Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Creating Conflict in Character and Desire

To create conflict, you need three things: a main character, a goal for her or him, and opposition.

In carving out the characters of your protagonist and antagonist, connect each one's deepest desire to his fundamental difference from the other.

Shakespeare gives us an elegant example of this in Hamlet and his foil, Laertes. Hamlet is a man of honor — bona fide honor. Laertes is a man of seeming — for looks only, a fraud. If each were a note of currency, which would you honor? The bona fide one? or the counterfeit?

Let's see how this fundamental difference between these two characters plays out in how they behave.


Hamlet's honor is intact, so he needn't steal the semblance of it from others by dishonoring them. To the contrary, he liberally bestows honor on others. To preserve his honor he is modest, thoughtful, scrupulous, polite, gracious, humble, and obedient in all that he should be. His honor is so fine that he avoids being the cause of others doing something dishonorable, even against his own best interest. For example, he avoids causing the spies Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to betray the confidence of Claudius and Gertrude. His honor is so important to him that he accepts the semblance of dishonor rather than dishonor himself. In short, he is a man of respect.

Shakespeare shows us that Hamlet's honor manifests itself in all these ways to express itself as the character trait of respect — respect for God, his mother, himself, the throne, his office, the law, the bounds of morality, friendship, and all people, even the lowly. Above all, in sharp contrast to the rest of the court, Hamlet respects Truth. He does this by refusing to go along with the rest in acting out a fiction — namely that nobody knows everybody knows (a) that Claudius seduced the Queen and assassinated the king to get the throne and (b) that the royal marriage has disgraced the House of Denmark by violating a law — the one against incest (which the other characters act like they either don't know about or forgot about). In other words, Hamlet won't take part in this mass mockery of everybody offstage — the people of Denmark, the papacy, and the outside world.

In this way Shakespeare shows that respect is the outward sign of integrity. And he makes Hamlet's respect stand out in high relief against those occasions when he denies it to those enacting a mockery. Which is the antithesis of respect. Indeed, the perfection of respect for Truth expresses itself in Hamlet's courageous mocking contempt of those engaged in mockery.


Laertes just keeps up the appearances of being a man of honor. So, (a) he is a fraud and (b) being all for show, outward appearances are all that matter to him.

Though he loudly talks the talk of an honorable man, when nobody's looking, he doesn't walk the walk. Shakespeare warns us about this at the start: when Laertes is away in France, his angel-faced mask comes off. He is an impulsive, rash, loud and debauched phony who demonstrates extravagant disrespect for everyone and everything, even God.

The ultimate disrespect is to treat others as objects, not as human beings in their own right — to treat others as objects you own, objects you may use like a tool, with utter disregard for their rights and feelings and for the consequences to them of how you use them. And Laertes is a character who demonstrates this pathological personality at every turn:
  • The moment he sees that Hamlet doesn't contest Claudius' assumption of the throne and puts up with his belittling sermon before the court, Laertes shows that, to him, his sister is but an object to exploit. To free her for sale to some husband with a promising future, he busts her relationship with Hamlet by cruelly telling her that Hamlet doesn't love her and just wants to deflower her.
  • He shows that his extravagant display of love for his dead father is phony when it disappears the moment he gets what he wants from Claudius. Without a thought about the fatal consequences to his supporters, Laertes turns, thus betraying those he got to support him in his revolution.
  • He is so crass and devoid of human feeling for his sister that he even upstages her at her funeral to exploit her as but a tool yet again — this time as the pretext for a spectacularly melodramatic show of grief to get attention and look good before an audience.
In other words, in Laertes Shakespeare shows us the character of a pathological narcissist. He and Hamlet are the antitheses of each other at every point, standing out in sharp conflict of both character and desire.

Since Hamlet loved Ophelia, and since Laertes' grand-standing display of grief at her grave uses her, it sets him off like a firecracker. Thus, at her grave, Shakespeare has the personalities of Hamlet and Laertes clash, even before Laertes and Claudius have a chance to carry out their plot to kill Hamlet.

So, in great stories, it isn't only the desires that clash, it's the personalities they spring from. As Lajos Egri says, mix a skeptic with a militant believer and you have a conflict.

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