By Shawn Boursiquot
Change. The essence of every story. Writer Lisa Cron once stated that it’s not the plot that truly captures the imagination of the audience, but the change within the major characters. We want to see their internal development. We want to notice a shift in their personality and world views. If a character, specifically the protagonist, is the same from beginning to end there is no story. As Cron explains in her guidebook Wired for Story, as a reader we learn from character development. In fact, it’s due to evolution as we use stories as survival tactics. As cave men we hear a story about a lion eating our fellow companion during a hunt, we learn what not to do. Or vice versa, if our companion was successful in his mission we learn to approach our hunt in the ways that he did. Now a days when we read a story about the ultimate robbery, or perhaps the ultimate breakup; sub-consciously we reflect on if or how we would go about the situation differently. So where does change stem from? That’s a complicated question with elements worth their own discussion. In the future I’ll touch on topics such as desire and fear for your protagonist which are the backbones for a character arc. However, for now I’ll focus on internal and external conflict, two essential bolts in the complex cog of change. I’ll use one of my favorite movies as an example, Juice, written by Ernest R. Dickerson and Gerald Brown. The two characters I will focus on are Bishop and Q, Q being the protagonist.
External conflict. This is what pushes the plot forward. However, it gives us more than a sense of time and series of events, but provides the obstacles that the protagonist must overcome. This is key. As a writer you want to torture your protagonists as much as reality would allow (reality in the context of your story. Depends on the world you’re creating.) The obstacles forces the protagonists to confront some sort of life changing incident. In Juice the external conflict is the robbing of a local Bodega, or corner store, gone completely wrong. Q participates, but Bishop takes things into his own hands and ends up killing the store owner. Here is the life changing incident, as Q is now involved in a homicide. This was a crime that he originally wanted no part of, but was pressured to do so by his best friend Bishop. Already stuck between a rock and a hard place, things just got worse for Q. Simply put, the external conflict forces the protagonist to confront his or her own flaws, and reflect on their core values.
Now Bishop is key in Q’s internal conflict, if not is his internal conflict. This is the real incident that grabs the attention of our self-conscious. We may not notice it, but internal conflict is what keeps us invested in any story; whether a movie, play, novel or short story. As mentioned, Q was against the robbery as his focus was on fulfilling his dreams of becoming a famous DJ. The night of the burglary was the same night of his performance at an amateur night competition that would have allowed him his first steps into the industry had he won. Although important to his internal change, this falls under the desire that all major characters must have. I give you that context, though, to show you the source of Q’s internal change… his loyalty to Bishop. Due to his relationship with Bishop, Q has a lot to balance as we see him weigh the competition against the plans proposed to him by Bishop. Here he immediately must reflect of his loyalty and his own aspirations, which only grows more intense as the plot thickens. After the robbery goes south is where we see the drastic changes in not only Q, but Bishop as well. Bishop, due to his own inner conflicts, descends into a life of major crimes, altering his relationships with his three best friends. He slowly loses his sanity, as both Bishop and Q lose trust in each other. One of Q’s main inner conflicts is maintaining his friendship with Bishop. Posed in a question Q would ask himself: Do I keep my loyalty to Bishop, a lifelong friend? Or do I break off the relationship for my own safety and my own betterment? The change in Q is revealed in his actions. All character change is revealed in their actions and not so much their words. His choice, of course, holds consequences as Bishop soon becomes his enemy. Their relationship is forever changed. Note: even while the internal change is occurring, the main character still does not see the light of day. As mentioned before, with every choice the character’s external conflict’s job is build the barrier higher; making it nearly impossible for the protagonists to win. Dickerson and Brown do this extremely well.
However, we can see how this would be essential to our “survival” more or less. It puts us in the midst of their situation, but we find ourselves in similar ones. In various degrees we all weigh our loved ones against our personal goals aspirations. When do we know when to cut off a relationship? Is it wrong to be a little bit selfish? When can my loyalty to this person be damaging to me, or the both of us? These are questions this story makes us ask ourselves. This is why it is story... and we learn more from them than we actually realize.