Monday, 2 April 2012

Internal Conflict in Science Fiction

British SciFi writer Gary Gibson just did an interesting post on the subject of internal/external conflict (see ). Basically external conflict is fairly easy, especially in science fiction and fantasy, where there can be a malevolent enemy or force to fight against. The epitome of this frame is the superhero (and perfect counterpoint, the super-villain), or the classic Star Wars or Lord of the Rings scenario (the ‘force’ and its ‘dark side’; the ring and Sauron). It’s good fun, and can be solid entertainment. But we know reality isn’t like that, it’s rarely black and white, or the primary colours of a superhero’s cape.

Internal conflict, however, is where we live. In superhero terms, this is most evident in Batman but also Spiderman, both very ‘conflicted’ individuals, so we root for them, because they’re like us. So, in fiction, how does it work?

W.C.Fields famously wrote ‘there are three rules for successful fiction; nobody knows what they are.’ Well, I agree, but here are some rules for writing internal conflict:

  1. It has to be realistic, something the reader can relate to (empathise).
  2. It has to be true to the character’s nature.
  3. It has to be relevant to the plot.
  4. It should tell us something about the character, his or her ‘mettle’.
  5. It has to raise, or at least enrich, the ‘stakes’.
  6. It has to lead (eventually) to action and resolution.
  7. It should be well-written, fit the situation, and not be melodramatic.

All of the above rules can be broken, but you have to be a damned good writer to get away with it.

Realistic internal conflict
Ever loved someone who didn’t love you back? If not, then good for you, but a lot of people empathise with this situation. In the following extract from The Eden Paradox, Micah loves Antonia, who barely recognises his existence. He’s got a lousy track record with women because of his introverted character (rule 2), but suddenly she has to depend on him (rule 3) to try and save her lover. Micah gets angry in the following sequence for reasons earlier in the chapter, and then regrets it, but it firms his resolve to help her (rules 3, 4 & 5), though it will put him in danger. There is a partial resolution of this particular internal conflict near the end of the book (rule 6), but the real resolution doesn’t come until book 2, and again in book 3.

The set-up: Micah has just been interrogated by Vince for a murder he didn’t commit; Antonia is following him on the metro (called the Bubble in 2065), because her lover’s (Katrina’s) ship, the third mission to Eden, has gone missing, and she thinks Micah can help. Micah and his murdered colleague Rudi analyse data returning from the space-craft via a simulated landscape. Micah has recently found a covert 'avatar' (here called a ‘simulacra’) of Katrina in this virtual landscape, who can maybe tell him what is happening on the real ship, ninety light years away.

