Posted by: Phil Anderson | May 4, 2014

What Do You Mean By That?

Miscommunication is a great source of conflict. (And when I say “great” I mean that in a fictional way.)

In most narratives, conflict or drama comes from the antagonist, the villain, the bad guy. He is working against the hero of the story. He uses violence, deception, and all kinds of evil against the protagonist. It’s an archetypal struggle, an iconic showdown, white hats facing down black hats, the classic battle of good vs. evil.

But it’s not very realistic. Most of us don’t have an evil nemesis with whom we have to fight to uphold truth, justice, and the American way. We are not all pure of heart nor are we opposed by black-hearted villainy. The people we come into conflict with most often are the people around us, people we love. And these arguments come not from animosity, but from misunderstandings and miscommunication.

There can be many reasons for a breakdown in communication. Some people just don’t present themselves or their ideas very clearly. Others don’t listen very well, or misinterpret what they hear. Often there are secrets, either to hide something shameful or embarrassing or to protect someone from bad news or a dangerous truth. Any of these, either alone or in combination, are great fodder for both drama and comedy.

When I use misunderstandings in my writing, it can get complicated. I have to keep in mind what the speaker intends to say, how the hearer interprets it, and what I want the audience to understand. I also have to make sure that the communication–either spoken or unspoken–supports all of these perspectives. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a great feeling of accomplishment when it comes together well.

I’m not saying that conflicts from misperceptions are better than the hero/villain model. The Hero’s Journey requires intense opposition. I love a bold hero and a powerful villain. But for characters to be relatable, more than just two dimensional symbols, there has to be more.

Maybe the hero and sidekick have a difference of opinion in how to move forward against a villain. Perhaps the wise sage is unclear in his direction, sending the hero into greater danger than merely facing his enemy. A potential romantic interest might give mixed signals, distracting the protagonist from focusing on the struggle at hand.

What types of conflict do you enjoy reading? What do you find compelling? Do want heroic heroes and villainous villains? Or do you like the human drama, the struggle to understand one another? Leave a comment below.

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