Monday, July 11, 2011

16346--Born of Tragedy, Tempered by Conflict: Why It Gets Our Attention

I've often heard it said that people love to cheer for an underdog in a conflict.  I also often heard that everybody loves a winner.

Conflict seems to be nourishing to our spirits.  When we can't find it externally, many of us will find a way to generate it internally.  It might be as simple as suddenly wanting to do something we've just been told we can't or wrestling with eating food that's bad for us.  If we're willing to fight with ourselves for the sake of having a fight, I'd say that demonstrates dedication to a principle.  Give us a few brief moments of cherished contentment in our lives and those of us stable enough not to run about sparking artificial drama will turn to fiction. 

When it comes to our fiction, contentment is boring.  There's no series of movies about the "Die Hard Family Christmas Vaction", "Lethal Weapon: Still More Paperwork" or James Bond's latest foreign affairs briefing.  The phrase "Death at the box office" comes to mind and it has nothing to do with the high body count of the latest action flick.  Conflict builds character and characters drive our stories...often at very high speed.  "The Lord of the Rings" isn't about Gollum admiring jewelry in the solitude of a cave.  The story didn't get moving till he lost it and experienced conflict with others and himself.

Tempering metal stresses it with heat to create a stronger metal than one left in its natural state.  Tragic characters draw our attention, those who have survived stresses that tested them and produced stronger characters.  Ahh, those underdogs...There's just something about them we can't resist.  In the comic books, they've been feeding our popular culture for decades.  There's a mighty mutant superhero spawned during the sci-fi surge of the fifties who was tough, strong, genius-smart and a psychic powerhouse.  He fought a war in the shadows, defending us from alien invaders.  His name was Captain Comet, a good and decent fellow with a happy childhood.  He had power handed to him, always fought for good and left Earth to continue his adventures in space.  Never heard of him, huh?  *sigh*

Yeah, he didn't catch on as well as the superhuman orphan from Krypton.  He had no real people of his own because his whole planet had blown up.  He championed the poor and helpless against crime and corruption.  An orphan and an immigrant, he could never go home, so he worked hard to do his best in a place where he'd never quite fit in with the natives.  They would call him Superman.  He caught on.

Start with a ten-year-old boy and stick him in a wealthy family with doting parents.  Hey, it's Richie Rich.  Now, orphan him by ruthlessly murdering his parents before his eyes and you're on the road to turning Bruce Wayne from a doughy playboy into a caped crusader engaged in a relentless war against criminals.  On top of that, the only significant romantic relationships he can seem to develop have come from the criminal community.  They're hardly stable, but Holy Romeo and Juliet! talk about a conflicted character.  Has he collected adoring fans?  You bet.  Nobody seems to hold being a rich guy against him.  He's tightly wound, calculating, bad with relationships and will let his relentless determination carry him to the extremes of his abilities to win.

Likewise, people don't seem to mind little boys being powerful, yet poor...and orphaned.  Billy Batson barely has name recognition, but look at how many people know the word Shazam!  We've got a soft squishy spot for orphans.  Orphans have issues.  They lack foundation and identity.  Whatever else they may have going for them, not having their parents puts them at a social and perhaps a psychological disadvantage.  Peter Parker was a smart kid, but an orphan and when power fell into his lap, he still made bad decisions.  He had to suffer some additional loss before we stood firmly behind him.  The budding Spider-man had to not only be an orphan in a poor family, he had to lose his surrogate father as a result of his own failure to act for his character to really take a firm shape.

It seems to be inherent in our psyches.  Most people are attached to the dream of obtaining something for nothing, but we always look for the "catch".  We know there's a price that must be paid for the "free" lunch.  You can have your wishes, but any decent genie will tell you that they come with consequences.  In alchemy, they called it the Law of Equivalent Exchange.  To Shakespeare, it was the straw he spun into gold to gild the human condition.  His work continues to resonate through us because he found elegant ways to share with us the truth that we are creatures of conflict and struggle.  We neither trust nor respect anything that comes too easily.  How often have we seen power and wealth that came without work and wisdom squandered by the recipient?  Like Adam and Eve, we won't stand for being handed paradise and perfection.  Something in the depths of our beings has to feel that it has been earned and deserved. 

Our natures shape our works and our lives.  As Spock once said, "Having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting."  For us, striving is clearly a bit more important than attaining.  The journey is more important than the destination.


  1. this is really good :)

    i laughed at this part:

    "There's no series of movies about the "Die Hard Family Christmas Vaction", "Lethal Weapon: Still More Paperwork" or James Bond's latest foreign affairs briefing."

  2. although...Die Hard Family Christmas Vacation could have lots of potential for comic mayhem...foreign affairs briefing...not so much. Paperwork could potentially be funny :P

  3. How many popular characters are orphaned, or lost their spouse and children to a recent car, train, plane accident? Or are the black sheep of the family?
    I think the reason is because this sets up instant conflict. Makes the character a tragic figure who even starts off with a story, in the story, and leaves the protagonist free to act, without the handicap of parents who will look out for him/her (say hell no, you're not running after that princess) or a partner who will keep him/her tied to the old, regular, content way things had been.
    As you point out, Phoenix, we need conflict, preferably the vicarious kind. If we don't have enough in our lives, we seek it out in our entertainment.
    Louise Sorensen
    louise3anne twitter