It had been a long day. Micah was bone tired, and broody as hell. His mind swirled with dark thoughts, like sharks circling, hunting bait-fish. He headed toward one of the high speed bubbles that wormed out of his building, to start the trek home, then slowed; the back of his neck tingled. He turned around, sure someone was following him. But all his eyes met was a flood of flushed, rush hour faces, irritated he had blocked the flow, delaying them a few precious seconds. Unable to pick anyone out from the crowd, he carried on and squeezed into the lozenge-shaped bubble that would flush him and his fellow commuters down to Kaymar Nexus. Just as the doors were closing, someone slipped in behind him.
            It was so packed he couldn’t turn around. Hardly anyone ever spoke on the bubbles. Dismal music played, mercifully drowned out by the whooshing and rattling of the mass transit system kids aptly called the pea-shooter. Several teenage commuters wore I-vids – opaque sunglasses cradling their eye sockets, evanescent light patterns occasionally leaking out – seeking refuge outside of the present.
He felt eyes burning into the back of his head. A synthetic, incomprehensible female voice blurted out the name of the next station. Micah decided he was getting off, no matter what. The noise whined down and they jolted to a stop, the doors opening a little too early so that the person behind him stepped out. Micah twisted to see a bedraggled Antonia standing on the platform, eyes edgy, in amongst passengers trying to board. With an effort he carved through them and disembarked from the bubble, whose doors zipped shut, as it catapulted down the tunnel to its next destination. The bubble’s wake blew her skirt around her legs. He tried not to look.
There she stood, the girl of his dreams, right in front of him on the platform with its ebbing wash of people. Four minutes max before the next one. Patches of his recently-aired anger from his debrief with Vince hung like flotsam around him. It wouldn’t take much to set them off again.
"Why did you follow me?" he said. He still had a faint thread of hope, though his rational mind said he was wasting his time.
Her face flushed, her hands wrestling each other. "I came here to find out something."
            He didn’t want to get angry with her – or did he? He wasn’t sure.  
"You came to ask me about the simulacra in the landscapes," he said.
"How did…? Wait – Vince doesn’t know, does he?" Her voice betrayed more than a hint of concern.
            "Not yet, though he’ll figure it out soon enough."
She looked crestfallen. Micah was feeling fed up, anger at being rejected welled up inside him, heading for the surface. He went on the offensive.
"I saw Katrina’s simulacrum in Rudi’s landscape. Rudi’s world is pretty ravaged. The Katrina simulacrum wasn’t in good shape." He noticed how she became increasingly motionless, holding herself together, barely breathing, not meeting his gaze. He had to be sure. "To be honest," he said, "I don’t think she will survive – "
"Stop! Stop it," she said, not yelling, which made it worse. "You’re hurting me!"
Micah recoiled. The words cut through him, snapping off his breath. The angst deserted him, leaving him suspended like a surfer whose wave had just vanished into thin air. His bravado freefell. What the hell was I thinking! Now is no time to behave like a bastard; like my father.
She bit her lip, eyes swimming in salt water, but held his gaze, not caring.
"Micah, you have to help her. The real Kat, I mean. I keep having these terrible… She and I …" she choked off. He closed towards her cautiously, like a child who had hurt his sibling when playing rough, not meaning to cause real pain. He reached out and touched her arm, gesturing to some uncomfortable-looking fixed seats plastered with seedy holo-graffiti. He hoped they hadn’t been desecrated by the tramps who slept there. They sat down on the gaudy, unyielding plastic.  
She sniffed tears away and stared at the swirling incandescent ads on the opposite wall. "We met at an international dignitaries’ function nine months ago – my uncle is the Slovakian ambassador – I’m not usually into girls, but she was so funny, in a dark sort of way. She stole a kiss from me. It changed my world."
Micah felt hollow. But he said nothing, accepting his retribution for how he’d just acted.
"Ever since, we’ve been seeing each other secretly, up until the launch. We signed a three-year pax agreement before she left orbit." She glanced at him sideways. "You’re okay, aren’t you, I mean with girl-girl… Oh, never mind. Anyway, about a week before we lost contact, the messages she’d been sending me via the simulacra stopped. I knew something was wrong, that someone was tracking it down. I didn’t know if it was you or Rudi. I was going to talk to Mr Kane. When he was murdered, then Rudi, I was desperate. I knew the danger had penetrated the Eden Mission staff. I didn’t know who to trust."
He cleared his throat. "Antonia, I’ll do my best to help you get back in contact with Katrina –"
"Kat, if you don’t mind."
 "Okay, Kat – and I don’t mind at all," he lied, because this was hell. "But I’ll need your help tomorrow finding the simulacra, if it’s not already decompiled."
            "Gladly, I want to do something!" Her face lit up. She pressed her hand on top of his. "I hoped you’d help. It means a lot to me." She retracted her hand. He stared at his own hand, making sure it didn’t follow hers. Commuters began clogging up the platform.
            The first wisps of air ruffled her blouse as a bubble thrashed its way down the tube, its braking screech getting louder. He stood up. "Tomorrow, then."
           She stayed seated as he turned towards the platform’s edge. He struggled not to look back. The bubble arrived, a popping sound as its doors opened. Boarding it, engulfed by the sweaty throng of other passengers, Micah caught a last glimpse of her, head hung down, as the bubble vomited out of the station.
He wondered how his father would have handled it. He’d probably have somehow seduced her away from Katrina – Kat – seeing their Lesbian affair as a challenge. Seduction had been his father’s other forte, so he’d heard. But it wouldn’t be his path. He recalled his mother sobbing alone at night, when he was too young to understand, but not too young to make the connection. Every hero has a dark side, Vince had said.
His stop arrived. As he and the anonymous crowd flooded out of the station into the constant warm breeze of Kaymar cavern, a flower-seller, whom his mom always complained was ridiculously over-priced, called out to him and other passers-by. His father had always brought home red roses for Micah’s mom – afterwards. Micah bought white.

The following extract concerns another protagonist, this time Blake, from the second book Eden’s Trial. In the first part of the book, Blake managed to save mankind, but ended up in a coma. He awakes four months later, rescued by Rashid, only to find that everything has gone to rack and ruin, after a despot (Shakirvasta) has seized power. Always the soldier, the commander sending others to their death or victory, he’s had enough. His wife Glenda is dying of cancer, and he wants to see her, no matter the cost. Even if he knows it’s a bad decision, he’s just been through too much. But Rashid has an ace up his sleeve…

