Conflict, and why I prefer Scooby Doo to Jane Austen

Caius raised the important point of Peri being in conflict.  Skip this post if philosophy and literary theory bores you!

There will still be conflict

In the new faster stories (starting with Caesar) Peri will be usually part of the story (e.g. as the Fool in King Lear or a townsperson in Julius Caesar)and will comment on the story. She will not usually have any separate subplot of her own. Does that mean she will have less conflict?

I think she will have just as much conflict as the main character, because these bit part people are usually the people who suffer the results of the hero’s actions and mistakes. E.g. the whole country suffers when Lear or Caesar take a wrong turn. But the emphasis will be on the main story, since that (a) is the best story, and (b) is what new users expect. I won’t be devising extra problems as with GOG. In GOG, Peri has her own specific Peri-centered plot/subplot, but in future stories she will be mainly concerned with the plot of the main story. This should also make continuity easier, so it matters less which order people play in. Although the first three stories can be played in any order, it really makes most sense if people start with Les Miserables and finish with GOG. Future stories will makes equal sense in any order. The first three stories just give the back story for why Peri and co are hanging around.

You will still get to know Peri

We will still learn more about the everyday life of an angel – I enjoy adding that stuff – but it will generally happen as gentle asides, and not angsty ticking-time-bomb moments.

I don’t like creating conflict

I don’t like creating conflicts in stories. Because to do it well is extremely difficult: most conflicts are either entirely negative (e.g. most wars) or easily solved in more productive ways (e.g. everything else). I prefer cooperation to conflict.

Don’t get me wrong, ALL stories have conflict, but the best ones do it in a very clever way. Enter The Story will be focused on the conflict in each classic novel, and any other conflicts will naturally evolve in subtle ways. I will not consciously inject fake conflict. Instead I will make the kind of game I would buy.

Even comedy can have good conflicts

Even apparently shallow comedies can have great conflict. Here’s one of my favorite comedies: Moby Duck: one of the Badtime Bedtime Books. On the surface it’s about a giant duck terrorizing the world. But that’s not the real conflict (because giant ducks don’t exist).

The real conflict is that a world DOES exist where crazy stuff could happen! That’s what satire is about – pointing out the very real conflicts that exist in society. The story takes it to absurd proportions, but the underlying conflict is real: (1) people can do anything if we try, so why don’t we fix the world? (2) good intentions and hard work can lead to disaster, (3) people (like the policeman in the story) really can miss the obvious, and (4) it’s a lonely and dangerous life to be the only person who notices; etc.

Another conflict inherent in the Badtime Bedtime Books is that “other people know stuff I don’t.” The books are aimed at children who feel they ought to at least know the basic concepts of classic novels, and they educate the kids through comedy. Moby Duck has all the essentials of Moby Dick but without the fat. And let’s face it, we’re all ignorant, we can all benefit from this kind of compressed education.

Gentle non-violent action = good conflicts

I love action stories written between the Victorian times and the 1960s. Back then people knew what REAL danger was like. And look at the stories they wrote, what do we see? Guns were used only occasionally, people were optimistic, it was generally low tech. Even when they had star ships they were low-tech star ships. The conflicts in those books were powerful because they were real. They were written by and read by people who knew how conflict really works. I’m thinking of books like Sherlock Holmes (the conflict often involved death and the class system) or early science fiction or Boys’ Own style adventures (like the early Dan Dare for example).

Examples of bad conflicts (warning: a bit of politics and snobbery ahead)

In contrast, modern westerners seldom have direct experience of real conflict – we live in a safe and gentle age. Even soldiers are statistically unlikely to be killed, and some even command robot drones from their armchairs. In the real world the most dangerous thing we have seen in a generation is three thousand people dying in 9/11. Well in previous generations that many people would die in every large city every year simply of malnutrition, disease, or real wars. (In the Third World those numbers still apply of course. More people die of starvation every three hours than died in 9/11, but poor people apparently don’t count. )

Since we know nothing of real conflict our entertainment tends to be of the video game variety – carry huge guns and kill everything. In the real world that is not only not funny, it’s so absurd as to be uninteresting. In the real world technology is seldom the answer, things go wrong, a single bullet change everything, being poor is worse than being shot, etc. But to people who don’t have the experience or haven’t thought it through, absurd fake conflict feels exciting.

You don’t have to play violent video games to see absurd fake conflict. In a world where millions are starving any story that involves conflict over one person dying or someone’s personal relationships is pretty uninteresting to me. And even if we forget the millions starving, these books are still pretty idiotic.

Good conflict is very hard to write

Even the greatest classics sometimes fail to have convincing conflict. For example, yesterday I listened to a radio production of E.M.Forster’s “Howards’ End.

