Who Cares? Character Values and Conflict
Who cares? Well, our characters do. These sometimes larger-than-life types care passionately about people and places and objects and concepts and experiences. If you can figure out what your characters care about, you can use these values to discover more about them, to create motivation for action, and to generate conflict.
What’s a value? It’s simply something that matters to the character. A value can be inside (my independence) or outside (the great outdoors). It can be tangible (the county courthouse) or intangible (justice). It can be positive (a friendship) or negative (a grudge). It can be important (loyalty) or trivial (his ragged old college sweatshirt).
It’s not a virtue (something you can do), and it’s not a goal (something you strive for), but a value underlies every virtue and every goal. For example, a character who values her reputation will probably behave morally (virtue) and/or strive to prevent the re-release of her decade-old Playboy centerfold photos (goal).
The Key to the Inner Life
When you identify your character’s value system, you identify something about her– what matters to her, what she venerates. Try listing five values your character holds dear, then dig deeper to find out the implications. I like to identify a conceptual value, a personal value, an experiential value, an object of value, and a negative value.
In common vernacular, values are usually something sort of high-falutin’, concepts like truth and freedom.
Probably every character venerates one concept above all the others, and that’s going to tell something about that person’s personality. For example, let’s take Tony, a police captain in a medium-sized city. Ask him what concept he values most, and he’ll say honor.
The problem with conceptual values is 1) they tend to be generic, and 2) they tend to stop all inquiry right there. Who doesn’t value honor? So…. so what?
But different people have different definitions for honor– and different reasons for valuing it. If it’s important enough to qualify as a value, then it’s got to have some internal cause. When in doubt, turn to the character him/herself. So let’s ask:
Q. Tony, what do you mean by honor? And why is it important to you?
A. Well, you know, honor. I mean, doing the right thing. Showing courage under fire. Treating people fairly. Telling the truth. I’m a cop, and that’s all I am, and if I’m not honorable about it, well, I should just hang up the shield and holster. Don’t deserve to wear them, if I can’t wear them honorably. My dad wore them honorably. Everyone knew Gianni Nicolosi was an honorable man who upheld the honor of the force. Everyone knew my dad could be counted on to do right by the law and by the citizens. And that matters. People have to be able to trust the police department. And so it’s important that the citizens look at me and see an honorable cop. I’ve got to maintain that reputation, not just for my own sake, but so I won’t sully my dad’s memory.
So what do we learn? Honor is an umbrella concept to Tony, covering truth and fairness and courage. Well, heck. That doesn’t actually mean much, so it’s good he pushes past the annual FOP banquet speech and gets to what he really means. Honor is his dad. And Tony identifies with his dad, following him into the force, taking on his major value, and assuming that his own behavior reflects on his father’s reputation. Oh, and that word reputation? Which does Tony value more? Honor– or a reputation for being honorable? Of course he’s an honorable cop, but not just for honor’s sake. He’s honorable because he wants people to know he’s honorable, so they’ll trust the force and compare him favorably to his father.
It’s essential to dig beneath the surface with these amorphous conceptual values. What really matters for the character? And how? A ruthless CEO might very well value loyalty… in her employees. That doesn’t mean she values it in herself. (It’s awfully hard to be both ruthless and loyal!) So don’t stop with the comfortable realization that your protagonist (like most protagonists) values truth and justice and the American way. Find out what those mean, and why they matter.
Let’s Get Personal
Next let’s try that personal value, something in this character’s life which matters. Tony would immediately say my family. So would I. So would you. So that’s not good enough. Delve deeper.
Q. Tony, what specifically do you value about your family?
A. It’s a big Italian family. I have four brothers and four sisters. We all still live here in town, and we all still get together for Sunday dinner. Hell, any given evening, half of us are over at Ma’s, chowing down. She’s a good cook, and loves when we bring friends by – says things like ‘I’ll just put some more wine in that sauce and it’ll stretch to another serving.’ She was the cook at the Sermon on the Mount, you know? The never-ending loaves and fishes– that’s my Ma’s sort of miracle. And since Dad died, well, we don’t like to leave her alone much. Got to keep constant contact, you know? That’s why, when Angie and I split up, I insisted on joint custody for Tony, Jr. I got him half the time, every week. And usually, I’ll take him to dinner at Ma’s after Little League practice, even on Angie’s days. And I call him every evening, no matter what. I’m going to be there for him, and he’s going to know it.
