I suppose it’s always been this way, an ever-repeating global path of least resistance towards basking in conflict. I’ve become acutely aware of this defining human trait while beavering away to construct stories the gatekeepers of mass media will believe worthy of purchasing, publishing, producing, distributing and pushing to the masses. The question always front and centre of their cortex, where is the conflict? They’re obsessed with it.
You need a hero and a villain. You need good and bad, right and wrong. You need a TV camera, a glossy host and a hot topic, then get two utter morons with high profiles and superficially polar opposite viewpoints to yell at each other, take the hot topic closer and closer to boiling point and make sure it’s replete with a catchy hashtag so everyone can chime in from the comfort of their fingertips and we’ll make squillions from the clicks. Brilliant…
Is that the world you want to live in, to be an active minion in perpetuating? For too long, I was.
As Tonya Harding told us all so perfectly, we want someone to love but really, we want someone to hate. Fair enough. She’s both a philosopher and a figure skater. Well played. Perhaps in some parallel universe she’s running Rupert Murdoch’s enterprises, and Rupert’s busy clubbing talented competitor’s knees to kingdom come in the back of ice rink parking lots…I digress. Back to business. Our ingrained compulsion towards fervent hatred of people, causes, words, whatever, is becoming flakier and flakier. We’re so addicted to revulsion, to the adrenaline aroused by clenching our fists and tweeting our fury, we’ll take a hit anyway we can, regardless of the hypocrisy, lunacy, wilful ignorance required to get there.
There’s a mass addiction to becoming embroiled in conflict. Nothing good can come of it. And it’s something I’ve realised I have absolutely no interest in being a part of.
I love stories focused on dilemmas, not conflict. I don’t want to hate anyone. I don’t want my characters to either. I love truthful people, passionate, thoughtful and considered, their personalities aglow with every shade of grey. But how do we make such people compelling, able to compete with the lure of conflict? Well, bring your characters to life with some sort of quirk that can’t be ignored, a show of competence that is rare and engaging, and just when a reader is leaning in a tad…throw your character’s existence into peril! Make them face off against a monumental dilemma. Save the boring, bland conflict for the plebs. You want your story to live forever, focus on dilemma, monumental or greater.
A Dilemma can’t be blamed on anyone, can be borne of factors beyond humanity’s control, is able to attack the least deserving, most vulnerable, and ensure universal horror and empathy in a reader, in someone who is assuredly just like you, awake and alert to the grim realities of the world. Most importantly, a dilemma, if overcome or not, simply embraced and fought heroically to the end, this is what inspires people. The Shawshank Redemption, E.T., Blood Diamond, Blade Runner, Dead Poet’s Society, The Castle, A Clockwork Orange, Angela’s Ashes, A Gentleman in Moscow, Vernon God Little, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared…
I could go on, but you get the picture. These stories aren’t concerned with petty conflicts, though sure, they play a role along the way. No doubt. But what’s driving the narrative is far greater. People, the stars of the story, not necessarily worthy of adulation or respect in and of itself, but characters with their hearts on their sleeves, thrown into chaos by a system, by chance, by a universe that gives you a life then owes you nothing more except the possibility of a dilemma consuming you on the way to an eternity you sooner or later realise you can’t be a part of. This is where a ripping yarn comes roaring to life. This is where you need to be, where your story has to take people.
Now you know what you have to do, so go do it!
Focus on grey characters facing relatable yet overwhelming dilemmas, knowing the media moguls will likely show no interest, the major publishers probably won’t give two hoots, and the film producers are basically guaranteed to not return calls, emails or pleas. Who cares? You can rest easy knowing that if you’ve created a narrative that showcases dilemma and humanity’s capacity to rise to the occasion, albeit stumbling nonstop along the way to bravely take on a hopeless encounter, then, in my opinion at least, you’ve created something magnificent. With a little luck, one of the gatekeepers might just take a squiz…yours could be a story that lives forever, something in a realm far beyond that of mundane, manufactured conflicts that whimper and die after a few deranged tweets.
And how does a kookaburra fit into all this? Well, if you’re Australian, first of all, you lucky bastard! Second, you’ve no doubt seen these wondrous creatures giving you a wink from time to time, perched somewhere up above, watching over the human rat race, laughing out loud before flying off to chuckle at some other battler round the corner. A kookaburra sees our game for what it is, funny. And that’s all there is to it. I dedicated my novel Slippery to my dad, “who taught me to think clearly and laugh loudly.” Well, the same can be said of our national icon, the clear thinking, loud laughing Kookaburra. And now I’m working on a story where a Kookaburra is the heart and soul of the narrative too. I don’t know, maybe I’m just obsessed with kookaburras. That’s my dilemma. Hopefully it’s the only one I ever have to face, able instead to let my stories tackle far more dramatic dilemmas, and fill me with horror and excitement that way, without my actual chicken skin in the game.
*Liam Carroll is the author of Slippery, the aspiring oil trader's bible, a story about capitalism on steroids in the Southeast Asian oil trading world. His second novel, Sweet Dreams of Fanta, is a sentimental ride back to the Sydney of 1988, seen through the eyes of a freckly, moon-faced, 7year old Fanta addict. And his third book, Hooroo Love, in the works now.