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Conflicts of Character, continued - The Motive Center
September 30th, 2004
11:02 pm

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Conflicts of Character, continued
Last post I wrote a bit about conflict of motives across people--basically, since motives are nonconscious and emotional, people with different motives will be operating on different wavelengths, and not understand even why the other person feels the way they do. One additional point on that: Nature abhors a vacuum, but fills it with whatever comes to hand. When people don't understand why someone does something, they make up theories--and for some reason they are almost always negative. Perhaps because fear is a powerful motivator in its own right! Hence the distrust and cynicism that rules so many organizations that don't think about clarity of communication. (And I'm not even going to discuss the Presidential debate tonight!)

But conflict isn't just about different people--it's also about what goes on within one person. It's a powerful source of drama for writers, and a powerful source of heartburn for ourselves! There's been some study of that...


Everyone has all three motives, to different degrees. They are completely independent of each other--different goals, different drivers, even different neurochemistry!--so this is an obvious source of conflict, and a painful one, because all the motives are emotional.

For example: Hamlet. Hamlet has many conflicts going on--how many depends on your interpretation of the character, but there are a few fairly clear-cut ones. He has been deprived of a throne--that's a power/influence motive concern. He loved his father and loves his mother--those are affiliative concerns. There's even a hint that he enjoyed his studies in university, which might be an Achievement concern. And they are all in conflict!

Surely he wants his mother to be happy, but for her to be happy with his uncle betrays his father's memory. Conflict of affiliation alone! Also, his uncle marrying his mother helped him usurped Hamlet's throne--so Hamlet's love for his mother conflicts with his own power motive. His love for his father also includes keeping his throne. Attacking his uncle means disrupting the kingdom of Denmark and making it vulnerable to an outsider (who ultimately does take over Denmark). And so on!

Hamlet is famous for spending most of five acts in complete indecision. He's an intelligence, sensitive guy with multiple motives pulling at him profoundly. We're not talking about irritation here, we're talking about profound matters of life and death.

When people have multiple motives aroused--not just strong, but aroused by the situation--it makes it impossible to make a decision. I asked David McClelland once what a person was like who had all three motives high. He said: "confused." Everything is interesting! When all three or even just two are pumped up negatively, it erodes your ability to manage yourself, as mentioned in the Yerkes-Dodson Law section. You're being tugged multiple ways.

If Hamlet's throne had been usurped by an outsider, it would have been much clearer: go get the guy!

A lot of drama is about this kind of conflict. One classic form of hard-boiled detective is the ex-cop who has to battle his own friends and the establishment to solve the mystery: Affiliation and Power conflicts. Most stories use those two motives, because they are both about people, which makes for more story. Romances can have the "noble sacrifice," where the true love is sacrificed for honor, or for that matter honor being sacrificed for true love. The drama comes from the person struggling not only with others, but with him- or herself.

There are Achievement-motivated stories, but they are often more about solving the problem than interpersonal conflict--like Agatha Christie's mysteries, where the characters are not terribly rich, but the plot or challenge is.

And that's probably enough for tonight--but there are also conflicts of motives and values, which I will save for next time.

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