In this corner, the ideas of the characters we’re supposed to root for! It’s what they stand for! It’s clearly the solution to the current problem!
In the other corner, the ideas opposed to them! Reasons and justifications for OTHER things!
What’s the handicap? Is it an even match? And IS THE REF LINING THEIR GLOVES WITH WEIGHTS? Or SLOW COUNTING WHEN THEY’RE KNOCKED DOWN?
When two ideas clash in a story, is it a REAL MATCH? Or a bout of PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING?
So in case you couldn’t figure it out from that intro or the title, today I’ll be talking about how to represent a conflict of IDEAS. I’d previously talked about something similar, talking about the steps we can take to write a nuanced, interesting, opposed viewpoint or ideology. THIS week is about how to write what happens when these ideas MEET.
First, let’s start off with a definition to frame things moving forward.
Physical conflict is made up of the obstacles between the character and the goal. Broken bridges, rampaging bandits, a lack of funds, a ship low on supplies, or even the fact that the cure for their sister’s illness doesn’t exist (yet!).
Ideological conflict is when the different ideas, ways of thinking, and views of the characters clash. When they face antagonists who represent everything they stand against, when they disagree with teammates. Basically, when something they believe in is CHALLENGED instead of accepted.
Clashing ideas are most commonly a byproduct of the physical conflict anyways: when you write a clash of two sides, it is inevitable that what they believe in will come up. Otherwise, without these ideas, it just becomes a kaijuu battle of Godzilla versus the Enemy Monster.
There will undeniably be moments where characters come into conflict both to say “No, YOU are stupid!” and to see who is ultimately right. After all, there’s no point to writing Captain Democracy versus Kaiser Fascism if they don’t even mention their political stances. Then you might as well be writing Two Individuals In Silly Outfits Punch Each Other For Our Entertainment. And of course, “The Story Where Everyone Agrees And Nobody Argues” will be both extremely short and extremely uninteresting.
Of course, it isn’t just for the two big factions. Clashing ideas also apply to ANY characters with DIFFERENT views, sometimes even when they’re on the same side. The most extreme kind of example is when the Noble Honourable Knight says they should spare the villain and hand them over to the authorities, while the Gritty Edgy Rogue disagrees and says that they should kill off the villain and end their threat once and for all.
It can also be something as non-volatile as a way of life, such as one character thinking life is about hedonistic pleasure for oneself, and another thinks life needs spirituality and deeper meaning. After all, despite this being the world of fiction where people routinely misunderstand each other and resort to the most extreme reactions, there IS such a thing as having a civil, harmless disagreement.
Done WELL, it can be a compelling exploration of ideas. You can put the main idea through just as much trials and training as the main characters, seeing how they react and mature to what’s around them. This produces musings which are both interesting AND entertaining. You may not necessarily convince readers that any of those views are right, but they’ll at least enjoy the ride and how it makes the story more meaningful.
Done poorly it can make BOTH sides utterly unconvincing, one side the Enlightened Lecturer (“I’m right because I’m right”) and the other side the Witless, Ignorant Strawman (“You’re wrong because you’re stupid and wrong”). This can also have the unintended conclusion of “might makes right”; if you can’t persuade your audience to root for the side you want them to in the fight, all they will see is that one side is right because it crushes the opposition or gets all the author’s praise. Like if your heroes who are all about “Peace and equality for all” only succeed by setting up a brutal, totalitarian regime that polices the thoughts of its people. Peace and equality for all…OR ELSE.
So that just about covers what clashes of ideals are in writing. Obviously, while you don’t HAVE to make stories have ideals and deep philosophical musings, unless you’re writing pure escapism, conflicting thoughts are as inevitable as conflicting characters. And if you’re not careful, readers will feel less like they’re getting a look at something to broaden their understanding and more like they’re getting preached AT to try and narrow their view to the “correct” one.
But wait! There’s more! It’s one thing to say “don’t write your sides poorly” and knowing its inevitability and potential. But setting aside subjective tastes, what makes for a good or bad execution of clashing ideals? For that, I’ll be illustrating my point with two examples, starting with a brief summary and following up with a breakdown on why it worked or didn’t:
Black Panther: A movie that I loved, so make of that what you will. Black Panther protects Wakanda, which is trying to reconcile its isolationist nature with modern politics and injustices, i.e. “We have all this sweet stuff, what should we do with it?”. He has to fight Killmonger who wants to use Wakanda to burn the world because he’s broken by the pain of losing his father, who passed on his pain of seeing fellow Africans persecuted. The ideas here are essentially Isolationism (we must stay out of all these troubles to keep our utopia safe) versus Retribution (people have stomped on our kind for so long, we should not tolerate it, now is the time to take vengeance and fight back, all in the name of justice and protecting our people of course) with a lens of African American identity. Essentially, The Lion King meets Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Batman: White Knight: A miniseries I didn’t end up liking. The basic idea is: What if the Joker went sane while Batman was growing more ruthless, and we explored the consequences of vigilantism and civil reform and how you can really help rebuild a city? Which sounds fine at first, but in the Joker’s crusade to use law, democracy and legislation to prove Gotham needs social justice and ‘proper’ heroes…he mind-controls villains to fake a fight to make black people like him more while he illegally steals police documents in the mayhem. I am not making this shit up.
