To make good conflict, play with motivation
Turn the problem-solving methods of professional mediators inside out to give your work subtlety and complexity.
Published: April 4, 2011
|Writers are always looking for trouble. But the trouble with trouble, from the storyteller’s point of view, is figuring out how to settle the conflicts we generate. How do we get out of the mess we imagine? If we tame down the trouble too far, we’re boring. But if the trouble gets out of hand, we can get ourselves in a hopeless muddle. In our writing, as in our lives, solving problems is no easy matter.|
But writers are not the only people who go looking for trouble. Professional mediators and psychologists also spend their lives trying to extricate people from complicated predicaments. It’s only somewhat perverse, I’ve decided, for storytellers to filch the insights of these experts. What they say about how to solve problems we can turn inside out to create problems—problems that we then know how to manage. Problem-solving is difficult, these folks say, because human motivation is fiercely complex.
The way to make real trouble, then, is to map the motives of our characters very carefully. And the way to resolve the conflict we’ve created is to use that human complexity in rich and subtle ways. As the experts explain, let’s begin with motive. Imagine it with six layers.
THE LAYERS OF MOTIVATION
1. Ask: Who wants what? The first and most visible layer of motive is the position a character takes when an issue arises. For instance, imagine Marge takes the position that she wants to go out to dinner. And let’s say husband Bill doesn’t. This is where many conflicts start. There’s a problem—it’s dinner time and they’re hungry—but the couple has sharply different ideas about how to solve it.
Conflicts can also start when one character does something that contradicts another’s position. George forgets a wedding anniversary. Mildred hires a new sales clerk without giving her co-owner a chance to weigh in. A cop brings a suspect in for questioning without letting his captain know ahead of time. Such mistakes can be innocent or conniving, deliberate or unconscious. The person who feels wronged can respond with anything from outrage to silent annoyance. A storyteller can begin to develop rich complexity of character and plot by mapping out ahead of time the positions the characters will take on problems that shape the plot.
2. Ask: What’s at stake? When a character takes a position on an issue, there’s always a reason why. Why does Marge want to go out to dinner? What need is she trying to meet? What exactly is she trying to achieve or to avoid? Whatever the reason, negotiators call that her “interest” in the position she has taken.
Maybe she’s taking that position because she’s too tired to cook, or bored to death with her own cooking. But maybe she has something important to discuss with Bill during a long, quiet dinner in a nice restaurant. When she takes the position “Let’s go out to dinner,” her husband doesn’t know why. Maybe she doesn’t exactly know why either.
But Bill disagrees. Why? That’s his interest in his position, which is eating dinner at home.
Compromise is much easier to find when people negotiate from key interests rather than rigid positions. For instance, the couple’s interests might both be satisfied if Bill fixed dinner, or if they called out for pizza rather than going to a restaurant. Characters can take conflicting positions even though their interests are not in conflict at all.
Such gracious compromise sounds so reasonable! But people—or characters—aren’t always reasonable. And, of course, many conflicts are more complicated than getting dinner. Shifting an actual conflict from positions to interests can be difficult. There are plenty of reasons why people cling to their positions. Characters can be stubborn or proud, or afraid that compromise will make them look weak. Some deeply competitive characters will refuse to budge even on minor issues and despite real costs to themselves—their need to be in control trumps every other need. Secretive or deeply private characters may be reluctant to reveal their interests.
Characters can also fail to recognize what they have at stake in a conflict. Characters who are neither self-aware nor introspective may know what they want—but not why. They are not fully aware of what they have at stake. Characters who are not intuitively sensitive to others’ perceptions may take a position that unnecessarily riles someone else—who retaliates punitively. Characters who are deeply conventional in their thinking can lock down on what “should” happen without considering whether some other outcome would be better for all concerned. Characters constrained by their upbringing can cling to rigid ideas about the role they must play in a given situation: as a parent, as a boss, as a spouse, as an upstanding church member, and so forth.
Characters like these can be both blind and bullheaded. But if something happens that brings them to their senses, the conflict can be resolved.
3. Ask: Why does it matter? Behind our key interests is the third layer of motive—the overarching values that play out in a conflict. These can be moral norms such as honesty, responsibility, respect, fair play and duty. They can be interpersonal commitments—promises made, roles and obligations established over time, or trust earned through shared experience.Assume for a moment that Marge’s interest in going out to dinner is her desire for her husband’s undivided attention. Behind that desire is one of Marge’s core values: her keen sense of responsibility. She doesn’t know how to handle a situation at work, and so she wants Bill’s advice. Going out to eat will let her discuss this matter out of earshot of their teenage children. Behind Bill’s position (not going out to dinner) and behind his interest in that position (not spending the money), there is also some kind of key value at stake for Bill.
