No person is truly static. No matter how much we try, we still change. The person you were yesterday is different from the person you are today. The person of tomorrow may become someone yesterday’s self would never approve of. That which mattered more than anything a year ago may be utterly pointless next Tuesday.
Time, however, is not our only form of movement. We care – in an abstract sort of way – about the state of the world and what is best for everyone. We care – in a far more definite way – about the state of our loved ones and what is best for us. We do these things simultaneously. We expect the heroic character to, of course, sacrifice their comforts or take a third option for the sake of “the people” – that is; for US. It could be argued that human virtue – in the form of the desire to help others – is an entirely selfish construct.
This is supposed to be a post on writing. Somehow, it has become philosophy. Perhaps, that is, because philosophy (of ethics, of politics, even of metaphysics) is the nebulous ghost of theory, which is then put to the test in the thought experiment we call fiction. After all, “right” and “wrong” sounds all well and good in theory, but the entire concept tends to crash and burn when we attempt to put it into practise.
If there was a true answer out there, we wouldn’t have spent the entire history of the human species fighting over it.
Justice, right, wrong, good, evil, duty, worth, bacon, necktie, these are all social constructs. They are not universal truths. The general agreement in society is that good people try to help as many other people as possible – that the Good Guys are there to help the masses – and the general population will always support stories of this fashion, because it encourages others to protect them in times of crisis. In other words: the common view of right and wrong is inherently biased in favour of personal gain.
Apart from not upsetting your readers, there is no reason you have to hold to this point of view in your writing. If you write a protagonist who believes that people aren’t worth saving, but who saves them anyway, you are complying with this social construct. If you do not comply with this heavily enforced and entirely arbitrary ruling on what “Right” is, your character will be labelled as a villain and you yourself may gain a similar label.
So, what do you do? Do you do what is easy or do you do what is … well, it isn’t “right” is it? It’s just what you believe is right. Do you take the path of least resistance or do you do what you believe in?
Here’s the funny thing about that: it doesn’t matter.
Oh, it’ll certainly matter to you – if you even view the above dilemma as a dilemma at all. What matters in reality is: what you can live with (most people wouldn’t call it a dilemma because they stand to gain from the status quo of what “heroic” means, while I don’t view it as a dilemma because I’m fed up with the status quo telling me to sacrifice myself for others who will never return the favour – and often view it as something I owe them, not that I’ve ever done any hero-ing, but from the philosophical standpoint).
What matters in fiction is the existence of the dilemma itself.
We call this internal conflict. The backbone of character-focused works. The bloody, beating heart of a deep and rounded character. The thing that inevitably spawns dozens of alternative character interpretations and fan arguments about who was “right” – even if the work explicitly says that no such thing as “right” exists.
Internal conflict can be very subtle. What we believe about one thing may clash with what we believe about another – and we may go on believing both until something, from outside or inside, puts them visibly at loggerheads.
It does not have to be as showy as “who do I save” (maybe quit and go have pizza, instead? They’ll both be goners by the time you’ve decided anyway) or “who do I side with?” (again, maybe just go have pizza). It does not exist when a Hero is clearly The Good Guy and the Temptation by The Bad Guy is painfully obvious and the Hero would never do that anyway because he’s on the side of Good.
Internal conflict is subtle. It is murky. It is that grey area where right and wrong are entirely arbitrary ideals which the protagonist is creating, altering, and eventually judging all on their own. If which choice is “the right thing to do” is obvious, there can be no conflict because the answer is, again, OBVIOUS.
What is right? What is wrong? Is there right? Is there wrong? What do I want to do? What do I think I should do? Is what society thinks I should do right? What the heck would society know about it anyway?
Internal conflict – or, as Martin paraphrasing Faulkner put it “the human heart in conflict with itself” – is philosophy. Specifically, it is all those bright, clear theories mercilessly taken away from their loving academics and dropped into a giant, gruesome test simulator by the world’s authors. Because academic philosophy is all nice in theory, but it really doesn’t understand or know how to cope with humanity and reality.
Or, if you want to think of it that way, internal conflict is The Hunger Games for ideologies. Which, let’s be honest, makes it pretty bloody interesting.