Broken model

In this snippet from Catching Teller Crow, the narrator (the ghost of a dead girl) has just found out that her grieving father is not going to Grandpa Jim's birthday, which is a big deal to her and her surviving family.

How does this create an internal conflict within the narrator?

There was a queasy sensation in my stomach. Had I been getting things wrong, all this time? I'd been focused on getting Dad back to who he'd been before I died. Now I was thinking I should have been helping him to go on to become a person who knew how to live in a world where I wasn't alive. A person who'd go to Grandpa Jim's birthday.

I had no idea what to do anymore.

We all have a mental model for how the world works.

Every day, we get up and do A, expecting B, then we do C, expecting D. For example, we turn on a tap, expecting water, then we give someone a compliment, expecting them to be pleased.

Those expectations form part of our mental model of the world, and most of the time the world conforms to our model.

But when we do A and then get K—for instance, we work hard, but then we're punished—we become confused: what's going on?

Sometimes we learn something new and adjust our mental model of the world. But sometimes we can't figure out what's going on, and we experience two things:

  • An internal struggle as we process our confusion (often also experiencing sadness or anger).
  • Additional confrontations as we stumble about making mistakes because we don't understand how the world works.
  • She thought she should help her dad get back to normal after her death.
  • So she's been helping her dad (who's a detective) work on a case, thinking her ghostly presence will help him get back to normal.
  • But actually her help has isolated her dad from the rest of their family.

So now Beth doesn't know what to do, and she's struggling.

How does the definition of conflict as 'a sustained struggle between opposing forces' apply in this situation?

We could express it as 'character's mental model vs reality'. (You could substitute the word model for expectations, concept, theory, or whatever you prefer.)

Here are some examples of characters struggling with similar mental model vs reality conflicts:

Vincent wanted to throw up. He had believed he was a ninja. He'd watched almost all of Naruto like it was a documentary: with hard work and tenacity you can achieve any goal; with kicks and flips you can defeat any enemy. But he'd done all that and now Expert was dead and Vincent wondered if the opposite was true: that it didn't matter what you did, the world was going to do what it wanted with you, and if you ever had a choice, you should run.

This way of thinking felt wrong, like he was living in someone else's skin.

I'd always thought you were supposed to try and make your girlfriend or boyfriend happy. You'd try and do what they wanted. So if Charlie said I was too clingy, I'd back off and gave her space like you're supposed to do. But as soon as I backed off, she'd say I was too distant, so then I'd come back and spend more time with her, at which point she'd say I was clingy again. Like a merry-go-round. Did I have it all wrong? Was I trying too hard to please her? Did that make it too easy to take me for granted? Would I be more attractive to her if I played harder to get? It was exhausting. 

I wondered how much of this was down to being the only two out lesbians at school, the claustrophobia of it. Sometimes it felt like we were two beetles in a terrarium with hot lights bearing down and a bunch of faces pressed to the glass, so there was no way we could ever act freely or normally.

But other times I wondered if the problem was with us.

  • Imagine something your character could want.
  • Then imagine how their own ignorance or faulty model of the world could lead them to fail.
  • What kind of conversation might they have with themselves when they begin to realise their model doesn't work?
Describe a character struggling internally with the difference between their mental model of the world and the outcomes they're experiencing.

We could say this type of internal conflict is born of ignorance.

What about internal conflict born of competing desires or values?