Knowing what values are at stake can provide an even richer and more satisfying basis for compromise and conflict resolution. Bill and Marge might compromise easily on the basis of some strongly shared value, even though initially they took different positions and they had different key interests at stake.
But of course, whatever makes richer, more satisfying compromise can also create deeper, darker conflict. For Bill, perhaps frugality means safety, and Marge’s position feels threatening. For Marge, perhaps dining out affirms intimacy, and Bill’s refusal feels threatening. If those are the core values at stake, and neither one is able to compromise, then this conflict goes far beyond dinner. It can encompass the entire marriage, especially if the characters are not entirely aware of what’s going on between them.
Any of us are more willing to accept “no” for an answer when there are honest, morally serious reasons for that reply. And in parallel ways, we are more willing to go along with others, despite our initial disagreement, if they have solid, persuasive reasons. But as negotiators explain repeatedly, most people are not innately conscious of their own reasoning at this deeper level. Something—or someone—has to lead them to that awareness. Storytellers call it plot.
At the moment when Marge says, “Let’s eat out,” who knows what’s really going on? Who knows what values are at stake here? The characters might not know. The reader might not know. But the author knows, or can. Knowing our characters’ core values can help us create sequences of scenes that gradually reveal the complexity of the problems they face—and the complexity of who they are, too. Ultimately, the solution to their problems must come from within them.
4. Wire the hot buttons of core identity. Compromise is particularly difficult when a conflict engages core issues of personal identity—the fourth layer of motive. If either Bill or Marge were to blow up over the question of eating out, chances are the conflict has hit a core issue of personal identity. We all have these hot buttons, and they can create chronic tensions in our major relationships. When chronic tensions are high, even a trivial event can spark an explosion.|
Some negotiators say the most commonly troublesome identity issues are these: Am I a good person? Am I competent? Am I worthy of love? Such questions matter to everyone. Does Marge feel unloved if Bill balks at going out? Does Bill feel incompetent that he does not earn enough to eat out on a whim? Do both feel guilty or ashamed about having this argument in the first place?
Other negotiators describe these troublesome identity issues as core emotional needs everyone has. Such needs figure in every conflict—and they’re the raw stuff of plots. Here’s a list of them:
• We need to be appreciated. We need other people to value both what we are doing and what we are thinking or feeling. We will be irked—or perhaps outraged—if others take us for granted.
• We all need to belong. We need to be included whenever something significant is going on or being decided. An important, unexpected exclusion rankles most of us. For some, it’s a huge affront.Although everyone has these needs, our characters will be more sensitive on some issues than others. Knowing their hot-button anxieties can help us create scenes of authentic, engaging tension without losing control of the conflict.
• We all need autonomy. We want to belong—but not to be ordered around. We want the freedom to make our own decisions on important matters, although what counts as “important” will vary from one person to the next.
• We are all concerned at some level about our role in a group. Often this boils down to anxiety about our status, but that isn’t the only thing. People can be deeply attached to the roles they play or the turf they manage, even when these things might seem small to others.
5. Design the personality. Personality theory is one good source for help in sketching identity issues realistically. Psychologists say a personality trait is an aspect of behavior and disposition that persists across a lifetime and despite changes in circumstance or social context. Classically, there are five such traits:
• extroversion (with its opposite, introversion)
• neuroticism (the frequency with which one is moody and negative)
• conscientiousness (sense of duty; sense of responsibility)
• agreeableness (the willingness or perhaps the ability to get along with others)
• openness to experience (willingness to learn, to try something new, or to consider a new angle on an issue; comfort with change)
Each of us is at some point on each of these traits: more or less moody, more or less open to change, and so forth.
Some conflicts between characters will be situation-specific; in other settings or at less stressful moments, our characters Marge and Bill might get along just fine. For instance, moderate introverts and moderate extroverts are often drawn to one another and enjoy stable relationships—except under high stress. If Marge is more extroverted, her default under stress will be to seek social interaction. If Bill is more introverted, his default under stress is to withdraw. If they don’t understand this about one another, there’s trouble ahead.
