Conflict is the essence of dramatic story telling. Conflict
may manifest as external or internal. External conflict usually
involves the protagonist and the antagonist. In fiction, it
is helpful to include a strong bad guy who offers opposition
to the main character's drive. This type of conflict can be
exciting. But internal conflict, I believe, is much more compelling.
Internal conflict is the struggle that occurs in the mind
of the main character. The inner demons that vie for supremacy
in our hero's psyche. The hero against himself. The psychology
of drama: What makes the hero tick?
As I look back at the story of my own life, it is clear that
a major theme has been the tug-of-war between struggling to
adapt myself to the system and the need to achieve independence
from it. Wanting to fit in and yet wanting to follow my own
drummer. Where does the answer lie? For me, the benefits have
accumulated on the side of independence. I do better following
my own instincts than I do when I make the effort to conform.
I have produced five fictional narratives in the form of one
full-length novel and four novellas. The inner conflicts of
my fictional characters have reflected the inner struggle
in my personal story. It is no coincidence that all of my
main characters deal with the tension between being an outsider,
on the one hand, and conforming with the system, on the other.
But my characters exhibit some clear differences.
In my novel, Fixer, Harry Leonnoff begins as an outsider
and gradually moves toward the system. Starting out in life,
he realizes that he can accomplish more on the fringes of
the New York City political scene than he can by pursuing
a law degree. Ironically, the more he succeeds as an outsider,
the more he is drawn into the political game he plays so well.
The same can be said of Dr. Robert Elgar in Women From
Venus. Elgar is doing quite well as a psychotherapist
in private practice but his strong desire for public approval
leads him more and more into the mainstream. The trajectories
of both Leonnoff and Elgar move from outsider toward some
degree of conformity.
In The Man Who Could Not Make Up His Mind, Clifford
Day Vanderwall starts out as the poster boy for the status
quo. In many ways, he is almost a stereotype for conformity,
a Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. What gives him flesh
and blood is his colossal imperfection, the inability to make
decisions. And yet, to everyone's surprise, Clifford ultimately
discovers that he actually functions more effectively on the
outside. In The Stamp, Tommy Courten begins as a functionary
of the military industrial complex but also eventually moves
to the outside. The structure of the system the organizations
of which it is comprised stifles Tommy's creativity
and his soul. Only by breaking away can he find self-actualization.
In The Man Who Could Not Make Up His Mind and in The
Stamp, the protagonists find success as they move away
from the system. But in Fixer and in Women From
Venus, when the heroes move from self-reliance to conformity,
life kicks them in the pants as if to say, "You should have
maintained your independence, dummy!" What all four of these
stories have in common is the hero's discovery that, in the
final analysis, being independent bestows more benefits than
I'll Take Manhattan is different. Melvin Van Zipper
begins as a total outsider, the complete loser. When presented
with a challenge that appeals to his sense of values, he finds
that his path to success lies, if not in total acquiescence,
at least in finding a common ground with the system. He is
the only one of my characters, so far, who ultimately flourishes
within the system, but even he does it in a thoroughly individualistic
manner. He compromises by learning how to "play the game"
without sacrificing his heart and soul. It reminds me of the
scene from the film, Sergeant York, where Gary Cooper
says, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's,
and unto God the things that are God's." In my fiction, Caesar
is a metaphor for the system and God is a metaphor
for being true to oneself and going one's own way. So that
even when some form of compromise has to be made, the main
character is essentially a lone wolf.
And now I am reminded of the movie, Wolf at the Door,
in which Donald Sutherland plays the painter Gauguin and tells
the story of the starving wolf who meets a fat and happy dog.
"Why don't you come with me," says the dog. "My human will
give you food and shelter and you will never have to starve
"Sounds like a terrific idea," says the wolf. "But what is
that thing around your neck?"
"Oh, that's nothing," says the dog. "It's just a collar."
The wolf starves to death rather than wear the collar. Go