So what Tony really values is family contact. It’s not the family name or family traditions or the family home. You get the idea that he’d think the family stability was threatened if a couple of his siblings moved out of town. Notice the conflict he faces, however. He wasn’t able to keep his own family together. But despite the divorce, he’s insisting on sticking close to his son.
Also observe that with both values, it matters to Tony that people know– that the citizens know they can trust him, and that his son knows he’s there.
The Motivation for Action
Values motivate action. If we care about something, we’re willing to take action to preserve it or achieve it. The more tangible values (the experiential and object ones) are more likely to generate action because they exist in the real world of events and things.
Experiential values are those events the character wants to experience. Family rituals, favorite activities, hobbies– these are all experiences of value, and everyone could list several here. Force the character to choose one valued experience, however, and we’ll get a deeper understanding of how he experiences life and what sort of action comes naturally to him.
Q. Tony, you say you’re most proud of being in charge of the rapid response team. Why?
A. It’s everything I like about policework– direct, immediate engagement with problem elements in the community. I lead the SWAT team and the bomb-squad. Most captains spend their time at the desk, reading reports and making assignments. But I get to get out there with my teams, training them and responding to the bomb reports and hostage incidents. We have had several bomb calls lately. They weren’t real lethal devices, but you can’t take any chances– we had to roll out the robot and explode the bombs and analyze the residue, all the fun stuff. Not that I think it’s fun that there’s this serial bomber out there. But this is what we’re trained for, and it’s good to get a chance to put it into practice to protect the community. There’s danger involved. It’s a real adrenaline rush. Calls on every bit of our training and intuition and street-smarts and courage.
Plus the uniforms are way cool.
We value experiences that challenge us, that entertain us, that fulfill us. Experiences force us to make choices and take action. So the character’s experiential value helps determine both the perception mode– how he gets information about the world outside himself– and the default action– the first choice he’ll make when he’s called upon to act.
Tony values direct experience. He learns best by doing. He’s a hands-on guy, even now that he’s in charge. He likes to get in there and mix it up. So now we know that if there’s danger, he’s likely to plunge in along with his team, no holding back and just supervising for him.
The Subjective of Objects
A character doesn’t have to be a materialist to value certain objects. That’s because valued objects are imbued with meaning. You might keep your late mother’s old winter coat long after you’ve given all her other clothes away– “because it smells like her.” So when we identify the object that a character most values, we might learn what inner need most drives him to act.
Q. Tony, why do you cherish that signed Joe DiMaggio baseball?
A. We’re all White Sox fans in my family. I played on the White Sox farm team even, before I got injured. So we’re supposed to hate the Yankees, but I can’t really, ’cause I got this sneaking admiration for Joe DiMaggio. Hey, the guy’s hit streak’s held up for 60 years now. Plus he married Marilyn Monroe. But my dad– he hated the Yankees. He even died of a stroke watching the Yanks beat the Sox. Of course, that was just after my brother Tommy announced– Never mind. The Joe DiMaggio baseball, right. Dad gave it to me the day I made detective. Understand, he was a patrol sergeant and proud to wear a uniform every day of his career, and I wasn’t sure he was going to approve of me going over to the other side. But he made the hike over to the detective division, and put that DiMaggio ball on my new desk. He didn’t ever say why, but I understood. He meant I could go my own way and he’d still love me.
Notice that Tony himself interprets the meaning of this object. It shows that Tony, a traditionalist in so many ways, sometimes needs to rebel, to break free of his family’s expectations– but that he’s never going to stray far. (No joining the fire department, no Michael Jordan-autographed basketball!) This echoes his personal value of staying in contact with his family. He might end up police commissioner, but he’ll still watch baseball in the living room with his brothers while Ma cooks Sunday dinner.
The more concrete you can make this value, the better. We could have listed the White Sox as his object of value– only it’s not his, and it’s too big. Narrowing into an actual object elicits more precise and vivid information.
The Positive Negative
A paradoxical way to develop a character is through the identification of a negative value. This is something the character values which isn’t really valuable, something damaging or destructive or just plain stupid, such as an addiction or a dysfunctional relationship or that big mansion she can’t afford since tech stocks tanked.
Yes, this illustrates the character’s imperfections. Great! Perfect characters are boring characters. A character with a negative value is a character with room to grow during the course of the book.
