I was talking to a friend last night, and the conversation turned to storytelling. We have had versions of this conversation before, but something struck me as we were talking.
The topic: “What makes a story good?” We have batted this question back and forth before, and our conclusion is usually some variant of character choice. It was this time as well. But as we spoke about character choice, I realized how much that equates to the idea of conflict. Many creative writing courses, discussions, panels and whatnot have referenced the idea that conflict is, ultimately, what drives a story. Without conflict, nothing really happens, and the telling ceases to be a story and becomes instead just a recitation. I have heard argument against this idea, and kind of get what people are getting at when they take that position, but last night it kind of gelled in my head.
If you replace “conflict” with “choice” I think you address both sides of the argument about conflict driving a story (or not). Character choice in a tale drives the action. The ideas presented in the Hero’s Journey (this is an archetypal concept that predates many of our written tales; you can see examples of it in Norse mythology for instance) contain direct items of choice. One of the central and early themes of the Hero’s Journey is that the Hero is going along his (or her) merry way and encounters a choice: The Call To Adventure. The hero can accept or refuse this call, but that choice will forever define the hero’s life. At least according to the idea of the Hero’s Journey.
So, if you think of “choice” as the mechanism rather than “conflict”, even stories for children contain some measure of this (at least in the stories I can think of), whereas saying they contain “conflict” might be a stretch for some of them. The idea that the character is presented with some situation about which a decision has to be made drives the story. Do I follow the wizard on this crazy escapade? Do I run away from home to escape my evil stepmother? Do I go see what those strange lights in the sky last night were?
I am sure there are plenty of people who already understood this idea, but my perspective on it shifted last night, gaining clarity. Interesting character choices lead to interesting stories. And one definition bandied about in our conversation dealt with what makes a hero. If the character is presented a choice (we’ll keep it a binary choice for simplicity), and side A of the choice is safer/better for the character, and side B of the choice is safer/better for the world/the character’s friends/some endangered group, what makes the character a hero is choosing side B.
I think that has some legs, but it could be the margaritas talking.