The Conflictinator

Yes, we’ve all heard of the Terminator and the Governator. Some writers who’ve actually studied craft (and read Novelsmithing) have even heard of the Thematic Character, which might be termed the Thematinator. Now I want to introduce a new character to Storyville: the Conflictinator. While the other “-inators” definitely add to the story, the Conflictinator is someone for a writer to avoid.

No, I didn’t invent the Conflictinator, thankfully. I’ve only observed this beast in the wild. Although the Conflictinator can be found in print, in movies, and on the stage, I’ve observed it most in TV series. That’s where I found the latest example, and it caused me to quit viewing the series after a few episodes. I just couldn’t take the Conflictinator any more. The series is Orphan Black. I realize that at some point I’m going to have to get over my objection of the Conflictinator in that series, brush him aside, and get back into the series. Tatiana Maslany is an amazing actress, the story is great and well plotted, so I’ll just have to swallow my proclivities against this character and get on with viewing it. Someday.

The Conflictinator in Orphan black is Felix Jordan, played by Jordan Gavaris. Mr. Gavaris is an excellent actor, but this particular character he is portraying in Orphan Black is so crudely and carelessly drawn that he is difficult to stomach. And it has nothing to do with who the character is, but it has everything to do with the way he acts. The character himself seems to lead an interesting life. But he is a negative-minded character who does nothing but argue all the time. He is a Conflictinator. This is knee-jerk characterization and not thoughtful character creation. I’ve been told that his attitude changes in upcoming episodes, so I do have hope that he’ll mature into someone worth following. One can only hope.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I am a big fan of conflict in all genres of storytelling. And bickering has its place. I even believe that a story without conflict is a story without a story. Story does not exist without a central conflict. But continuous unmitigated character conflict isn’t storytelling. As Monty Python would have said, “It isn’t an argument; it’s just contradiction.” Here’s the way I described the problem and what I believe to be its origin in Story Alchemy, Chapter 2:

Unmotivated conflict can be irritating for the reader, and conflict for conflict’s sake isn’t what we’re after. And yet it frequently happens, particularly in television series episodes. Here is how I believe the source of the problem came about, and it comes from one of our most brilliant teachers. Richard Walter is a professor and screenwriting chairman at UCLA. Here’s how he introduces the subject matter for Chapter 5 “Conflict: Violence and Sex” in his highly acclaimed book Essentials of Screenwriting, The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing:

Must movies marinate in sex? Must they wallow in violence?

No, but many, probably most — including some of the finest films ever made — are positively saturated with sensuality and eroticism. Likewise, worthy movies must forever be violent.

If you prefer, you may think of violence as conflict or tension or stress. Screenwriters are urgently advised to consider the general disquietude essential to film as full-tilt, mean-spirited, straight-ahead violence. I urge them also to remember that enlightened, reasonable, rational discourse and courtesy, consideration, and consensus occupy an important place in our lives. In movies, however, they’re boring.

I don’t suggest that movie armies must perpetually beat out each other’s brains, nor that all good films must provide an endless succession of looting, shooting, and rape. Neither do I hold that all movies must be greasy, oily sex orgies. All the same, however, emotional unrest must be integrated into each and every frame of each and every scene of each and every movie. [page 48]

Something is wrong in Movieville, and this is it. The last two sentences in the next to last paragraph, “I urge them … they’re boring” is what I object to. Granted you can’t build a story off of courtesy, consideration, and consensus but you can use it to build likable bonded characters. If you don’t, you’ll have hateful, mean-spirited, unsympathetic characters no one will care about. Not only that. Conflicts that follow what those two sentences tell us are banal, superficial and can totally ruin a storyline.

Now, I’ve called the Conflictinator an “it” on purpose because it’s not a real character, even though it comes disguised as one. It is the dark shadow of a character. The writer has put the Conflictinator in the story only to generate conflict when none would normally or naturally be present. As everyone knows, the only thing interesting in storytelling is conflict. Right? Every word on the page or in the air has to project heated conflict or the reader will quit reading or the viewer will get up and leave. Or so the story goes. Straight from the experts. The Conflictinator is as persistent as the Terminator because the Conflictinator has no free will. Its only purpose is to provide petty social conflict when none in fact exists. And they just never stop arguing regardless of the circumstances. The characters talk past each other and nothing ever gets resolved. It’s like petty sibling rivalry on a colossal scale.

Conflictinatorism can also be an attitude that suddenly overcomes a character when they least expect it. After all, it occurs because the author thinks he/she needs a little conflict and pulls it out of thin air, not from character motivation. It occurs when a writer suddenly realizes that he/she has had a few kind words between characters, perhaps they bonded a little, panics, and just throws conflict into the dialogue for no specific reason other than the fact that he/she has been told that the only thing of interest is conflict. Yes, it’s an artifact of the education process.

I provide more information in Story Alchemy, Chapter 2 and even give some examples where conflict has been handled much more effectively. Good luck with your own efforts at coming to terms with the tricky conflict problem.

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