Characters in conflict

Conflict. It’s around us every single day in one form or another. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way, but scratch away at the shiniest of lives and beneath the veneer there’s sure to be conflict. Can’t do without it. It’s the stuff of life. Of interesting lives lived.

Of course, people don’t necessarily like or invite conflict. Not your average every day person anyway. But it’s conflict that changes us. Moves us forward. Forces our hands at big decisions. It’s what we respond to in Story. And it can take on many guises, for example:

In Patrick Suskind’s wonderful novella, ‘The Pigeon’ – Jonathan Noel is living a quiet, orderly life in Paris. He’s found a level of contentment that he’s convinced himself he’s happy with. Then in the hallway of the apartment block he lives in, a Pigeon appears one day and throws our poor protagonist into an existential crisis and inner conflict, as he responds to an irrational fear of the trapped bird. He decides to pack and leave for work by means other than the front door and after a disastrous day at work, books into a hotel, thinking he will take his life that night. However, after a strange night of dreams he returns home to find the pigeon gone.

I love this book for it’s short but profound simplicity, which mainly focuses on the one level of conflict. But lets look at all three…

The extra-personal – conflict involving society at large, institutions or the physical environment for example.

The personal – conflict with co-workers, peers, friends, family or lovers.

The inner – obviously the closet level of conflict which see’s a mind in conflict with itself or it’s emotions.

Now, think of how sublime a story could be if you pitted your protagonist against all three of these levels of conflict. What would he/she do? How would they come out of that? Now, that kind of journey would rivet me to the spot, as indeed it has. I’m thinking of one of my all time favourite films, from the book by Hubert Selby, Jr – titled ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn‘.

Last Exit to Brooklyn dvd cover

Set in Brooklyn in the 1950’s against a backdrop of union corruption and violence, where we see Harry Black – only one of a host of characters – promoted from factory machinist to union official during a long strike (extra-personal conflict). He is a closet homosexual who is married with a child, and who regularly abuses his wife and gets into fights (personal conflict) to prove he is a man (fuelled by the inner conflict surrounding his sexuality).

Or another favourite ‘The Insider‘. A film based on an article written by Marie Brenner about the true events surrounding the life of Jeffrey Wigand – a tobacco industry whistle-blower in the early 1990’s, whose testimony leads to the industry paying out for tobacco related healthcare costs in 46 states.

Here we have a man pitted against a billion dollar corporation trying to ruin his reputation (extra-personal) to silence him. Who is faced with the breakdown of his marriage (personal) and in a state of turmoil over being forced into the spotlight by his conscience and anger (inner). Again, we see all 3 levels of conflict at work which make these stories and other stories like them stand out from the mundane.

And whilst I admit, these films don’t let you off the hook by giving you a nice, comfy cosy ending, they are about fellow human beings who are trying to navigate their lives through various degrees of suffering. Uncompromising at times, but true. So thank you to Uli Edel and Michael Mann¬†for directing these two hugely satisfying films so well, and for the writers who inspired them to do so.