle to your goal. In this case I needed a haircut to avoid looking like Shaggy Peter, but it was my barber’s birthday and I wasn’t going to get any service without bringing a bottle of wine. But the downtown liquor store was closed, and it was raining, increasing my bedraggled state. I overcame the obstacle by ducking into a restaurant and ordering a bottle of wine, remembering that Denver allows you to take your bottle to go, but the victory came with a call from my boss. I was supposed to be somewhere else, a crucial meeting for my day job, while simultaneously realizing that I needed to get to my writing class, which started in a few minutes. I woke with a flood of relief that it had only been a dream. Yet the conflict and frustration I’d felt were very real. The possibility for the dilemma was realistic, as was the setback after a little victory. The tension inherent in the need to be in two places at once is common enough in a modern life.
I’ve been trying for a while to find a microsm of conflict, something that embodies the tension that fuels a story’s forward motion. The dream did a great job of that. It also pointed me to an obvious truth: conflict isn’t just a factor in engaging fiction. It’s a constant in our lives. A character with an ideal existence, without a compelling conflict, isn’t someone we can relate to. One reason serial characters work is that reality is always messy, always full of strife, so the protagonist in a series is never going to run out of issues needing resolution. A good series will keep a few conflicts bubbling, issues that must be dealt with sometime but aren’t going to be addressed right now because a more immediate problem is draining the main character’s attention. Isn’t that like life? We have so much to handle and only so much time or so many resources to do it. Good conflict is Sisyphean. You get the stone up the hill a little farther each day, but it rolls back down. A strong series lets its protagonist win, make some gains in where the stone ends up, but there’s always going to be more pushing. Simultaneously, your hero needs a victory now and then. Without it, your readers will despair. The story has to satisfy and yet ring true.
This brings us to the ending and the topic of wish fulfillment, which is a problem I think largely inherent in my genre. You commonly encounter “super characters” in fantasy, and the problem in being superhuman, in having a vast well of power which comes without a cost, is that such a character is above us, and again, isn’t relatable.
The ultimate victory, getting the rock to the summit or a milestone, needs a price. We seldom achieve anything important in life that’s not costly: the time we put into a degree, the loss of our idealism as we grow up, the stress of planning a wedding, or the pain of giving birth. Good stories have a bittersweet ending. If everybody lives, if everyone makes it out of the trap, the conflict is revealed as artificial and the ending rings false. There is a good reason why only fairy tales regularly end with happily ever after. It’s no coincidence that many of Shakespeare’s tragedies begin with a wedding while many of his comedies end with one. Life gets in the way of happily ever after. The wedding may end the conflict between two rival families, but now the couple must negotiate the difficulties in producing an heir, changing diapers, managing their money, and dealing with treachery in the household. Happily ever after is a pleasant dream, but you’ve got to wake to reality sometime, and that means conflict.