The Role of Conflict in Stories

January 23, 2015

I once attended a production of "Rashomon" while a student at Brigham Young University-Idaho that I very much enjoyed. I was unfamiliar with the classic but was impressed by the story and how well it was portrayed. It surprised me, however, to notice some people walking out of the play. Letters to the editor in the university paper soon told the story of why. Many people objected that the play was about rape and murder. 
I was surprised. I'm not a fan of either of those things, but it hadn't occurred to me to walk out. The play was not about rape and murder. It was about human nature, and explored why various characters took credit for a crime they certainly couldn't all have committed. 
Later, I read this article as part of a writing class. Orson Scott Card was able to simplify the subject to say what I'd been feeling and considering in a way I hadn't been able to process yet myself. I always appreciate it when a writer does that for me. Conflict in stories is important; we wouldn't be drawn to them otherwise. But there's a lot to consider when implementing it in a tale.


The following is an excerpt from the longer article by Orson Scott Card, best known as the author of Ender's Game



The Problem of Evil in Fiction

Orson Scott Card

The question of whether and how evil ought to be presented in art is one that intrigues a lot of people. Some people regard it as their life's work to drive pornography, the ultimate artistic expression of evil, completely out of their community. Others regard it as their life's work to use their talents to explore and understand evil in their art. I am a two-headed animal; born and raised in an orthodox Mormon family, I couldn't escape the Latter-day Saint view of good and evil if I tried. And I don't try--I am a radically orthodox Mormon today, and have no intention of changing my beliefs on the subject. But as a writer of fiction, I have found it impossible to write well without dealing directly with evil, portraying it in my work.


Over the years, some people whose judgment I respect have asked me a question that you might think is naive, but it is not. "Why do you have to write such depressing stuff? Why can't you show the good things in life? 

Why do all your characters have to suffer?"


Well, why indeed? After all, fiction isn't fact. Fiction is lies. Those people are made up. They'd better be--if they're not, you can get sued. So as long as I'm making things up, why not make up a happy life for them?


The most obvious answer is also the most trivial: He who writes about happy people being happy in a happy world ain't gonna last long as a writer. Nobody cares about that happy stuff. Evil is intrinsically more interesting. More entertaining. Evil sells. The people want entertainment, but not necessarily because they are evil.


Evil is more entertaining than unrelenting goodness because any depiction of life without evil is a lie. Now, fiction is made up, but it is not all lies. Or rather, out of the sum of his lies the author's view of truth inevitably emerges, and if the writer has wrought skillfully, some portion of his view of the world will remain with the reader, changing and shaping him. While readers of fiction know perfectly well that what they're reading is made up, they also insist on the illusion of truth and on truth itself. First, the illusion of truth, because while the reader surrenders himself to the writer's controlled tour of the life experiences of some interesting characters, the reader insists on some correspondence between the surface details of the story and the reality that the reader knows in his own life. It must ring true. And second, the substance of truth, because no matter how many deliberate lies a writer tells, his own most deeply held beliefs about good and evil will inevitably appear in his work. It is impossible to write a morally neutral work of fiction.


Both the illusion of truth and the unavoidable substance of truth require evil to be present in fiction. Almost from the first moments of consciousness, human beings are aware of the fact that the world isn't always nice.


As we grow older, we learn that people die, even when we love them very much. Friends that we counted on cheat us. Family members that we love hurt us. People we never harmed commit crimes against us.

But we aren't always victims. It's sometimes a terrible discovery that we ourselves are the perpetrators of evil, but it's one we all make at some time or another. The world is often ugly, and uglier still is the realization that in our own small way we have darkened it for others and for ourselves.


Nature, other people, and our own desires conspire to bring sorrow into our lives. No one is immune to that. No one is so good that he is untouched by evil.


And if that is life, how can a fiction writer honestly write without depicting evil in the lives of his characters?


The illusion of truth demands that there be evil, or his readers will cease believing in his characters and toss the book away.


And his own inner demand for the substance of truth requires that there be evil, because what in the world can a writer say about a character if he does not tell about the character's struggles against suffering? If the writer knew a way for a human being to live without evil, without suffering, without sorrow, he would go and live that way, and forget writing. But the writer--no, let's forget the third person–I know of no way to live untouched by evil, and so the characters that I write about will also confront evil. It is impossible to write any other way.


