When I was in AP English in high school we learned about the types of conflict in a story. There was man vs. man (duh), man vs. nature (yawn), and man vs. himself. You will understand just how literal-minded I can be in that I actually believed that man vs. woman was the great overlooked conflict in literary criticism. I wrote a paper to that end. It got a merciful B.
Likewise I didn’t quite internalize that for every man vs. himself story there might also be a woman vs. herself narrative. Women, I figured, weren’t fool enough to run around for an entire book wrestling with themselves when there are dragons to be slain or fathers to avenge or murders to solve. Sexist, perhaps, but I’m not the only one who thinks this way: I still have trouble naming a literary lady quite as frozen in her own mind as Hamlet was, though Ibsen and Tolstoy offer us some reasonable approximations.
But as I was writing my first (never shall see the light of day) book, this attitude started to present problems. The men in my story were conflicted as all get out, but the women only had external obstacles to fight, and were single-minded and focused in their given pursuits. It struck me as imminently reasonable that strong, exciting, desirable men would be navel-gazing and self-doubting until the cows came home. I think we have Mr. Darcy to thank for that. Or maybe Campbell Scott’s character from Singles (squee). But I had no patience for female characters doing the same thing. (A therapist could have a field day with this.) When I got feedback that the women ‘needed more internal conflict’ I wrote scenes where they had to pick out what to wear. The idea of a competent, well-drawn woman having no clue what to do next at any given juncture was just too hard for me to commit to the page.
Friends, this is especially ironic because I can be indecisive and it drives me crazy. But you know those things you wish you could change about yourself? You can change them in fiction, and sometimes it’s hard to change them back. And why on earth would anyone want to read about a person who can’t choose when there’s a clear choice to be made?
But then, while dining out one day, I had a breakthrough that helped me put real internal conflict in, without sacrificing a character’s spine.
I was looking at a menu and thinking about how very, very good everything sounded on that menu. How I wanted to order about twelve things from that menu, take a bite of each, and then sneak out the bathroom window.
And then it hit me like a bolt of raspberry cheesecake: Maybe it wasn’t that the characters in my story were so decisive about what to do next–maybe it was that I wasn’t giving them any real choices.
I needed to make sure that when my characters got to a turning point, they had more than one thing on the menu to choose from. And an impatient waiter. And a rumbling tummy. And a couple of pricey-but-good-sounding specials. Metaphorically speaking. Is anyone else hungry right now?
By adding real, and tempting, options for my characters, real, viable ways out of facing their dragons, real reasons not to avenge their fathers or solve their crimes or even wear that outfit that day, I provided them with a chance to really be conflicted, and the conflict wrote itself. And just like that, a woman vs. herself didn’t seem quite so farfetched.
Woman vs. cheesecake, though? That could never happen.