So, starting with Black Panther, here’s what I think they did right for clashing ideas. Bear in mind, these are just my thoughts, opinions, and observations.
First of all, something Black Panther gets right immediately with its ideologies is that neither one is perfectly right. They give good arguments, but at the end of the day, the writers took the time to have them demonstrate FLAWS. Yet at the same time, they made each side sympathetic and relatable enough that you WANTED to understand them and often did.
For instance, the Wakandans’ isolationism. On the one hand, you could see it as showing restraint when dealing with their own power, and that’s obviously the path to take to not make them seem like imperialistic conquerors. On the other hand, you could also see it as not caring about the suffering of others. And underlining THOSE two points, you can see that the Wakandans as a supporting cast are made up of honourable, likable characters who have feelings audiences can relate to: you have friendly guys who can feel dissatisfied with inaction, and stern loyalists who are not BLINDLY loyal but act on their conscience as best as they can.
Meanwhile, consider the extremism of Killmonger. Yes, it is made VERY clear that resorting to violence is WRONG. Acting out of vengeance is WRONG. Abusing power to dominate the weak, whether they are people or nations, is WRONG. The wrongness of these things is NEVER doubted, and they are not excused or dressed up as something noble. And yet, he has VALID POINTS. Not just because he’s a sympathetic villain, but because although he is a vengeful extremist, he is motivated by a desire to set things RIGHT. His main point, the one which is not only valid and right but ADOPTED by T’Challa, is that if you have power or riches, you should be using it for a good cause. In other words, with great power comes great responsibility. The only thing is that to him, a good cause can mean ‘payback’.
The other thing it does right is something that enhances the first point: It gives these ideals decent screentime. We are not left with a case of only the heroes getting their motivations explored while the villain is only there as an obstacle. And better still, we are not left with a case where the movie begs us “It’s morally grey, honest, he’s sympathetic!” without actually developing sympathetic traits.
Finally, as the cherry topping this cake, it wraps up these two viewpoints…by finding a conclusion between them. In the end, T’Challa decides that while Wakanda should never be a conqueror out to destroy like the people Killmonger hates, they can’t just stay in paradise forever, but should go out into the world and help build things up. It is a VERY risky thing to have any one ideology be held up and declared THE RIGHT WAY TO DO THINGS. Just like a character’s final victory must be EARNED through effort so that either the journey or the destination does not come easily, the same goes with their ideals. If they want to be RIGHT, they need to reach it through THOUGHT and EXPERIENCE.
So that’s why the writing shows admirable restraint and planning by showing that NEITHER of the first views are right…and by exploring why they aren’t right, we are able to reach a more natural, believable conclusion. When T’Challa decides what he’s standing for, it feels like he’s EARNED it: He’s SEEN isolation, he’s SEEN extremism, he’s SEEN other people suggesting other things and working for the good of others. With all of that, his conclusion is neatly built up, so it doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
So it doesn’t make the views too perfect nor too flawed. It gives them equal consideration and development so that we understand their pros and cons. And building on all of that, it is able to reach a satisfying conclusion.
Now what about what I think we SHOULDN’T do?
Social Joker Warrior
It’s an interesting premise. It deconstructs the mythology by crossing the lines of fiction and reality. It tries to humanise its characters. It creates tension between Batman and his allies. And clearly, it’s meant to be Right Opinion versus Wrong Opinion, so there are no pretensions of “Batman is morally ambiguous” when throughout they (to their credit) double down and consistently insist “Batman is WRONG”, not pretending like we should feel sorry for him. So where did I think it went wrong?
Well, for starters, the Joker is not that interesting a character to me. If anything, I find him insufferable. Why?