Am I saying that no books are evil? That freedom of the press and freedom of speech should protect everything?


No. I'm saying that there is evil and there is evil--if you'll forgive the semantic absurdity, there is good evil and bad evil. And middling evil.


As a writer given to splitting infinitives, I now stoop to splitting 

absolutes. There are three types of evil in relation to fiction:


• Evil depicted in fiction.

• Evil advocated by fiction.

• Evil enacted by fiction.


Freedom of speech obviously includes the right to speak about evil.

And, under our Constitution, I doubt that anyone would argue that we are not guaranteed the right to advocate evil, if we want. Any speaker may advocate any evil act. In any society, what seems evil to one person may seem right and just to another--and in a free society, the government is forbidden to silence one and promote the other. Instead, each individual is expected to listen to all and make up his own mind.


But there is a third class--speech which in itself enacts evil. The traditional example is the person who shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. He can call it a joke; he can claim that his freedom of speech allows him to lie; but in fact his lie, his joke, may cost people life or limb in the panic that ensues. Likewise, freedom of speech does not include the right to publish troop movement information in time of war, because it can cost life. There are times when some rights conflict, and a free society, to preserve itself, must place limits on its own freedom.

How does this apply to fiction?


All fiction depicts evil, but the mere depiction of evil is not wrong. And, because all fiction unavoidably expresses the moral convictions of the writer and because every writer will have different moral convictions, some fiction is bound to advocate things that at least some readers think is evil. But even that advocacy is protected.


It is only when the fiction actually enacts evil in itself that it becomes dangerous, and the government of a free society can begin to consider limiting it.


Pornography is the obvious case of fiction enacting evil. Pornography is designed to give direct or indirect sexual gratification. The appeal of pornography is not literary; though the writer may be skilled, the effect of pornography is not aesthetic, but orgasmic; it teaches the reader or the viewer to seek more such instant pleasure, eventually drawing the regular consumer into a fantasy world where women love to be treated cruelly and where the only good is self-gratification.   But pornography of this sort is easily identifiable. It doesn't take literary training to identify this kind of evil enacted by fiction--or rather, masquerading as fiction--to bar it from a community.


The problem arises when the untrained reader finds a passage describing a sexual event or a violent one in a work of fiction that is not aimed at the pornography-consuming market. Unaccustomed to reading at all, this would-be censor can only understand that he sees a pipe--he sees a sex act--and cannot see what purpose that depiction of evil might serve in the rest of the book. Reading The World According to Garp, he is incapable of recognizing that the lengthy kidnap/rape/murder passage is really satire by overkill; reading Daniel Martin, he is incapable of understanding that this character who seems to wallow in his mixed-up sex life, writing panegyrics on extramarital love, is really the author's tool in writing a beautiful defense of marriage and commitment. Unable to receive what the author is really trying to give, such ignorant readers are only able to receive such works as pornography.


Things become more complex and yet much simpler in the area of evil advocated by fiction. It is simpler because it falls clearly under the area of freedom of speech. A writer can show people committing evil acts and living perfectly full, happy lives if he wants to. A writer can show righteous people as miserable, self-serving bigots if he wants to. A writer can even lie. It's his privilege, as long as he doesn't slander anybody who can get a good lawyer and sue. Eventually, however, a writer must be true to himself. It is impossible for a writer to convincingly violate his own conscience in his fiction. If he really believes that if you abandon your family you will become a hollow, miserable, unlikable character, it will show up in his fiction whether he tries to make his character seem happy and fulfilled or not. Eventually, a writer is forced to be honest to himself; even if he lies, the reader sees the lie, consciously or unconsciously, and rejects the fiction as false. The illusion of truth is lost because the substance of truth is inescapable.


But where writers honestly disagree with each other, their most truthful work will contradict someone else's dearly held beliefs. And that contradiction does not work itself out. The reader hears the ring of truth in works by writers with widely variant viewpoints. It can be confusing. Sometimes it can be infuriating.


It is no accident that totalitarian countries invariably censor their writers, including--indeed, especially--their writers of fiction. The power of fiction to advocate particular viewpoints is astounding. Those who prefer to govern slaves know that when writers are flee, the government cannot control the hearts and minds of its people. And that is why in our free society we cannot even silence those who advocate slavery--because their right to advocate the overthrow of freedom is what freedom is all about. If we were to silence them, we join them; if to preserve freedom, we destroy, we have become the enemy.


