Conflicted Characters Make for Great – Conflict.

Conflcted 09_20_14I tend to gravitate toward conflicted characters, and a character who is exploring chaos theory and population control and the difficulties of love and family is pretty rich.
Ed Stoppard

If there ever was a town that could be cast as the classic conflicted character in a movie or novel my adopted home town of Jackson, Mississippi fits the bill. Like Scout in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, my memories of summers visiting with my grandparents there are filled with wonder, adventure, and discovery.

I had hints this character – this town – is not all she appeared to be. After all Medgar Ever and Martin Luther King, Jr. marched within a few blocks of my grandfather’s barber shop where I spent many hours. Just down the street from there sat the state capital. Beautiful and pregnant with history, collectors of the state’s unofficial black market tax also held their secret meetings there. Without a doubt, some of those same men talked about church and their favorite charity as my grandfather cut their hair. He was a quiet man. He didn’t ask questions.

Years passed, my wife and I moved away and then back, and this character – this town – began to show the reality of its conflicted nature. The good citizens of Jackson elected their first African American mayor since Reconstruction, and then another, and then another. As whites fled for the suburbs, Jackson once again appeared to be unified by color – unconflicted.

Some of the best characters are those, not with two sides but with many – Like my home town. Frank Melton – an African American – gave up ownership of the local NBC affiliate and ran for mayor on the promise to clear the city of crack houses and crime. He kept his word. He also created a seismic shift in who supported and who opposed the outspoken mayor. Conservative whites elected and re-elected this black mayor who carried a gun and dared an uncooperative city council to stand in his way. Before all was over Frank Melton found himself convicted of a felony for carrying an unregistered weapon, unsuccessfully ran for a third term and died just days after he lost in that election.

Recently, Jackson saw another African American mayor die before he finished what he started. Chokwe Lumumba may have led this character – this city – to be more conflicted than ever. While Frank Melton was a local business man who wanted to clean up his city, Lumumba was a nationally recognized organizer for the Black Nationalist movement. He served for years as vice-president of the Republic of New Afrika and advocated for “an independent predominantly black government” in the southeastern United States and reparations for slavery.

So who could have anticipated this character – this town – would move from classic unified white southern America to somewhat chaotic competition between varying factions of African-American leadership? Chaos theory is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. Was this conflicted character of a town as unpredictable as it appeared? I’ll leave that to political science experts. I would guess, they might say no.

In my debut novel, my antagonist is the classic conflicted character. In the first chapter she murders the one person she has ever loved and trusted because of her obsession with finishing her task. Over a hundred pages later she adamantly proclaims that she is no killer. How can this be? Because she is conflicted.

The main character has to be involved in these conflicts. It can’t just happen to her, she must make decisions and choices that affect the story. A character who waits, observes, runs away or takes the easiest way out is much, much harder to make interesting.- V. Moody

Some of us still love to watch the Andy Griffith Show because it takes us back to a time when everything existed as it seemed. Maybe my memories are correct and Mayberry was as perfect as it appeared. Like my home town, however, I imagine it to be a bit more conflicted than that. Mayberry, more than likely, was in reality a place where Andy was a good and noble sheriff but had to fire Barney for ineptness, Otis was a loveable guy but beat his wife when he got drunk, and Goober never fell asleep in church because he stayed up too late on Saturday nights lagging nickles with the boys to make it to hear the sermon.

So how about you – do conflicted characters in a story turn you off or make it all the more interesting? What character like this is most memorable to you?

t.e. (Tim) George has seen and lived many stories in his life. As a freelance commercial writer, he helps clients tell the story of what they do. As a ghost writer, he helps people tell the story that matter most to them. But it is as a novelist that he writes stories for who matter most – you, the reader. Tim’s latest novella, Only Time, is available now at Amazon.com.
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  • Deborah Broadbent Engle

    If I am given a peek at a character’s inner conflicts, I assume it will be a factor in the story. If it isn’t, I feel frustrated. I’ve spent mental energy wondering how it will influence the story, all to no avail. That is not to say that the characters can’t have a little personality.

    • Good thoughts Deborah. If I tell you about a character’s inner conflict then that is just what you say. However, if I show you that character’s contradictions through his or her actions and words that is a different story.