Almost every superhero movie or comic book franchise starts in the same place: the origin story. A hero is made when their parents are killed, or they are bit by a spider, or they sign up for dangerous military medical experiments in order to serve their country. And soon enough they discover their archenemy, usually as a direct result of that transformation. Then they go to work, fighting their way to victory. From that moment on, they are the hero they were always meant to be.
To the casual observer, this appears to be nothing more than a genre convention employed by lazy writers. But in reality, this kind of origin story serves as revelation. These moments help us learn who a character is, and understand what motivates them. Put simply, the conflict reveals who the characters are.
In the last issue I wrote that without conflict there is no story, and in this issue we’re going to explore one way that conflict connects an audience to a character.
In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo crafted a masterful story by layering meaningful and universal intellectual, internal, and external conflicts, and embodying them in two characters: the noble fugitive Jean Valjean, and the uncompromising policeman Javert.
At the beginning of the story, Jean Valjean is a paroled convict, making his way across France. One night, when he has no food or place to sleep, he is taken in by a faithful and kind bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu. In the face of this kindness, Valjean steals Bienvenu’s costly silverware. He is soon caught on the road, and taken back to the bishop. The bishop tells the police that he gave the silver to Valjean, and chides him for not also taking the very beautiful and expensive silver candlesticks too. Valjean is set free and given the silver and candlesticks. He now has both the opportunity and means to start a new life.
Jean Valjean broke the law to feed himself and his family, and was sent to prison for it. By the time he stood in Bienvenu’s house, accused of stealing, he was certainly hardened. And when faced with an accusation that he could not refute, it seemed that hardness would doom him for good. But Bienvenu’s act of grace—not just in being shown mercy, but having gifts bestowed above and beyond that mercy—unlocked something inside Valjean. With this moment of undeserved mercy behind him, Valjean goes on to lead a remarkably selfless life. The grace shown by Monseigneur Bienvenu led him to repentance and goodness.
Conflict reveals character
The inciting incident of the story—Bienvenu’s act of mercy and grace—was an inflection point for Valjean. The moment is significant because of the conflict between Valjean and Bienvenu. As previously discussed, we can look at this conflict on three levels:
External: Valjean had stolen from Bienvenu, and by extension, the Catholic Church
Internal: Bienvenu had every right to feel aggrieved at the loss of property and betrayal of trust, yet as a priest his life had been dedicated to dispensing grace
Intellectual: Bienvenu was faced with the tension of choosing between two of his ideals: grace or justice
When Bienvenu decided to show mercy he revealed who he really is. He made a choice that resolved the conflict at the intellectual and internal levels, and this led to a resolution of the external conflict. This resolution reflected the content of his character clearly.
Then, in response, Valjean chose a different path than the one he was on. He may have been an ex-con on parole, but he saw that he could choose to be a man of grace and mercy. This moment sets up the major conflicts of the whole story: Can the guilty be redeemed? Can we live as both just and merciful? Those questions drive both the plot and the themes of the book to their final resolutions.
An audience must care about the characters
Hugo does an excellent job of setting up both Valjean and Bienvenu before this moment of conflict. The reader understands their backstories and values. This makes the subtext (the internal and intellectual conflicts) very clear. Then, when the choices are made, the reader has a clear picture of what it means. We know who Jean Valjean is. We know what he is capable of—both for good and for ill. Because of this when he must make other hard choices hundreds of pages later, the reader understands what drives his decisions and the conflicts that result. We understand the stakes, and that sets the stage for us to care about the outcomes.
Understanding how conflict both shapes and reveals the truth about a character is a building block of great storytelling. By revealing who a character is through conflict, a storyteller can begin to tell a great story that will resonate with their audience. The audience must emotionally invest in your characters for a story to work, and if they don’t really know who a character is, that will never happen.