All this puts the religious (in my case Latter-day Saint [LDS] or Mormon) writer in the anomalous position of being a lover of goodness and a student of evil. Because my fiction has to have the ring of truth, I must learn to write evil convincingly. I have never murdered, but I must understand the motives that can bring a man to kill. I have never committed adultery, but I must understand the motives that bring a man to break a commitment sealed not only by vows but also by years of shared experience. The terrifying thing is that I canI find all those human motivations to do evil simply by lookingI into myself. The only solace is that I can also look into myself to find all the desires that prompt people to do good. 


The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a textbook example of the problem of dealing with evil. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was, of all things, a decent man. But Tolkien's Sauron and his little surrogates, the impish and absolutely unindividuated Orcs, are not where Tolkien really deals with evil. Even Saruman, the wizard of white who succumbs to the temptation of pride and turns to the pursuit of selfish ends, even he is shallowly treated and arouses little pity and fear in the reader. Where does Tolkien deal with evil well, believably, importantly? Primarily in Frodo, the protagonist. The good guy we follow from his first possession of the ring to his terrifying finale at the Cracks of Doom. Frodo, whom we weep for when he sails west with the Elves and leaves Sam Gamgee behind. Isn't it Frodo who wrestles with the temptation to throw responsibility on someone else and try to escape? Isn't it Frodo who at the end is overwhelmed by the power of the ring? Isn't it Frodo who is faced with the temptation to kill Gollum, and yet resists? Frodo's companion, Samwise Gamgee, goes through similar struggles with his evil desires. And in Gollum we find good and evil mixed, in different proportions, but still all there. These are the only complete characters in The Lord of the Rings, and it is no accident that in Tolkien's strongly Christian viewpoint, it is these three weak and flawed individuals who, put together, bring about the supreme good act of the story. It is no accident that these characters, with their inward struggle between righteous and evil desires, are the ones best remembered and most loved by readers.


The writing of fiction is a solitary act. The art of fiction really exists as immediately as theatre or film or a symphony--though the printed page can last for years, the story only lives when someone is reading it. The creative act of fiction depends as much on the reader as on the writer. It is not the presence or the absence of evil in the events recounted in the story that decides whether a work of fiction is good or not. What decides the moral value of fiction is the character of the person writing it and his skill in writing, and the character of the person reading it and his skill in reading. An evil writer will write an evil book; an untalented writer will accomplish little with his book, whether he is a good person or not; an evil reader will detect nothing but evil in his reading; and an unpracticed and unskilled reader will never discover what is really in the book, no matter how good his personal moral fiber might be.


And even that is too simple. However good I try to be, undoubtedly there are flaws in my character that I have not yet discovered or rooted out. Those will show up in my writing. And in even the most corrupt writers, there are still remnants of righteous desires that will leave their clean traces in their work. We would be foolish to set ourselves as judges over what people can and cannot write, and what they can and cannot read. For we never know which book, which offends us, might not contain that shred of truth that leads another person that much closer to happiness. Only when the fiction ceases trying to be fiction at all, and instead has as its objective the gratification of the reader's basest desires; only when the fiction directly enacts evil instead of merely depicting it or even advocating it---only then does a free society have a right to protect itself at the expense of the freedom of the writer and reader to communicate as they wish.


And in the meantime, those of us who find much of our lives through the work of writers of fiction will continue to share the creative act of fiction. To some people we seem to be peculiar creatures, surrounded by books, spending hours of our lives in Tolkien's Middle-earth, in Hardy's Wessex, in Renault's Greece, in Tolstoy's Russia, in Singer's Poland, and in Waiter's Wales. They cannot understand our etemal love affair with Captain Ahab, Samwise Gamgee, Hari Seldon, Horatio Hornblower, Lew Archer, Yossarian, Demian, Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba Everdene, the emperors Claudius and Julian, Von Humboldt Fleisher, and Rush-That-Speaks. To the overwhelming majority of Americans, everything that I've talked about today, which I've treated with such importance, would seem quite trivial. Because, by their own choice, books are forever closed to them; they simply do not understand the major part that reading plays in a reader's life. And the non-comprehension goes both ways. I look at the people whose only brush with fiction is the emptiest of television shows and the most vacuous of movies, and perhaps a memory of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in their childhood, and I do not understand how they survive.





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