The story involves rich people and poor people, lies and immorality and hypocrisy and friendship and death. All the classic conflicts. But those conflictsa are petty and meaningless because they are overshadowed by a REAL conflict that they sometimes talk about but do nothing to address: the class system. They pretend to address it but in the end embrace it as the foundation of their happiness.

I wanted to shout at the radio, “stop messing about with your trivial conflicts, and sit down and think for a moment! All your problems are caused by the class system! You will never have peace or happiness until you face the real problem!” But no, instead they stumble from predictable crisis to predictable crisis, making zero progress. Then it’s all wrapped up in a deus ex machina at the end: the crucible character conveniently dies, killed by the bad guy who is then conveniently sent to prison and everyone lives happily ever after. You call that conflict? They completely avoided the real conflict then it magically disappeared! I call that stupidity (not seeing the real problem) and nonsense (solving it with lucky accidents).

And that is one of literature’s BETTER stories. I don’t for a minute think that any conflict I invent for Peri would be any better. So I’ll stick to adapting the classics, and will not add my own contrived conflicts. I will only add stuff I personally enjoy, and leave uncovering the true conflict as an exercise for the reader.

Politics and Prejudice (Jane Austen fans should skip this bit)

Jane Austen’s books are the same. All the silly, shallow conflicts (e.g. will person X marry person Y) are irrelevent and contrived compared with the vast unexamined conflict. Why, exactly does Mr Rochester or Mr Darcy have an income of ten thousand pounds a year? Because the peasants on “his” estates are being bled dry, that’s why! Every time a Jane Austen heroine has a happy life it’s at the expense of the misery of a thousand other women. I find Jane Austen’s books deeply unpleasant and her conflicts vacuous for that reason. I will probably adapt one at some point, because maybe I’m wrong and besides, I’m interested in what other people find interesting, but I’ll race through it fairly quickly.

(For the record my interest in workers is purely capitalistic – a landed gentry is fundamentally inefficient and inhibits wealth creation compared with a meritocracy.)

Examples of good conflict

I am not saying that all classic conflicts are bad. I am saying that the real conflicts are often below the surface. Moby Duck is an example of this. Shakespeare is another example. So is Les Miserables – it deals with real issues of poverty, justice, wealth creation and judgment. Dante’s Divine Comedy is another example: religion is clearly very powerful, so in what ways is it true? How is it or can it be a force for good? What is good? Hesiod’s Theogony takes religious questions to their foundations: where do gods come from? What is our connection with them? Which if any, are worthy of worship? And if so, how?

Obviously different people get different things from different stories. A story that bores me may be a life-changer to someone else. Stories that I enjoy are often boring or shallow to others. That’s another reason for sticking with the classics – they tend to entertain on many different levels.

Summary

1. I do not want to create contrived conflict. Either I will find it stupid nonsense or other people will find it dull.

2. I will rely on the classics, because these things have passed the test of time.

3. My personal interest is in packing in as many new ideas as possible. I am not convinced that long taking more time over a book makes the ideas any better.

4. Even light hearted stories can have very deep conflict.

Conclusion

My heart is with Classics Illustrated meets the Badtime Bedtime Books, not with what is laughingly called “hard hitting drama”. I’m following my heart.

PS

Sorry, but I can’t resist another example to illustrate my point. Today’s example of a Great Comicbook Moment is from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.  It’s supposed to be a great moment because we care about the character and she is in real danger. Well that’s one view. Another view is that no horror story ever makes sense when you examine it, and this story was popular for one reason only – adolescent boys can look at near naked bodies and say it’s meaningful art.

If you want your horror to have REAL conflict and deep issues the I recommend classic Scooby Doo (the old stories with fake ghosts, not the forgettable new “milk the franchise” version). This is why old Scooby Doo had real depth and thus outlasted the other cartoons:

  1. family loyalty – the gang, where people who would normally have nothing in common can work in happy harmony (the conservative, the hippy, the intellectual, the bimbo, and the dog)
  2. deep, deep friendship – Scoob and Shaggy.
  3. rationalism – the ghosts are all fake.The conflict in Scooby Doo is not between the ghosts and the gang (there is no tension – we know who’s going to win). The conflict is between the real world, where community, friendship and rationalism will save you, and the nonsense world of imaginary fears that fills us with hate and confusion.

If you want Big Themes, if you want deep conflict,  you won’t get better than Scooby Doo. But if you want shallow surface details then E.M. Forster or Jane Austen are O.K. to pass the time.

One response to “Conflict, and why I prefer Scooby Doo to Jane Austen

  1. Sheesh! Don’t you know alienating your customers is a bad business model? :)

    Actually, this sounds pretty good. When a game designer says Scooby Doo is the best example of Big Themes, you know you’re in for a treat. :)

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