Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Romances and the Conflict of Values

A reader writes with a problem (indented).
Dear Dr. Williams:  Thank you for writing The Moral Premise and frequently updating your blog. I have learnt a great deal from both, and I'm actively trying to incorporate the methods outlined in the book into my own work. I am a novelist, and I can see how this is just as applicable to us as it is to screenwriters. My genre is 'love story' which opens up another can of worms for me as a writer. I'm having some issues when trying to understand how to apply antagonistic forces. I believe you stated somewhere that love stories would involve a co-protagonist setup and that the man and woman would be antagonists to each other. With no clear antagonist practicing the vice side of the moral statement, I am unsure how I apply the vice side throughout a love story and how the two characters should arc. If you are able to provide me with any guidance as to how a moral premise operates in a love story with two protagonists I would be very grateful.  (Signed: G.M.)

Dear G.M.: Tell me a bit about your story and how ends. Is it a love story (someone dies), a romance (a persona dies), or a romantic comedy (two egos die)?  (Stan)

[Following: GM is in black and my response is inbetween in purple. (SW)]
It's a romance as I have not envisioned a tragic ending. The story involves a man and a woman who dated when they were young and fell in love, however his work/career was extremely important to him and they amicably parted ways as she knew how much it meant to him.
Sounds a little like Nicolas Cage's FAMILY MAN.
She did not realize until later that she was pregnant with his child. By then he was career bound, and she had lost contact with him. She decided to raise the child alone but this came at the expense of her own career. When the novel essentially begins, he is driven by his career and money, and he is isolated and lonely. Conversely she has struggled to keep her daughter and herself afloat, and all three (mother, father and child) will somehow come together at some point in the story (the inciting incident and goal that will bring them together is still unknown) and priorities will have to shift if he is to learn to value love over business/money, he is to connect with his daughter, and we are to have the man and the woman fall in love again.
So, it's a remarriage, romance story.
With so many elements to the story, I’m worried that the above will not follow one set moral premise statement, and perhaps I have thought about the story in a backwards manner with the ‘moral premise’ as a step after the above plot brainstorming rather than before it.
 Based on what you've told me so far, there's not too much for even a movie.  Novels, which I have not studied in depth in terms of the moral premise, may well indeed have more than one moral premise... even as some movies do. Some other posts deal with this from some of my other readers.  But I  suspect the different moral premises need to be tightly linked on a value level. Novels can do this more easily than movies, because novels can be longer, have multiple stories interwoven, and transcend eras easier. But the novel will resonate best with readers if the story comes back to one thing about which the story ultimately reinforces.
My idea behind the story stems from putting love first as opposed to money, and as a result I have put together:
Greed and selfishness leads to isolation and hatred, but
Generosity and sacrifice leads to inclusion and love.
Yep, that is what I was going to suggest, or something very much like that.
My difficulty in getting my head around all this is due to the fact that in romances the two characters are typically opposites.
As they are even in successful marriages... opposite in some respects, but not every respect. The drama explores the opposites, not what they have in common. Perhaps you're thinking they need to be opposite in every respect. The story will assume they have much in common, but the drama and the emotional journey of the story will explore how they learn to "love" each other's differences. (I'm thinking of the Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers films. They both loved to dance, but the drama was never about the dancing.)
In a typical non-romance story this would mean one was a protagonist and one was an antagonist. Yet in a romance we have two protagonists who we want to remain opposing for conflict purposes, yet we still need both heading for the same goal with the same moral premise, and all this is with a different type of antagonistic force present. 
Moving the “normal” structure around to fit a romance is proving difficult to visualize. 

Many thanks,
[Now, my in depth response.]

Well, let me help you. It's not that difficult at all.

The simple answer is that each character (the man and the woman) struggles with the vice side of the moral premise in their own way, and becomes the obstacles and the antagonist for the other. 