Basically, the Joker is made too perfect: Genius intellect (memorises enough law to represent himself in court AND WIN), tactical brilliance (he knows EXACTLY what he needs, WHERE it is, HOW he can get it, and how to trick people into giving it to him), and just for good measure, he’s handsome and an excellent hand-to-hand fighter. And ON TOP OF THAT, this alternate universe has bent over backwards to make him RIGHT: the Joker has somehow never done any lasting harm, the supposed-genius Batman has somehow ONLY fought in (and devastated) poor neighbourhoods. We are FORCE FED the constant mantra of “Poor Joker! He’s so misunderstood, and brilliant, and tormented, and brilliant, and misunderstood!” until I got sick of the taste.
And because of that, I DIDN’T RELATE TO HIM. He doesn’t come across as a well-written character with understandable motivations and backstories. Instead, he feels like bad fanfiction: someone’s first “redeemed anti-hero” character, made perfect in every way that matters, with superficial flaws that don’t affect what he’s trying to do, for whom the narrative keeps preaching at us that he’s totally flawed yet perfect. And whenever he opens his mouth, it’s to preach at people or point out things anyone thinking of consequences could have figured out but somehow he’s the first to think them. These are not deep writing that engages different views and develops the world and its characters, but somehow we’re told to treat it like it is as the characters pretend that it is.
And if you’re familiar with writing, you should be aware of what it means when a character is gifted with awesome skills, “cool” trauma which doesn’t affect them, is “correct” all the time no matter what monstrous things they do, wins over the hearts and minds of nearly everyone with next to no effort, and anyone who disagrees is demonised as a big, stupid meany-head: What we have is a freaking Mary Sue. And if your audience is incapable of being on the character’s side, if they have no reason to root for victory against the odds because the odds are ever in their favour, then their ideas and whatnot are not going to be interesting either. It would be about as brave as declaring “I BELIEVE IN GOD!” in church.
Now, having written bad self-inserts myself, and being a believer in the view that you don’t need flaws to make a good character, I try to be generous. I try to consider what they were trying to do (namely that this is a black and white conflict). But there’s a limit to how hard you can try to TELL INSTEAD OF SHOW. The series TELLS, TELLS, TELLS us that Joker is the good guy with all the best points…but as far as I’m concerned, it falls very, very short in SHOWING us. Which brings us to the second thing I felt they did very, very wrong: They didn’t back up their boasts.
Oh, they tried VERY hard with words. Tried VERY hard to give him the sanest, most logical, most obviously correct opinions and solutions. Tried VERY hard to make everyone say “You earned this, Joker!” One problem: I don’t think he earned jack shit.
So let’s consider. He has a criminal record and reputation that villains use as horror stories. He has very limited time to win his freedom. And he has to overcome both time and reputation to win over the African American community to legitimise his bid to enter politics. Think of it this way: If you murdered your neighbour’s dog (while you forced him to watch), how hard do you think it would be to convince him within a week that you were a changed person? AND YET HE WINS ANYWAY.
So he’s not interesting. The world bends over backwards to tell us how he earned what he didn’t earn. As a result, the ‘struggle’ of his ideals is not interesting, because there is no struggle. But you know what makes this worse? He’s a hypocrite. Here he is, the White Knight crusading for the rule of LAW and REFORM to LEGALLY restore justice and equality to Gotham. And how does he do it?
He mind-controls villains (very easily, I might add, because somehow they never expected treachery). Uses them to fake a fight which demolishes a building he built to win brownie points. Then uses the chaos to break into a police station and steal financial records proving the rich are exploiting the sites of Batman’s rampages.
This is not just an attack on his character, not just one more thing I dislike about him.
This is a problem because IT UNDERMINES EVERY FREAKING THING HE CLAIMS TO STAND FOR.
This is a problem because THE WRITING NEVER CALLS HIM OUT ON IT OR PRESENTS IT AS A MORAL DILEMMA.
There is no agony over “Does it make me a bad guy because I’m doing bad stuff to achieve good ends?” There is no internal conflict, no repercussions for such an ominously illegal, callous strategy. ROBBING PEOPLE OF THEIR FREE WILL, LYING TO OTHERS, and USING STOLEN INFORMATION are treated as NORMAL. They are simply portrayed and never discussed again. They are, apparently, as morally neutral as Batman’s fists or gadgets. And as the miniseries continues on, it has the GALL to keep portraying him like he’s some sort of tragic hero redeeming himself.
And if some of you still aren’t sure why that’s a problem when it comes to portraying his ideals clashing against the world, why it weakens his position even further, let me illustrate with an example.
Let’s say I make my character’s main ideal something like “We should have peace, justice, and harmony between everyone!” And to prove that point even FURTHER, I give them a despotic villain forcing his will on others, so the hero also has an extra contrast where they go “I would never FORCE my views on others, I just want everyone to be free!” Seems like as good a place as any to start, right?
