A Theory of Conflict /. The Mango Seed

I’m opening this essay with a digression. That is, I’ve finished the essay and it brought back a memory I replay for myself more often than anyone might guess, more often than I recall birthday parties or holiday dinners.

A Theory of Conflict:

I’m opening this essay with a digression. That is, I’ve finished the essay and it brought back a memory I replay for myself more often than anyone might guess, more often than I recall birthday parties or holiday dinners.
Years ago my husband Akila (and his partner, Beverly Rich) produced a play for their Theater for the Forgotten: A Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward. You aren’t likely to have seen this production, I assume, because it was done largely by and for prison inmates. The story concerns a southern town that loses all its household help for a day and how much at a loss the town is. The details have faded, but I remember it as largely a humorous look at a serious subject. It’s the final scene, as the first black laborer returns to town, that stays in my mind. That gentleman slouched across the stage, whistling, in a casual manner, a perfected act of resistance couched in a displayed innocence that was a work of art I haven’t seen matched in decades of movie and TV watching. The memory fills my heart with joy.
Judging by the response and the hastily wiped tears combined with laughter and hooting and shouting from the audience, it filled everyone’s heart with joy.
End of digression.
I have a simple way with story, it’s a formula, I’ve realized over time. It has everything to do with my characters, and very little to do with writing to a formula, so let me give you a brief history to go with it.
I found this way early, writing my second book in 1987, and didn’t recognize it for what it was. That book gathered dust for years. For a long time, I couldn’t have told you I have a blueprint of any kind, however general, or however specific. I wrote a good many manuscripts before that second book got published, some were good, some got lost wandering around in the woods and a computer virus ate them all. What I learned, sometimes I knew what the problem with a story was, sometimes not.
It was only as my work was accepted for publication that a pattern began to emerge: two characters found in each other a quality that irritated or frustrated them, and together they faced a bigger problem. That was true for Willa Jo and Aunt Patty in Getting Near to Baby. True for Maude and Sallie in The Misadventures of Maude March. True for Jake and Lexie.
And certainly for Vinnie Gold and his problematic females (Not Exactly a Love Story), who are no longer gathering dust. That third book finally got published.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject lately, partly because a character gave me a hard time, she’d be described as passive, she couldn’t or maybe wouldn’t get out there and wrangle with her problem. I finally narrowed the issue down to this element that is often referred to as the antagonist (a motivator). It isn’t groundbreaking, my little discovery, we’ve all heard the antagonist has to be strong, maybe better supported than the protagonist. Let the antagonist take aim for the vulnerable underbelly. Make the antagonist fiercely proactive and the protagonist will stand up.
Story is about the person who has the biggest problem, not necessarily the biggest mouth. It’s someone who has a universal problem, one that we all relate to in some way. That person has the most to lose if things get worse than they already are, and ultimately, the biggest gain just waiting for a go-ahead. This person is the main character.
But the big mouth is often the key to getting the story moving. They are the second problem, a story question—they have something to be gained through being the problem, and yes, they make everything worse, at least for a while, and often this is universal too. We can see their side of it.




The Mango Seed:

There are characters we love to hate in movies and books, we run into them all the time. Occasionally we find ourselves writing them.
Often these are the necessary antagonist to get our main character moving. I’m usually pretty fond of the antagonist. I can never think of these characters without remembering advice that came from my son when he was ten or eleven. I’d gotten angry with a family member, and he heard me complaining to a friend. He got into the conversation, not siding with anyone, but clearly interested in seeing me let go of the resentment. Not yet ready for that, I reminded him this person had been a thorn in his side too. He shrugged, and with an endearing smile, he said, “They have redeeming qualities.”
That’s what I try to give my antagonists.
Now and then that doesn’t work for me, and the character has some quality I can’t tolerate. Usually, in these cases, it turns out to be a flaw I share. That should be a gift; I already understand the weakness, and the rationale that supports it. I should be able to write that character like she’s a summation to the jury. And yet, I have to wrestle her to the floor, bend her this way and that, until I get something just flexible enough to work with.
Then, there are the real mysteries, the character we just can’t bring to life. Perhaps these are aspects of ourselves we haven’t yet plumbed. Or maybe we accidentally drew from life’s lessons a type we never have understood properly and haven’t yet come to grips with how to treat them.
Right now I’m writing a secondary character I’m not drawn to, and it shows, he’s a bit flat and uninteresting. We can believe the protagonist doesn’t care for him either, but I have to find something to make me care before I can make the reader care. A character only becomes rounded and real when there is something that . . . to say something that “appeals” to me hardly says it all.
Here is how I want to feel: a few years ago I brought home a puppy, a chocolate poodle that put on a pound and a half every week in her first few months of growth. She loved anything that belonged to me, she loved anything she wasn’t supposed to have, or simply hadn’t tried yet, and she loved it hard. Mangoes topped the list. So when I peeled a mango, I shared the fruit with her, and then I let her have the flesh-covered seed.
She would clean it down to a smooth egg shape and take off to hide it. She’d spend twenty minutes finding and rejecting a hiding place. I’d watch her digging partial holes, clearing fallen leaves to achieve a less labor-intensive but equally good hiding place, standing for a minute or two under the cover of vines in the garden as drool dripped from the seed in her mouth, then drop it into the prepared site.
I don’t know whether this dropping-the-seed-into-the-hole was done as lovingly as it appeared or whether the seed had begun to stick to the roof of her mouth. But it looked like it was done with a kind of tenderness, and then she would, with obvious care, use one paw to cover it with sand or leaves. She’d sort of dance away, a job well done, but then she’d pause, look around—probably feeling the presence of an observer as a prickle down her spine—and whip back to the site of the dig and unearth that mango seed with one great swipe of the furry paw. She’d sniff it approvingly, no sign of tampering, snatch it up in her teeth and set off on another search-and-dig mission that would take another twenty to forty minutes of her puppy day.
The feeling I had watching her, a kind of fascination, a learning experience even, that’s how I want to feel about my characters, especially the less attractive ones. How else can I put them on the page in a way that will establish them in the reader’s imagination, will hold a reader’s interest for hours?
When I write myself into a book, when any of us write ourselves into our characters, we must have the willingness to see the charm in our limited understanding, the virtue in our dogged persistence, we must have the courage of our convictions no matter how wrong we are.
But when we present one of those mysteries of our own lives, we must also present these flaws to the reader as if they were raw oysters on a pearl platter. Or perhaps, as if they were sandy mango seeds with little bite marks all over: here, it’s mine and now it’s yours too.