Jeff Bridges & Maggie Gyllenhaal, CRAZY HEART (2009)
I like the way Michael Hauge explains this. He calls the two moral premise values the character's "identity" and the character's "essence." At the beginning of the story each character has an "identity" that they have given to themselves; that is they have put on a mask and are pretending to be someone they are not at their essence. But the identity, because it is false, has holes, and the romance character can see through those holes to the person's true essence. Each character falls in love with the other person's essence and are repulsed by that person's false identity. In Crazy Heart, the romance sub-plot between Blake and Jean occurs because Jean sees what Blake could be. She falls in love with his essence. But when he can't seem to fall in love with his own essence, she breaks it off.

So when the man reveals or practices his false identity the woman is turned off and repulsed. Likewise when the woman reveals or practices her false identity the man is turned off and repulsed.  But when each practices their essence, there is attraction.
In over simplified terms of the Moral Premise, the false identity is that person's vice, and their essence is their virtue. In more accurate terms, it's the moral premise vice that allows the character to hide behind their identity and camouflage their essence. And it's practicing the moral premise virtue that allows their true essence to be revealed. 

Although the man and woman may have similarities, the story is about how these two characters are different, even opposite in some ways. To be complete and happy and fulfilled, they have to be together so their essences are complimentary. 

Both may love the opera, but one likes to sit in the balcony and the other in the front row. They are both stubborn and demand their own way. Thus the drama comes out of the battle to decide where they will sit to enjoy the thing that they both love. the story is about stubbornness and forbearance --  not the opera.

Now about somethings each needs to be stubborn... justice, for instance, or if they're investors in the opera they can be stubborn about the singers being on pitch and not just looking the part. But about other things they need to drop the stubborn "identity" and be "forbearing."

Each character, at a subliminal level, longs to be complete and whole. In and by themselves they never will be. But with the right mate, they can participate in that wholeness somewhat vicariously, and by virtue of being married and (one flesh) they can participate with the other person that makes them a whole, if only by  proximity.

A personal example: my wife, Pam, and myself. I am not sentimental nor do I value nostalgia in the least. But at the right time I realize that being sentimental and nostalgic has some value. But to this day I could never express such emotion or sympathy toward others. But Pam does it so naturally. So, I can facilitate her getting to a family gathering where she can dole out the sentimentality, nostalgia and sympathy. I'll sit next to her when she does this, and I will aid her by finding money so she can buy the stupid little gifts that others love for their tacky sentimentality. (Can you tell I am not into this.) So, in that way, we are made whole. My vice (hating to be sentimental) is countered by her virtue (sentimentality.)  But my vice (arrogance) can prevent her from being sentimental and putting her down for it.


2. The arc from vice to virtue does not need to be wide or long, nor does it need to deal with vile or overly righteous values.  Not shown above, but imagine, the story being about moving from courage to honor (two small arrows at the right would do this). That is the moral arch of THE BLIND SIDE which deals with two virtues (one not as good as the other)  and how any fool can have courage, but not everone arrives at honor. 

In the diagram above the two yellow arrows can represent the moral arcs of a romantic couple. For their peculiar reasons each is deceptive to the other, thinking they need to lie about what they do, where they're going, or why, in order to appease the love of the other. But the other doesn't buy the lie and there's rejection. It's only when they take off their masks, and are truthful to each other that there is acceptance. 

3. Here's a variation on this theme:

The character represented by the left arrow believes (has the false identity) that they have to be deceptive to be accepted. Whereas the character represented by the right arrow is so scrupulous about telling the truth that it sounds like an over the top lie all the time. Both are vices. The virtue is graciously telling the truth. 

In these ways each protagonist becomes the antagonist for the other. So the man's goal and the woman's goal is to get together with the other. To do that he thinks he has to be God's gift to women and be arrogant and controlling. (WHAT WOMEN WANT) But that "identity" he keeps practicing turns off the woman, and thus he's rejected. At the same time she arrogantly believe she has to protect herself from such cads, and defends everything she does and puts him in his place. And that repulses him. So, they become each other's antagonists. 