Now imagine that I wrote that the hero butchers people who disagree with him. That he uses magic to brainwash them into accepting his way of thinking. That when an ally tries to negotiate with someone on the bad guy’s side, trying to say “They just want to be left in peace”, the hero kills both the bad guy AND their ally because “If you tolerate them, you’re part of the problem!” That they LIE to their allies asking “What happened to our ally that went missing?” Seems pretty incriminating, right? Maybe I’m writing a deconstruction story, an origin of how someone with noble goals becomes a monster?
Now imagine that INSTEAD of doing that, I still wrote everything as if the hero is RIGHT. Imagine that everyone is still praising the hero. That all the internal monologues and omniscient narratives say “Oh, poor hero, facing such hardship.” That I outright say “It is NOBLE to brainwash people with magic as long as you make them think the right things!” All this despite the earlier claim of “I would never FORCE my views on others!”
It just doesn’t work. Whatever conflict you have, however great a fighting chance you give the opposing side, the fact remains: If they are a hypocrite, if they are a hypocrite that NEVER LEARNS, then their position is UNDERMINED. All that’s left is an utterly unconvincing position FORCING its correctness. Setting aside the fact that hypocrisy is one of the most universally despised failings, especially when done by those claiming to be correct or righteous, the main problem from a logistical instead of moral standpoint is that it is INCONSISTENT.
Yes, characters can grow. Characters can be flawed to have hypocritical points in them, and sometimes learn from their experiences. And yes, they can STRUGGLE with these points AT FIRST to, like T’Challa, work hard to reach a conclusion. But the Joker did not struggle. He did not try to look for a solution. He did not grow. The only thing he is is “correct”, and he couldn’t even be CONSISTENT in his correctness, because he’s freaking using dominance and crime in the pursuit of law and justice.
And CONSISTENCY is important. Setting aside plot twists and highs and lows, through it all, there needs to be CONSISTENCY so that people can UNDERSTAND the story. If you’re making a comedy with some drama in its conflict, you don’t suddenly change into an opera musical, which turns into a porno flick, which turns into an interpretive dance.
If your PLOT is inconsistent, audiences won’t understand your story. If your CHARACTER is inconsistent and not just complicated, audiences won’t understand or sympathise with them. And if the IDEALS you’re pushing in your story are inconsistent, even hypocritical, people won’t be able to connect with them or root for them.
Or, to put it in modern terms: How convincing would you find a religion’s claims that it’s peaceful if all you ever saw from its members were arrogance, hate, and discrimination?
And THAT’S what Batman: White Knight is to me. They created an ALTERNATE UNIVERSE where LITERALLY EVERYTHING WAS DONE TO MAKE BATMAN MORE OF A JERK AND THE JOKER LESS OF A MONSTER…and they STILL FAILED AT IT. They STILL FAILED to find any more persuasive arguments than “I’m right because I’m right, they’re wrong because they’re bad!” and they STILL FAILED to find nobler methods than mind control and fraud.
Black And White Is Sometimes Alright
So I’m nearly done here, but before I close, I should mention: Although I talk about good and bad ways to portray clashing ideals, good stories don’t actually NEED moral complexity.
Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. The Chronicles of Narnia. Harry Potter. Disney. Mythology and fairy tales. Deep down, the simple idea of “there are good people who deserve to win against evil” is a very powerful thing.
You can tell the most black and white story ever, and as long as you still gave it a good plot realised by interesting characters told in a competent fashion, it would still be enjoyable.
But if you DO give it more meaning and more values, if you DO set out to explore ideas, here’s what I recommend.
Treat characters as CHARACTERS, not mouthpieces.Or even if they’re designed to be cutouts, you still need to give them motivations, personalities, and things worth putting into detail.
EXPLORE the ideas and reach a conclusion AFTER THAT, instead of deciding what’s right immediately. Or even if you are setting out with a firm idea of THIS IDEA IS RIGHT, then at least give the other ideas it meets a fair shot. Let them meet, compare and contrast them, see what happens, instead of just steamrolling the opposition.
Put the STORY first. Or even if you are putting the message first, at least make sure that the story is still COHERENT AND COMPELLING. Otherwise, it’s just going to be a series of soundbites, in-jokes, and bad arguments.
It’s not always easy, putting yourself in another perspective’s shoes, humbling yourself to accept the possibility that the things on your side could be wrong some of the time. No easier than it would be to do the same for some narrow-minded left-wing/right-wing nutjob on your Facebook feed.
But if you take the time and effort to do so, you can reach better understanding. And through understanding, you can reach out to others better.