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Conflicts of Character - What You See - The Motive Center
September 27th, 2004
11:02 pm

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Conflicts of Character - What You See
A post on Jim Butcher's LJ triggered some thoughts for me on conflict. Butcher, author of the Harry Dresden, Wizard novels (ripping good tales), proposes conflict as the core of story and the "most important facet of writing fiction." I agree, but would like to outline some specific kinds of conflict in motivational terms.

Motives are emotional, nonconscious drivers. They also sensitize you to certain things. Power/Influence motive makes you more alert to political maneuverings, organizational shifts, and the like. Motives don't just drive, they open you to specific "wavelengths" that others might not sense. Sound like magic? Read on...


One study showed photographs of pairs of people--some were boss-and-employee, others were just pairs of random people. Power-motivated people spotted which were the boss-and-employee pairs reliably--and more than anyone else. Similarly studies were done with couples--some were people in a relationship, some weren't. Affiliation-motivated people spotted the couples in a relationship. The signals are subtle, but if you are "tuned" to them, you are more likely to see them. And vice versa!

Major source of conflict: same planet, different worlds. This is what I think of as "Dilbert syndrome." Contrary to Dilbert, all managers are not evil or stupid--surprise!--but they do (or should) think differently, and are responding to different signals than the individual contributor. Why? Individual contribution is about achieving goals oneself--an Achievement-motivated set of activities. Management is about influencing others to achieve goals--Influence-motivated activities.

If you're strongly enough motivated one way or the other (and most people are), in effect you are tuned into only one wavelength. Remember that motives do influence thoughts, and furthermore are not conscious. What this means is that people make emotional assumptions they may not realize are assumptions!

One clue to someone's motivation: how does that person try to persuade you? If they say "it's the best way!" "It saves the most time!" "I've worked it out!" chances are they're Achievement motivated--especially if they can't deal with someone else seeing it differently! If on the other hand they say "the team's depending on you!" or "that'll really hurt so-and-so" then it's about Affiliation.

Now put two strongly differently motivated people together. They're not alert to the same issues, they get emotionally engaged in different aspects, and they don't realize they're making these assumptions. Conflict!! Each person assumes the other is clueless, and can't understand why they don't just "get it."

Classic example: an IT person comes up to a manager and says "we ought to switch our computers to X." The manager says "why?" The IT person says "it's better--more efficient, better software, it works better, it will save us money in the long run." The manager responds "but I have to learn how to use it." The IT person says "you should know how to do this." (Self-improvement is related to Achievement motive, too.) The manager adds "but we have to teach everyone else to do it, too. And we have to persuade everyone to take time out of their day to do it. And organize meetings and roll it out across the company." The IT person doesn't get it. "But it's worth it." "That's what you think. They know they'd have to spend time on this, but if we don't switch, they don't have to."

Get the idea? The Achievement motivated person may be thinking about process efficiency, but the Power-motivated person is thinking about the impact on others. Now here's the key: both viewpoints are right.

Hence lies the conflict. In extreme cases, it is tragedy: the inevitable conflict of two equally right answers, where neither person even understands why the conflict exists at all!

With a possible exception--Power motivated people are tuned into what other people are thinking and feeling, so when they persuade, they are more likely to aim at the other person's motive rather than their own. Within limits...

So one kind of conflict: motive to motive, between people. Maybe the most powerful, since it is also about emotion vs. emotion.

But there are also conflicts within a person. That's next.

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From:kamenkyote
Date:September 27th, 2004 08:13 pm (UTC)
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Again, interesting stuff, and I can TOTALLY see what you're saying with the example of the IT guy and the manager, as well as the manager vs. the team member. Sad thing is, most corporations would likely benefit from understanding how its employees work, but few can afford to find out or think their people are worth it, or so it seems. This would be hard stuff to play with when writing characters, but I think this depth of conflict would lend itself to more developed and interesting ones. Neat!

-mike
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From:stevekelner
Date:September 28th, 2004 12:35 pm (UTC)

Corporate benefit

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I think everyone would benefit from understanding motivation and how it works! But, yeah, basically I think the job of manager is to learn how to read the motives of your employees and work with them, which is why Power-motive-type-thinking is more characteristic of effective managers (McClelland & Burnham, "Power Is the Great Motivator," Harvard Business Review).

I think a lot of writers do use this depth of conflict, they just don't have names for it. I'll pull out some examples when I get a chance. Actually, how about Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix? At the beginning he feels both powerless and lonely (missing Power and missing Affiliation), and feels betrayed on both counts. He winds up erupting at his friends because (as I see it), he's overwhelmed with backed-up, motivated emotion, and he's both too young to control it well (or recognize his own problem) and probably too motivationally aroused as well thanks to being attacked repeatedly (the attacks being personalized Power from Ms. Umbridge). He starts getting nicer again when they form the D.A. and he can channel his power motive in positive ways. Just a thought...
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From:jamijo
Date:September 27th, 2004 08:23 pm (UTC)
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Steve, thank you so much for posting this. I'm happy to see that I'm not too far off in thinking 'hmmm, now, how do I use all this motivation in my characters...' (in fact, I was just discussing this with a friend this past weekend...).

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From:stevekelner
Date:September 28th, 2004 12:36 pm (UTC)

Using motivation

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Glad to help--lots more on this subject. There's clashes of motives in the same person (see note to Mike above), clashes of motives and values, etc., etc....
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From:stevekelner
Date:September 28th, 2004 12:37 pm (UTC)

Thanks, MtL!

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Yeah, and I didn't even meet him at Worldcon, sadly.
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