Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wolf at the Door – Essay on Dramatic Conflict

Dramatic Conflict, Character Development, and the Wolf
by Ed Brodow

Conflict is the essence of dramatic story telling. Conflict may manifest as external or internal. External conflict usually involves the protagonist and the antagonist. In fiction, it is helpful to include a strong bad guy who offers opposition to the main character’s drive. This type of conflict can be exciting. But internal conflict, I believe, is much more compelling. Internal conflict is the struggle that occurs in the mind of the main character. The inner demons that vie for supremacy in our hero’s psyche. The hero against himself. The psychology of drama: What makes the hero tick?

As I look back at the story of my own life, it is clear that a major theme has been the tug-of-war between struggling to adapt myself to the system and the need to achieve independence from it. Wanting to fit in and yet wanting to follow my own drummer. Where does the answer lie? For me, the benefits have accumulated on the side of independence. I do better following my own instincts than I do when I make the effort to conform.

I have produced five fictional narratives in the form of one full-length novel and four novellas. The inner conflicts of my fictional characters have reflected the inner struggle in my personal story. It is no coincidence that all of my main characters deal with the tension between being an outsider, on the one hand, and conforming with the system, on the other. But my characters exhibit some clear differences.

In my novel, Fixer, Harry Leonnoff begins as an outsider and gradually moves toward the system. Starting out in life, he realizes that he can accomplish more on the fringes of the New York City political scene than he can by pursuing a law degree. Ironically, the more he succeeds as an outsider, the more he is drawn into the political game he plays so well. The same can be said of Dr. Robert Elgar in Women From Venus. Elgar is doing quite well as a psychotherapist in private practice but his strong desire for public approval leads him more and more into the mainstream. The trajectories of both Leonnoff and Elgar move from outsider toward some degree of conformity.

In The Man Who Could Not Make Up His Mind, Clifford Day Vanderwall starts out as the poster boy for the status quo. In many ways, he is almost a stereotype for conformity, a Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. What gives him flesh and blood is his colossal imperfection, the inability to make decisions. And yet, to everyone’s surprise, Clifford ultimately discovers that he actually functions more effectively on the outside. In The Stamp, Tommy Courten begins as a functionary of the military industrial complex but also eventually moves to the outside. The structure of the system — the organizations of which it is comprised — stifles Tommy’s creativity and his soul. Only by breaking away can he find self-actualization.

In The Man Who Could Not Make Up His Mind and in The Stamp, the protagonists find success as they move away from the system. But in Fixer and in Women From Venus, when the heroes move from self-reliance to conformity, life kicks them in the pants as if to say, "You should have maintained your independence, dummy!" What all four of these stories have in common is the hero’s discovery that, in the final analysis, being independent bestows more benefits than conformity.

I'll Take Manhattan is different. Melvin Van Zipper begins as a total outsider, the complete loser. When presented with a challenge that appeals to his sense of values, he finds that his path to success lies, if not in total acquiescence, at least in finding a common ground with the system. He is the only one of my characters, so far, who ultimately flourishes within the system, but even he does it in a thoroughly individualistic manner. He compromises by learning how to “play the game” without sacrificing his heart and soul. It reminds me of the scene from the film, Sergeant York, where Gary Cooper says, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” In my fiction, Caesar is a metaphor for the system and God is a metaphor for being true to oneself and going one’s own way. So that even when some form of compromise has to be made, the main character is essentially a lone wolf.

And now I am reminded of the movie, Wolf at the Door, in which Donald Sutherland plays the painter Gauguin and tells the story of the starving wolf who meets a fat and happy dog.
            “Why don’t you come with me,” says the dog. “My human will give you food and shelter and you will never have to starve again.”
            “Sounds like a terrific idea,” says the wolf. “But what is that thing around your neck?”
            “Oh, that’s nothing,” says the dog. “It’s just a collar.”

The wolf starves to death rather than wear the collar. Go wolfie baby!

Copyright © 2012 Ed Brodow. All rights reserved.

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