Some conflicts arise from the clash of two structurally incompatible personalities. Imagine a grumpy older introvert, deeply set in his ways, who is thrust into a crisis with an agreeable, highly conscientious young extrovert. The young extrovert keeps suggesting fundamental changes in the way “things have always been” in order to solve the current problem they face together. Will they drive each other crazy? Will the young extrovert win over the grumpy introvert by being so responsible and friendly? Or will the young extrovert have a coming-of-age recognition that maybe the old grump knows a thing or two?
It can be great fun to play around in this way with the five major personality traits of our characters. It can also help us devise realistic characters who are capable of changing in surprising ways. These changes can be both authentic and well-grounded if we’ve offered hints of the redeeming trait in earlier scenes.
6. Build the backstory. For the purposes of conflict management in a story, the key aspect of personal history is how characters’ hot-button issues were wired into place by haunting experiences earlier in life—especially during childhood and adolescence. Children are often trapped in constrained social roles with parents, classmates, stronger siblings, and so forth, and can repeat these constraints in other relationships later in life.
For example, a woman who grew up trying to appease her critical mother may defer to the demands of others. A man who grew up trying to engage his distant father may go through life seeking attention. Many people grow up with self-defeating patterns of behavior, taking positions often at odds with their own rational interests and values.
Any storyteller intuitively understands this. But we can make our intuitions more fully conscious if we stop to imagine our characters’ emotional or psychological history. What conflicted relationships or painful experiences account for their most sensitive hot buttons or self-defeating behaviors? Even if this bit of backstory never shows up in the story we tell, our knowing it can help us create three-dimensional characters.
It may also help us craft satisfying resolutions to conflicts: People can escape the pressure of personal history if they find the courage to overcome the fears driving their self-defeating choices. Helping people muster that courage is how cognitive-behavioral therapists earn a living. But before therapists there were good friends—loving, sharp-eyed people who pointed out truths that friends needed to recognize. All of us depend on friends like that, and our characters can, too. A truth-telling friend who sees the relevance of backstory can be doubly useful for narration.
Writers are often told to decide ahead of time their characters’ preferences in such things as foods, hobbies and pets. That can be one way of getting to know the figures in our minds. But such details are simply lists of random traits unless they are coherently rooted in the characters’ personalities, needs, fears, moral values and histories. One good way to devise complex, engaging characters is to map their six levels of motives for the parts they play in the story’s conflicts.
Once that has been mapped, we can select details that reveal some of the depths we have imagined. Bill is very proud of his Ford with 137,000 miles and not a speck of rust. His desk once belonged to his great-grandfather, who founded the company Bill now runs. Once a year, Bill spends a whole weekend polishing that desk with lemon oil and beeswax. Marge is a mouse of a woman, thin and frazzled, but she is a meticulous bookkeeper for the local college. She never initiates anything—especially not change. For her to propose a weeknight dinner out on the spur of the moment is utterly out of character. Bill is startled; he balks. Marge bursts into tears. Bill gives in with a wordless gesture. They spend hours driving around, talking, ending up not at a restaurant but in the driveway of Bill’s CPA.
Understanding our characters’ motives can help us create real trouble—and to resolve these problems in a satisfying way before the last page.
These books offer dozens of little case studies. It can be fun and helpful to use the vignettes to sketch a series of scenes, perhaps a story, with more fully realized characters.
• BEYOND REASON: Using Emotions as You Negotiate by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro. On the core emotional needs underlying most conflicts.
• THE DANCE OF ANGER: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner. Also see Lerner’s The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships; The Dance of Deception: A Guide to Authenticity and Truth-Telling in Women’s Relationships; and The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate. Each book profiles individuals trapped by behavior patterns established in childhood. Lerner explains how they worked their way free by facing the problem, then figuring out what to say and do and how to cope with the consequences.
• DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. On how the key questions about self-worth issues are both rooted in backstory and become visible in complicated conflicts.
• GETTING TO YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton. On discovering the interests behind a position taken amid conflict.
• THE POWER OF A POSITIVE NO: Save the Deal, Save the Relationship—and Still Say No by William Ury. A particularly rich explanation of how differences in core personal values can both generate conflicts and make resolution possible.
• THE STORIES WE LIVE BY: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self by Dan P. McAdams. Each developmental stage makes its own distinctive contribution to the story we tell of who we are. A fascinating appendix offers interview questions to consider in creating a backstory that is authentically related to a character’s key psychological issues as an adult.
Catherine M. Wallace leads writing workshops in Chicago. The author of four books, she is also a poet, reviewer and award-winning essayist. Web: catherinemwallace.com.