Blake paced the small cavern. His heart thumped loudly in his veins. He’d had enough. He pressed his eyes closed, then thought of his priorities. And there lay the solution, he realised. His priorities, not ‘the people’s’. His heart eased off.  
“So, Glenda is in this new central complex at the heart of the city?” He picked up and checked the pulse rifle: fully charged.
            Rashid frowned. “It is not so simple. The city is effectively under martial law.”
            “She’s my wife, and neither of us is technically a prisoner, right?”
            Rashid sighed, and hung his head. “Your good wife told me to give you a message, if you became…”
            “Difficult?” He rammed the rifle into the one of the skimmer’s gun slots.
            “She said use it only as a last resort, to stop you doing something… foolish.”
            “Rashid, after what I’ve been through – after what we’ve all been through – I can’t just leave her there. Even if Shakirvasta takes me prisoner, I’ll be closer to her.” He parked the second pulse rifle in the remaining gun slot. “Coming?”
            Rashid squatted down. His hand glazed across the sandy floor. “Please, reconsider. At least, let us form a strategy, gather support. Give time for the rumours of your escape to reach the population, and let Shakirvasta’s true nature be exposed by his actions.”
            Blake felt the anger brewing inside him like a thunderstorm. He’d not given up everything just so Shakirvasta and his cronies could turn their new society into a dictatorship, with people working the land as effective forced-labour or as minions in ‘services’. And as for Jennifer – how had he misjudged her so? But he recognised a deeper seat to his anger. His mentor, General Kilaney, had warned him about it. He’d said that given enough time, every career soldier, at least once, will seriously question if the people he’s prepared to fight and die for are worth it. He realised he was boiling inside that particular crucible right now. He’d done his part, freed people from the Alician menace, only to see them hand power to a megalomaniac. How could they be so stupid? The only person he wanted to save now was Glenda. Nothing else, and no one else, mattered.
“Sorry, Rashid, but I’m done with saving other people all the time. I went to Eden knowing my wife had terminal cancer, knowing I might never see her again. Then I ran a suicide mission against Louise, saying goodbye to Glenda again. And now she’s a prisoner. This is personal, Rashid, I’m done being the Commander; I just want to save my wife, you understand that, don’t you?” He knew damn well Rashid understood – Rashid had gone to Eden leaving his wife behind, never to see her again. Blake knew he shouldn’t have said it, but it was out now.
            Rashid found a pebble on the floor, and weighed it in his hand, saying nothing. Blake mounted the skimmer, and grabbed his helmet.
            “Commander, here is the message.” Rashid spoke to the floor. “Glenda said that Zack told her about Robert. That was all she said. I do not know what it –”
Rashid stopped as Blake’s helmet slammed into the wall, then ricocheted off onto the floor several times before sloshing to rest in the pool of water.
            Blake sat on the skimmer, breathing hard, his arms hanging by his sides. His right hand trembled, the one that had pulled the trigger all those years ago. “Zack had no right,” he whispered, his voice almost breaking. He gritted his teeth, remembering his and Zack’s botched rescue attempt to save those captive boys near the end of the War in Kurana Bay. His own son, Robert, had been… transformed by the enemy into a mindless fighting machine… Only he and Zack had known. Robert had been declared missing in action, presumed dead.
            The fight drained out of him. Glenda’s message was as clear as it was brutal. No more botched rescues: use your head. He knew she was right. And the message was double-edged – she might well be angry with him, or not, he couldn’t tell. He could imagine her pounding him with her fists, tears running down her cheeks, screaming ‘How could you?’ Maybe that was what he wanted, or needed.
His breathing slowed. He remembered Pierre once used a French expression about the need to maintain one’s sang froid – cold blood. His right hand stilled.
He dismounted, walked past Rashid, and retrieved his helmet, shaking it a couple of times to rinse out the fetid water. He went over to the field stove and began preparing tea. ‘Names, Rashid. I need names of those you trust with your life, those who are on Shakirvasta’s side, and those who could be turned to our advantage. And I need schematics of the city, as well as the political infrastructure.’
Rashid came to Blake’s side. He stood to attention, and saluted. “Good to have you back, Commander.”

So, internal conflict is usually the key difference between us and super-heroes – they can make the right calls all the time, it’s in their DNA, whereas we can’t, unless with a little help. But perhaps that's what maybe makes us worth saving.

The Eden Paradox is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon, Brnes and Noble, and from Waterstones (UK)
Eden’s Trial is available as ebook from Amazon (currently free with Amazon Prime), and will be in paperback in autumn 2012.
The finale, Eden’s Revenge, will be available in ebook December 2012, paperback Spring 2013.
For a light-hearted exploration of superheroes and their lack of internal conflict, see my free short story ‘Conversation with a Superhero’, on my ‘Stories’ page on my website.

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