Creating convincing inner conflict in characters

Literary inspiration comes from some weird places.

Case in point: What I learned about writing from mussar

On Shabbat, I mostly stick to reading materials with Jewish content. This is just one of the ways I make it distinct from the other days of the week. Over the last several months, I’ve been nickel and diming it through Strive for Truth, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell’s English translation of the Michtav Me’Eliyahu by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. This book is considered a classic of mussar, the refinement of character through the lens of Torah.

When I say “nickel and diming it,” I mean this: read a couple pages, realize I didn’t really get it, re-read. Take a nap, shmooze with my husband, or hang out with the kids; pick up the book again. Realize I don’t remember how we got to this part of the essay, then backtrack and again re-read the last couple paragraphs before hitting some new material and starting all over again.

Kinda like reading Durkheim. Really heavy stuff.

Anyway, this week, when I picked up Strive for Truth after Shabbat dinner, I was forced to re-read the first half of the essay I’d begun last week. The essay is about free will.

Rav Dessler posits the following:

According to Jewish thinking, human beings have free will (“bechira” in Hebrew, from the root of the word “to choose”), but G-d limits this to a single type of choice. Rav Dessler says that this choice is to accept truth or to accept falsehood.

This “unique and indivisible” truth is to recognize the Creator and accept His will. Falsehood is choosing your own preferences or the preferences of some other human, organization or ideal over those of G-d, or denying His existence and power altogether. All major choices (not preferences of taste) boil down to this single type.

An example in layman’s terms: If you really believe that G-d sees you and wants you to follow His will, you will return a lost object (which is identifiable due to design, quantity, whatever) to its owner, even if it is valuable or otherwise tempting to you. If you say, “Finder’s keepers,” you either don’t really believe He sees you or have decided you are the boss instead of Him, and thus your desire for this object overrules G-d’s desire that you respect other people’s property.

And here’s where it gets interesting…

According to Rav Dessler, everyone has their own “behira point.” If someone has lived as an Orthodox Jew their entire life and is surrounded by other members of the community, it’s not free choice for that person to eat only kosher food or forgo a car ride on Shabbat. That’s habit — a good habit, which will receive a reward, but not the result of free will. Their environment has eliminated their choice in the matter.

This isn’t restricted to religious Jews. If someone is not Jewish (or not religious), but grew up mentally healthy in a loving home, they will not be tempted to murder, torture animals, or commit a whole slew of other antisocial crimes. If given moral (not specifically Jewish) instruction and surrounded by upright people, they will refrain even from less grievous crimes — from habit. It’s simply below their behira point.

Likewise, imagine a thoroughly immoral person — a bandit (Jewish or not, it makes no difference). He grew up around hoodlums. Everyone one around him was out for themselves. Criminal acts were praised for their daring or success. Rav Dessler writes, “For him, whether or not to steal does not present any bechira at all; his bechira-point might be on the question of shooting his way out when discovered.” His entire environment and life experience has taught the bandit that all objects are his for the taking, so long as he can manage to get his hands on them without discovery…it won’t even occur to him that stealing is wrong. But taking a life, that might both tempt him and repel him at once.

A person only has free will over a choice where they genuinely have the ability to choose falsehood over truth.

Conflict: in real life and in literature

Have you hung in there? ‘Cause this is where the part about writing kicks in.

At a certain point, everything Rav Dessler was saying about inner conflict in real people seemed to connect in my head to how believable characters work in fiction.

As writers, we work conflict into our conflict stories. There are many opinions about the main types that appear in storytelling, but those usually cited are these:

  • Man against Man
  • Man against Self
  • Man against Society
  • Man against Nature (or the Supernatural)

As a writer, I have a tendency to focus my stories on “Man against Self.” In this variety of conflict, a character must make a choice between two or more paths, each of which appeals to one side of their nature. Even in stories where the central conflict of the text is external, inner conflict drives engaging characters. Learning to write convincing inner conflict will help all writers of fiction.

(I say convincing, because nothing annoys readers more than reading the end of a book and feeling, “That character would NEVER have acted that way.” The psychology must be consistent because readers expect characters to think like real people.)

Create a genuine choice.

Why do you need internal conflict? It adds suspense, and suspense keeps readers riveted.

  • Will she choose self-preservation or look to the needs of others? (The Hunger Games trilogy)
  • Will he ignore his desire for calm, comfort and habit in order to complete his mission? (The Hobbit)

But in order for the conflict to generate suspense, the character must be on the edge of a genuine choice.

Yup, the same genuine choice Rav Dessler was talking about. Both possible decisions must appeal to the character’s nature. Both must have some kind of allure for him/her. The only difference between choices in fiction and reality is that the author of a story can choose what the “truth” of their setting is, and what is its “falsehood.” In fantasy and sci-fi, you’d include this as part of your “world building.”

The environment of the character provides his/her bechira point, and makes it convincing. Ask yourself, “Would this choice be challenging for that particular character, with that background and personality?”

Example: Bilbo Baggins grew up in a safe, orderly home, attached to a stable, peaceful community. He never had to work very hard or take any risks, yet his physical needs were easily met.

If you took Bilbo Baggins as we understand him out of The Hobbit and substituted a Bilbo who resembled Indiana Jones, who doesn’t mind roughing it and is always ready for an adventure (unless it involves snakes), then Bilbo’s inner conflict makes no sense whatsoever. The choice is no choice.

Characters progress through the book through the decisions they make

Additionally, Rav Dessler points out that each decision we make sets the bechira point for the next choice. Each decision becomes the new default setting. (This has been backed up by research into brain plasticity, which indicates that the brain physically transforms through our actions.)

Whichever moral direction a fictional character goes in, it obtains an inertia in that direction. Yes, the character can change, but in order for the transformation to be persuasive, it will require an outside force — the influence of an impact character or a major event, for example.

For example, Katniss <spoiler alert> kills President Coin at the end of Mockingjay, but she would have never done so at the beginning of The Hunger Games. It would have been far beyond her bechira level to make such a choice (because when we met her, all she wanted to do was survive).  However, every choice along her journey has strengthened her ability to move beyond self-preservation. The choices Katniss made transformed her into a hero over time.

But there’s more:

Don’t forget your villains

Some genres support the flat, uniformly bad bad guy. But, if you want to write material of any complexity, he or she won’t be 100% bad.

Like Rav Dessler’s thief, the antagonist can have genuine moral decisions to make, too. The moral choice may be below the bechira point of a hero, but should be right on the battlefront between your villain’s “good” side and “bad” side. Again, to be convincing, the environment and background of the character must make this a genuine choice for him/her.

  • Sure, the character is a lothario, but will he seduce a married woman?
  • A child stands between the villain and the hero. Will he shoot the child in order to reach the hero?

What do you think makes a character convincing? Please share in the comments below.

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