01 February 2012

Characters in Need of Unresolvable Foundational Conflicts

In a traditional story with a closed ending, we want the main characters to resolve some conflict. Bud (not Buddy) finds a family. Jim in Treasure Island finds the treasure. Harriet the Spy learns a valuable lesson about friendship. Huck Finn manages to get freedom for Jim. That resolution doesn’t have to come at the end of one book: Harry Potter doesn’t defeat Voldemort until book 7/movie 8.

However, when authors ask us to follow characters through a series of stories with no planned ending, those characters need some foundational conflicts that they don’t resolve. If they ever put those conflicts to rest, then their story has effectively reached an ending. And perhaps run out of fuel for more.

That foundational conflict could be a frustration that will never end: Bruce Wayne will never get his parents back, for instance, and he will never preserve Gotham City from all crime. It may be an internal contradiction: Princess Ozma’s wish to be kind to all will always make it hard for her to deal with really nasty people.

To be sure, there are some characters in series whose personalities and situations don’t include some unresolvable. The Hardy Boys, for example, don’t have inner lives or difficult circumstances. But kids don’t read those books (at least the older versions) for character growth; they’re all about external events, and they depend on a never-ending supply of crime. If criminals ever stay out of Idaville or Bugs Meany gets sent away to reform school, there would no longer be an engine to produce Encyclopedia Brown stories.

Applying this thought to the Oz books, at the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, all the main characters have had their problems solved: Dorothy is back in Kansas, and her three companions have gained what they thought they were missing.

But the 1903 Broadway hit produced a market for a new book, and L. Frank Baum came up with The Marvelous Land of Oz. That story also seemed to end with resolutions all around: Oz has a rightful ruler, Tip has found a new life, and the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman can go off into the sunset together.

Returning to Oz for more books, however, Baum chose to tell more stories about Dorothy. For the next three adventures, she’s once again faced with the conflict of the first: she’s away from home and wants to go back. Each book ends with her back with her family, so what’s the foundational conflict? It’s how she’d be welcome (and powerful) in the beautiful Emerald City, but needs to return to her family.

At the start of The Emerald City of Oz, Baum resolves that foundational conflict for Dorothy. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em loses their farm to the mortgage-holder, and Dorothy insists that they all move to Oz. So Dorothy no longer has an unresolved foundational conflict.

The rest of the book has a mildly adventurous travelogue interspersed with the Nome King’s preparations for a terrible invasion. That takes us to Ozma’s foundational conflict: how she can preserve her values even when faced with such a threat. The Scarecrow helps her, and then (as quoted back here) Glinda apparently removes all such threats in the future. So Ozma no longer has an unresolved foundational conflict.

That wasn’t a problem because Baum planned to end the series with that book. He had brought his main characters to resolutions of their problems. There was no evident engine for future stories.

TOMORROW: But what about the next eight books?

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