Part six of my analysis of “Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling” (that aren’t really Pixar’s) deals with an uncomfortable character conflict issue that can be a challenge for any writer:
(6) What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
There’s a phrasing problem with this otherwise excellent advice that can lead storytellers into a common trap.
The sound advice in this statement is “take your characters outside their comfort zones “, “challenge your characters and see how they respond”, and (implied) “the evolution of how your character responds to challenges is their arc”.
But “throw the polar opposite at them”, if taken literally, leads to merely sticking your character in a contrarian world. That’s flat: there’s no build and no nuance. And it denies your audience the opportunity to see the character being good at what they’re good at.
Since falling back on mechanical, merely contrarian conflict is indeed a trap storytellers fall into when grasping for conflict, it makes the phrasing gaffe all the more unfortunate.
For example, if your character is good at playing the violin, the polar opposite is “not playing the violin”, but that is only an interesting challenge for so many beats.
It’s also important to keep in mind that this concept is most interesting and useful when it’s applied to emotional strengths and weaknesses, rather than skill based ones. Forcing a character not to use a skill is mechanical, and will only get you so far. It’s useful kind of conflict to have, but not the central one.
Forcing a character out of their emotional comfort zone, challenging her to change her emotional responses — that’s the stuff character arcs are made of.
For example, a character who copes with the world through lies and deceit being forced into a situation where she must tell the truth is an interesting conflict, one that leads to a clear character arc (either to greater truthfulness, or self-destruction if it’s a tragedy).
You want to start by throwing your character into exactly what they’re good at, to show the audience how good she is at it. The liar character needs to be a great liar, and gets (the wrong kind of) rewards for it.
Then you put her in the situation where she needs to not fall back into that comfort zone in order to succeed, to force her to change.
But later, as she is changing and embracing that change, you may throw her into a situation where her old ways would be an obvious positive solution to the situation in order to show how moving outside her comfort zone is challenging her, and whether she can either get out of the situation without falling-back, or can use that aspect of herself as a tool without getting sucked back into negative aspects her old ways.
Presenting the already-arcing character with such a situation, where the most expeditious and effective solution to their situation would be to fall back on their old ways, is an interesting challenge that involves throwing at the character exactly what they’re comfortable with.
Can your character maintain her emerging new self in the light of a situation where pragmatically falling-back into her emotional comfort zone would be , but she knows that morally, emotionally or philosophically it’s a terrible idea?
That deceitful character, for instance, may be put in a situation where she *should* lie, even though she’s already seen how much damage her deceitful ways have caused her. How she responds to *that* is, at the right point in the story, even more interesting than how she responded to a situation where not lying at all was the proper response.
To summarize: what you want is a build, from showing that comfort zone, to challenging it with situations where the opposite response is necessary, to further challenging them with situations where the old comfort zone response is better, perhaps necessary, and forcing the character to either find a new way that is neither the old way nor the polar opposite, or contend with using her old tool without fully going back to her old ways.