In each of the above cases, this advice met with resistance: “But I want to present what these people do in a positive light! I don’t want to bring negativity into it.” My argument was (and still is) that the only way to portray an activity as a positive thing is to prove your subjects are willing to overcome opposition to do it. If you just show people doing their thing and having a great time, there’s no story. If you show them doing it despite opposition, then the audience can appreciate the meaning of what they do.
“Well, okay, sure, all stories need conflict,” you might say, “but my fictional characters are more compelling than those would-be reality show stars. If I create a great fictional character who’s internally conflicted, can’t that create meaning on its own, without bringing any external conflict into it?”
It is possible to write a meaningful story in which the primary conflict is internal, not external, but it’s much harder. The only form of writing that is naturally suited to showing internal conflict is the first-person novel, but even movies can pull it off if they work really hard.
For instance, The Secret Life of Dentists, based on the novella The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley, successfully dramatizes the internal conflict of a passive protagonist. Campbell Scott plays a conflicted dentist who can’t bring himself to confront his wife about her infidelity. So how does the movie dramatize this internal struggle, this lack of action? It uses every trick in the book—voice-over, dream sequences, wish-fulfillment fantasies—but ultimately, all of these fall short, so Scott must argue with an imaginary character (Denis Leary) who represents his suppressed rage. So this movie becomes the exception that proves the rule: One way or another, conflict must be dramatized.
Even if you are writing a first-person novel, internalized stories without external conflict are hard to write well. Drama refers to interaction between characters, not conflict within a character, and drama is at the heart of great writing. Conflicted characters are great because they’re volatile, but that volatility only erupts when that conflicted character meets her match and is thereby challenged. When we pick on ourselves, we rarely do so in a surprising way. When other people pick on us, that’s when things get real.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
NO. Not really, and that’s fine. He’s his own antagonist. (Almost every woman he meets is actually willing to have sex with him: Mann, his boss, the bookstore girl, Keener, the prostitute) Kat Denning is a bit of an antagonist, but even she joins team Andy quickly.
YES, Ash. (Well, sort of human)
YES. Her family at first, then her teachers once her family has been co-opted.
YES. first the sister then Samuel. Also the child services people.
YES. “That’s Hedly!”
YES. many, but especially Frank.
The Bourne Identity
YES. Chris Cooper.
YES. pretty much everyone, especially Major Strasser.
YES. Noah Cross, the cops, etc.
YES. everybody he meets.
Do the Right Thing
YES. The hero is doing very little, but yes, Pino opposes him.
YES. Everyone in the film is opposed to Billi’s wish to tell her grandma.
YES. his new girlfriend won’t let him screw himself over any more.
YES. Hans. The movie would have been much weaker if not-really-bad Elsa was the only antagonist.
YES. Just about everybody
Hmm… It depends on his goal. Yes, when he wants a date from Rita, otherwise not really, just himself.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. His father specifically and whole village generally, and then the final dragon.
In a Lonely Place
YES. everyone, to varying degrees.
YES. First the warlord, then Stane. Sometimes Pepper as well.
YES. Her mom is opposed to a lot of what she’s doing.
YES. Lots of them.
YES. Dr. Guggenheim, and everybody else at one time or another.
YES. Lots and lots.
NO. Not at the beginning, but yes once they’re opposed to each other.
YES. Jack is opposed to Miles’ idea of not meeting someone, then opposed to Miles’ need to confess, Maya and Steph are opposed to his lying.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Chilton, plus Lecter, plus Bill
YES. Darth Vader
YES. Various, as his goals change. First the repo men, then Max, then Betty, then Norma.