I love character stories. In fact, I rarely enjoy a story unless it has a character-driven component.
So I was naturally surprised that I so enjoyed Al Bruno’s latest #FridayFlash story. It’s not really a character story, per se. Or is it?
I actually have a different take on that now, different than last week. I think it is a character story, but not in the traditional sense.
Entitled “Breaking the Girl,” here’s the story’s basic outline—
And BTW, SPOILER ALERT! If you want to read the 996-word story as originally written, you should do that now.
- Lorelei has been drugged and tied to a chair.
- She attempts to cast an incantation against her captor, but ends up instead with a searing pain in her own head.
- Her tormentor reveals that he has painted the Sigil of Enfeeblement on her forehead, thereby preventing her from using her magic against him.
- He begins to torture her for the information he wants, starting with a taser.
- She goads him on, prompting him to pummel her with his fists, to her body, to her head, to her face.
- The torturer prepares to pull out her tooth or fingernail.
- She tries the incantation again. This time it works, throwing him off his feet. Then she casts one to release her from the ropes that bind her.
- She explains to him that, in hitting her, he had smeared and smudged the Sigil of Enfeeblement with blood, corrupting it and rendering it useless, thereby freeing her to use her magic again.
- Before she leaves, she prepares to treat her tormentor to the same torture he had prepared for her (presumably as a lesson to him and his ilk).
We can arrange conflict into two categories, internal and external, depending on how the conflict resolves. Internal conflict resolves when the character changes his perspective, thereby rendering the problem moot. External conflict resolves when the character changes something in the world around him, solving his problem.
Internal conflict is the stuff of character-driven stories, because it involves character change. External conflict is the stuff of plot-driven stories, because it involves the character manipulating the world around him.
Romance stories frequently rely on internal conflict and are character-driven, because the two lovers change the way they look at each other and their relationship. The characters change their attitudes, equals character change, equals internal conflict. Detective stories frequently rely on external conflict, because the investigator must uncover and interpret clues, leading him to bring the culprit to justice. The character changes how society treats the culprit, equals change in the character’s world, equals external conflict.
So then, “Breaking the Girl” is not a character-driven story, because the character never changes. Rather, from the start, she manipulates the situation, by egging on her tormentor, in order that she might ultimately triumph over him. That makes this a plot-driven story.
Even so, when I read this story, I experience the same feeling as I do reading a character-driven story. It’s not just a matter of sympathizing or identifying with the character, cringing that she is to be tortured by a ruthless villain. My feelings go deeper than that, exulting in the enlightenment of the big reveal, when she triumphs through her creativity. I experience an Aha! moment.
It’s the same feeling I have in a different kind of story, where the hero reaches an impasse, finally looking at the problem sideways and coming up with a totally innovative solution. That Aha! moment, that’s character-driven, because it involves character change. This character change then further drives the plot, allowing the character to manipulate his environment in order to solve the problem. To me, solving the problem is cool. But the Aha! moment is golden.
“Breaking the Girl” has no character change, no moment at which Lorelei figures out she can trick the villain and nullify the Sigil of Enfeeblement. By the time we get to the end of the story, we see that Lorelei always knew exactly what she was doing. So why do I experience an Aha! moment, somewhere around #8 in the summary above?
The True Nature of Conflict
We usually define conflict as “the problem the character faces.” This is a standard definition. It’s not the definition I use, however, because it’s too vague. Character problems cause conflict, but they are not conflict per se.
Conflict is a perception by the reader that compelling change has occurred and will occur. (I explained this definition in more depth recently when I talked about alternative conflict.)
We say character stories involve character change. But is there also a place for a character story that involves a change in our perception of the character? An Aha! moment in which her character is revealed?
I believe that’s what’s happening in “Breaking the Girl.” The Aha! moment doesn’t go along with the character’s change (because there is no character change), but it does go along with my changing perception of the character.
Even when I know what’s coming, I still experience the moment. Even when I know at #5 that Lorelei is gritting her teeth and sacrificing herself for her ultimate victory, even when I know that the villain is digging his own grave, even when I know exactly what she means when she calls him an amateur, even when #7 is no mystery to me (because I know why her incantations worked)… When she then explains to him that he had smudged the Sigil, I blurt out, “Aha! I told you so! You rank amateur!”
I now notice this same effect occurring in numerous stories.
Sometimes, the character doesn’t tell us (the audience) what he’s thinking, because doing so would compromise his position or it’s not in his nature to do so. We have to figure it out on our own, and in that figuring, that’s where our perception of the character changes, and that’s where the Aha! moment occurs. Columbo did this wonderfully, because you never knew exactly when he had figured out who the murderer was, when he shifted from investigation to pursuit of the criminal.
Other times, the character himself doesn’t know what he’s thinking, or why he does what he does. Maybe he’s acting on instinct. And if he figures it out, we can revel in the same Aha! moment he does. Such as in the final episode of M*A*S*H, where Hawkeye gradually comes to terms with a traumatic experience. (That would be character change.) But even if he doesn’t figure it out, we might, and we can have the Aha! moment without him.