4. Now, in your case, both the man and the woman have to practice a vice which will block their true essence from being regularly revealed. they are both determined to be right about what they believe, and both have to change to meet in the middle and get together. A very typical virtue and vice scenario for stories like yours is arrogance vs. humility. Or going back to your original moral premise statement:

Greed and selfishness leads to isolation and hatred, but
Generosity and sacrifice leads to inclusion and love.

The man, involved in business, is easy. But,how can you make her greedy about what she is doing? They both have to be imperfect. She can't be greedy about making money, that's his problem.  OR, perhaps she is greedy by virtue of being poor. Perhaps she's a hoarder: or perhaps she is about time. Or she could be selfish and proud about being poor. She could see "money is the root of all evil" but she only believes that because she's never had any. She's forgotten that the adage is "the LOVE of money is the root of all evil". In what ways is she NOT generous? That is her vice, and it blocks the guy's ability to see her goodness. But she does have some and by the first ten pages we know that that is.

But, if you're determined to make her the perfect person, and him the bad guy, then you have a story about HIM, not her.  If you want to make the story about both of them, they both have to be imperfect. 

Watch any Romantic Comedy that was successful in the box office and you'll see this. Take out the wild comedy, and you'll have your romance. 

Hope this helps. Let me know. 

See also this post on the Conflict of Values: http://moralpremise.blogspot.com/2010/02/expanded-conflict-of-values-and-moral.html


G. M. said...

Thank you for a superb reply to my question.

A major stumbling block for me was not realising that the female character also needed to be greedy and selfish in some sense. They should both be working toward their virtues as the story progresses. I was incorrectly thinking that the male would be practicing the vice side of the statement and the female the virtue side from the beginning, and through their coming together we would obviously then have conflict and they would balance each other. Thank you for clearing that up.

I’m wondering what your thoughts are for what constitutes a protagonist in a story. For example, as you referred to in this post, the protagonist of a story goes through an arc of change, which in this case would be both the man and the woman. However, Michael Hauge and Dara Marks state that a protagonist not only goes through change but carries the external physical goal of the story. In the movie Message in a Bottle (novel by Nicholas Sparks) for example, the female character drives the story because she wants a promotion, and it is her alone who wants this and can achieve this by the story’s end. The man she meets while trying to achieve this has an even greater arc of change than she does as the story unfolds. However, despite the man she meets going through an even greater arc of change than her, she alone would be classed as the protagonist because she holds the external goal. By their method, it would not be viewed as a co-protagonist story. What are your thoughts on this?

Following on from this, do you have any suggestions or things to bear in mind when deciphering a good physical goal for a story’s protagonist? Or does it not matter what the physical goal is in a sense as long as the moral premise is placed throughout their attempt to get it?

Many thanks,
G. M.

Stan Williams said...

GM: Yes, all the main characters struggle with the same values dipole. Not in the same way, not to the same extent, and not in the same direction. In DIE HARD both John McClane and Hans Gruber, the cocky male co-worker, deal with arrogance and need to more humble or meek. The cop deals with meekness and needs to be more confident. In each case, the balance, or virtue is in the middle from being a wimp to being supremely arrogant.

I have not seen Message in a Bottle for a couple years and have not looked at if in terms of the MP. But Hauge and Marks are both right. Protagonists go through the greatest change AND they are the characters that drive the primary spine of the physical story. In love stories, like Message in a Bottle, there can be a main protagonist and a co-protag. One key is what character forces the protagonist to change. That character is the antagonist. A co-protagonist is not likely to be the antagonist, but will be affected by the antagonist in a similar but lesser degree. In TWO TOWERS Frodo is the protagonist and Sam is the co-protagonist. (I should do a MP analysis of those movies.)

A good physical goal must be nearly impossible for the protagonist to achieve, and something that is interesting enough to get the audience to the theater. The combination of an unlikely hero and the improbable physical goal is the irony that is the log line HOOK. You are actually better off starting with the physical HOOK and figuring out the moral premise later.