For example, Tony values his grudge against his brother Tommy. (Of course we value our grudges. That’s why we’re said to “nurse” them.) The question is why he’s got it, and how it benefits him.
Q. Tony, this grudge against your brother. What’s going on there?
A. That’s family stuff. I’m not getting into that. Tommy and me– maybe we don’t get along anymore, but he’s family, and I’m not going to talk against him, even if he did betray me. Even if he says it’s my own fault it happened. I might have made a few mistakes, but nothing to justify a betrayal like that– nothing justifies a brother betraying a brother. But it’s not like I’m shunning him or anything. I see him at our mother’s house every now and again. We’re polite to each other, for Ma’s sake. That’s all he can expect from me.
Tony’s negative value reveals a blind spot here. He values the grudge because as long as he can blame his brother, he doesn’t have to acknowledge his own mistakes and fix them. The negative value has a positive aspect, for the story if not the character. It offers the opportunity for growth. We don’t want Tony to stop valuing honor or the DiMaggio baseball– but during the course of the story, plot events might challenge him to overcome his grudge and accept his brother back into his heart. It provides a way to illustrate that Tony has grown enough in self-awareness not to need the grudge. A final scene might show him and Tommy in Ma’s backyard, tossing a baseball back and forth as they did when they were kids.
The Risk of Value and the Value of Risk
Values are valuable… that’s why they should be put at risk by the story events. Risking a cherished value immediately heightens the stakes of the scene, sharpening motivation and intensifying internal conflict.
Internal conflict doesn’t always have to be the result of dark psychological forces. Especially in lighter books, conflict can arise from a conflict in values– two values held dear which turn out to be incompatible when plot events force a choice between them.
For a character’s values to create conflict, the choices have to be real enough that require an examination of priorities. The most effective events will be those that force choices where there isn’t any clear path, where both aren’t particularly good or particularly bad, where each option has its benefits and its costs…. and where no matter what she does, there’s going to be some cost. That’ll show what she values most.
For example, the choice between the values of friendship and truth is too easy if the heroine’s best friend asks her to lie to a potential assassin. Even the most honest person would probably lie to save a life. But what if the best friend asks the heroine to lie and say they were together on the night her abusive husband was murdered? She swears she didn’t kill him, and the heroine believes it, but there is no alibi…. Now that’s a tougher choice, isn’t it? And how the heroine decides will determine whether friendship or truth matters most. No matter which she chooses, there’s a price to pay.
Even identifying a list of values creates conflict, because it means some values matter more than others. For example, honor means more to Tony than loyalty, for example, though loyalty usually matters to a traditional man like him. This means when a friend asks him to get him off a drunk-driving arrest, Tony might hesitate– but then take the honorable rather than loyal action and refuse. It could break up the friendship and have the friend vowing revenge, but if honor is truly Tony’s highest value, he can’t compromise here and remain the man he thinks he is. Now if Tony would agree to get his friend off, there might be even more conflict, because he’d have to realize that his self-image was wrong, that honor was not his highest value after all.
Similarly, the negative value is often in conflict with one of the other identified values. Obviously Tony’s grudge makes staying in contact with his family more difficult. He might call to ask if Ma’s cooking her famous lasagna tonight, hear Tommy’s voice in the background, and decide to grab a burger instead. Christmas shopping isn’t going to be much fun when he has to decide if he should get Tommy a real gift or something politely generic.
Consider how the story events might put each of the protagonist’s values at risk. For example, Tony loves the experiential aspect of running the SWAT team and bomb squad. But what if the police commissioner takes exception to his police captain rappelling down buildings instead of attending meetings? Or maybe the press starts calling for his reassignment when he seems to be doing a better job disarming bombs than finding the bomber?
It’s often a good idea to be subtle when putting the valued object at risk. Yes, someone could swipe the DiMaggio ball from Tony’s desk. But the same effect can be achieved less obviously by having the bomber use a similar object – say a mass-produced DiMaggio baseball glove– to conceal a bomb and taunt Tony.
Exercise: Exploring Values
Here’s a quick exercise to help you identify and explore your character’s values.
1. List 5 things your protagonist values.
2. For each of these, explore “Why?” in the first-person voice of the character.
3. Then jot down a couple of ways to put each of these values at risk to create conflict in the story.
Alicia Rasley values creativity, family stories, going on retreats with other writers, her internet connection, and her addiction to buying books she has no time to read.