Sunday, February 3, 2013

It's a Hero! It's a Villain! It's...Internal Conflict!

Melanie wrote a post on Friday about writing villains, and it's had me paying attention to the conflict and villains in the books I read.  I've been looking at the heroes, too.  The book I'm reading right now doesn't have a cut and dry antagonist, but there are loads of conflicts and consequences.

The book I'm talking about is Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion.  Heard of it lately?  Probably because it came out in theaters a couple of days ago.  Looks like Twilight, only with zombies, right?  It's not.  In fact, I'm not even 100% sure it's considered young adult.  The characters drop more F bombs, drink more alcohol, have more awkward zombie sex, and kill more of each other than any book I've read in a long time.  If you want to read the book, I say go for it because it's an excellent book, but be aware it isn't for prepubescent tweens wanting to read about undying romance.  (There is a little udead romance, but that's different.)

Anyway, if you've seen the commercials, you probably have some idea what the story's about.  If not, here's a (mostly spoiler-free) rundown.

R is a zombie that lives in a 747 at the airport.  He spends his day riding escalators and ruminating on the meaning of life after death.  Once in a while, he and his fellow zombies go on hunting expeditions where they capture and devour the Living.  It is during one such hunting trip that R meets Julie (after eating her boyfriend's brain and gaining his memories.)  Rather than eat her, something inside of him switches on and he saves her life by bringing her back to his 747 and hiding her from the other zombies.

Unlikely as it may be, Julie and R become friends.  R starts to change.  His usually limited speech begins to flow.  His hunger disappears.  He starts dreaming again.  He decides he wants to be different. He wants to be a human.

Last night as I'm closing in on the ending, something horrible happened.  Julie gave R a vodka laced glass of juice, and to his utter confusion, it made him drunk.  Even if you've never downed half a bottle of vodka, you probably know that alcohol has a way of making a person do things he wouldn't do if he were sober.  And R is no exception.  His drunken actions are no different than what they were at the beginning of the book, but because I spent so many pages watching him transform into this amazingly humane zombie, I was horrified.  So was he.

I closed the book and stared at it for a few minutes.  I picked it back up and started to open it, then shut it again.  He just spent an entire chapter talking about how he wanted to earn Julie's forgiveness, earn the trust she'd placed in him.  And now I don't know how he's going to do it.  Worse, he's put the largest surviving human city in jeopardy, because he was too much of a coward to right his wrong.  I put the book back down and went to bed.  It was too much for me to tackle at 10 pm.

I'll finish the book, though.  I've got 50 or so pages before it's over.  There's still time for him to fix this.  There's still enough pages left for him to take responsibility, and accept the consequences.  Sure, there are outside threats he has to face--a city full of humans that would kill him on the spot if they knew what he was; a girl he loves that may or may not turn against him when she finds out what he's done; an entire hive of zombies that will debrain him if he tries to go back home.  His chances seem pretty slim compared to those odds, but I don't think any of those things are the villains.  I think he is his own villain.

From everything I've read in this story, it's not a battle of good versus evil, or Dead versus Living.  It is all inside of R.  His struggle, his fight, takes place between the cursed part of him and the scraps of humanity clinging to life.  And even though what he did in the book last night is going to cause a domino effect, his reaction was completely human.  I hope that part of him wins, but since I haven't finished the book, I don't know for sure.

It's been an enlightening story for me.  Most of the time, the bad guy is a character, a group, a force of nature, but this week I've learned it can be something smaller.  Something inside of the hero that limits him, or makes him his own villain, and I have to say, it's been an exciting realization.

Sometimes a story needs a villain to threaten the status quo.  That all-encompassing evil that cannot be changed no matter how much compassion or righteousness the ultra-good hero has.  It can only be defeated.  But then there are times where the hero has to face his own weaknesses, and take responsibility for his actions to become a better man.  I feel like the stakes are higher when the character has to go up against himself.  If you fight a villain and you have right on your side, story logic says you are going to win.  (Heck, if you're the main character, chances are you are going to win, right or wrong.)  But if the character has to do battle with his own nature, it's not a sure thing that he's coming out the other side unscathed.  Which is why internal conflict, though not an action-filled scene of blood and gore, almost always trumps an external source of conflict for me.

Well, that's what I've got today.  Now it's time for me to finish R's story.  Will he face the fallout of his actions and prove to Julie that he's worthy of her?  I don't know, but I'm dying to find out.


  1. Excellent post!

    I remember in one of my high school English classes after we finished a novel we had to list the types of conflicts found in the story. And I'd always put down "man against self." It wasn't always the main conflict, but I think great stories with any depths have multiple layers of conflict in them. And great protagonists always have inner conflict and always stand in their own way to some extent.

    Warm Bodies sounds interesting. I've seen the previews for the movie. It looks funny. I thought it was a comedy, but from your description, the book seems more serious.

    1. It's both. The issues are gritty and sometimes hard for the characters to deal with, but much of the time R (or his crass friend M) find a dark way of laughing at the situations. If the movie was 100% true to the book it wouldn't be rated PG-13, but I haven't seen it yet, so I don't know how the book is portrayed on the big screen.

  2. I've heard a ton about this book, and this post just put it on my TBR pile.

  3. Great stuff, Trisha.

    My friend and her daughter just went to see Warm Bodies and really liked it. Knowing her, it sounds like they toned stuff waaay down for the movie compared to what you were describing.

    Have you finished the book yet? I'm curious to find out if you found the ending satisfying.

    1. Yeah, I did, and yes it was! It ended the way the author set it up to end, which is nice. Sometimes that doesn't happen and I feel a little let down.

      There were some themes I picked up on in those last fifty pages, which I SHOULD have noticed a lot sooner. Several times there were almost-direct quotes from Romeo and Juliet, something I even commented on to my husband as I read, but it never really clicked that R = Romeo and Julie = Juliet, M = Mercutio, Nora = Nurse, etc. I hope that doesn't turn anybody off from the book. It's not a direct Romeo and Juliet update. There are some HUGE differences, and it's a fresh story completely worth a look.

      Something else I decided as I finished the book: the ultimate bad guy is apathy. Once people gave up living in exchange for mere survival, they were lost. I hope that's not giving anything away, but to a die-hard zombie fan the idea might be a bit of a turn off. I hope anyone who chooses to read this (or see the movie) does so with an open mind. These zombies are not sparkly vegetarians. They eat people. So if you want to see a little Night of the Living Dead, don't worry, it's there. But there are lessons, and relationships that change people--Living and Dead alike, and ultimately that is what the story is all about.

      And yeah, several of my friends took their young teenage kids to see the movie, and so far no one has complained. This is where I think the book version is a bit tricky. I know for a fact that a lot of these friends would be horrified if they knew what was in the book. I guess my advice is, if you're a parent, check the book out first and make sure you're okay with the content for your 12 or 13 year old. I know what I was reading at 13, and this isn't half as bad as some of those books, but everybody is different.


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