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Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts


In Ten Types of Literary Conflict, I posit that there are actually five types of internal conflict that mirror five types of external conflict. This is an extension of that article and there have been a few changes made from the system described in that article. I have added “Man versus Family” and have refined the concepts from the prior article. The literary theory of conflict begins in Ancient Greece and the details of how conflict is viewed have changed over the centuries but not the larger philosophical framework.

I posit that internal versus external conflict is a modality and on a spectrum. As a semiotic modality, if the conflict is presented in subjective, psychological terms then the conflict is interpreted as internal by the receiver of the message. If the conflict is presented in more objective, physical terms then the conflict is interpreted as external by the receiver of the message. This is due to conventions of communication and does not reflect the fact that humans actually live in world that is a stream of consciousness and an external that is largely socially constructed. The internal/external dichotomy is not how we perceive reality. The internal/external dichotomy is a narrative convention that has creative utility. Because internal and external conflict is a modality that means internality and externality exist on a spectrum.

For example, in Man versus Society, an ethnic group may be marginalized physically via discrimination but the affects can be internal. In the novel, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the protagonist claims he is invisible but this is not a physical condition but due to a system that ignores him as a black man.   However, the novel does detail physical conflict with the system. The novel works because the internal and external modalities are dealt with in a synthetic manner rather than neatly separated.

I hope my framework will be useful for writers who want to write complex characters. The thesis of this article is that complex characters that are authentic have complex conflicts. Many of the most commercially successful TV shows of the last 20 years have worked because they have had an authentic complex protagonist and/or main character at their center. This has led to a factory approach to create more shows with complex characters via interesting quirks and habits.  This factory approach can add to the external complexity of the character but without any grounding in internal conflict the quirks seem forced and gimmicky and ultimately inauthentic. External character complexity minus internal character complexity is phony and unsatisfying to the viewer who wants to see something that is true to life even on the small screen.

Complexity has two dimensions including depth and breadth. Depth is a combination of both internal and external conflict within a single area such as Man versus Faults. If the character is a kleptomaniac and the narrative explores how the character feels about his kleptomania and how his kleptomania effects the people around him then that is depth of conflict. When there is a clear narrative connection between the internal and external then the audience experiences satisfaction. For example, a character feels shame because of his poverty and this causes him to steal which in turn creates conflict between that character and the law. This tidy cycle makes us feel happy. However untidy characters whose internal and external conflict are not so well connected can create unease and curiosity in the audience and we want to watch more about the character in order to figure the character out. In the TV show, Jessica Jones, the supervillain is Kilgrave and perhaps the most well rounded supervillain in the history of comic book characters on the small screen. Kilgrave’s psychopathic behavior has a certain panache and his British accent helps make his behavior interesting. In the episode AKA WWJD, the audience finds out that Kilgrave was forced to be a lab rat for his parents and that is why he is a psychopath and part of me likes the explanation but part of me lost interest in the character. The parents of Kilgrave appear soon afterwards and their version of events is at odds with Kilgrave’s tale of woe. Kilgrave is probably a liar and the fact that psychopath’s lie is not new and my interest in the Kilgrave character plummeted. A faint trail between internal and external conflict may create mystery which in turn creates curiosity.

Breadth is conflict in most of the six areas mentioned including Man versus Faults, Man versus Family, Man versus Nature, Man versus Society, Man versus Universe and Man versus Machine. This essay looked at ten complex TV characters and almost all of them have some connection to the six areas mentioned even is the connection is tenuous in some cases. Is breadth or depth of conflict more important when creating a complex character that is authentic and engages the audience? There probably is not easy answer to this question. I would posit that an authentic complex character needs both depth and breadth.

I can accept a simple character like Homer Simpson in The Simpsons and laugh and be entertained. Homer Simpson lacks both depth and breadth as a character. However, an inauthentic complex character like Everett Backstrom played by Rainn Wilson in Backstrom is inauthentic and was not well received by audiences because there is breadth but no depth to the character. On the other hand, Rainn Wilson played Dwight Schrute with quirks in The Office and this external complexity worked because this character displayed both depth and breadth. Michael Scott played by Steve Carrell was the protagonist in The Office but I would argue Dwight was the more important character and is the main reason The Office continued to have success for two seasons after Michael Scott left in season seven.

The characters I have picked to illustrate this position are iconic TV characters that have been associated with TV shows that have had both critical and commercial success. If you want to write great characters then a scholarly approach would be to study great characters and that is what I have done here!

1.1) Man versus Faults

Man versus Faults includes psychological pathologies ranging from anxiety and simple phobias to severe, and long-standing obsessive/compulsive disorder and substance abuse. Man versus faults can also include character flaws. However, if the character is comfortable with their pathology and/or character flaws then there is no internal conflict but these faults can still lead to conflict with other characters. This is the internal version of the external man versus man conflict and in particular good versus evil.

1.2) Man versus Family

This is a struggle with people we care about. There are people around us whose opinion matters and they have the power to define our identity and we struggle with them. This is usually family and/or significant others but the defining characteristic is they are a “thou” as defined by Martin Buber and the boundary between ourselves and the other are not clearly defined. In sociological terms this would be conflict with a member or members of your primary group. Herbert Mead has put forth the concept of ‘I’ and the ‘me’. According to Mead, the “me” is the socialized aspect of the person, the “I” is the active aspect of the person. The “me” is largely shaped by our family. This is the small version of society that defines who we are rather than the larger impersonal society of institutions. Family defines our identity to such a great extent that family can make creating a new and better identity difficult. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula has a family that tries to limit both her ethnic and gender identity and life choices. Toula successfully negotiates a new identity with her family that includes the best of her Greek heritage and also allows her to join a larger social circle beyond her Greek roots.

Most family centered films are intensely psychological. However, families do have the ability to give or withhold resources and stories about powerful families may emphasize the largely external power struggle between family members as is the case in The Godfather. Michael (Al Pacino) is drawn into the mafia family business because his father, the Godfather is shot i.e. external circumstances.

1.3) Man versus Nature

The character struggles with the animal within. In more general terms this can be instinct and/or hardwired programming we have as virtue of being biological beings. We are born with certain predispositions that we probably share with all biological beings and certainly all animals but as humans we can use our mind to overcome this animal side and achieve a higher level of being which is being civilized and/or transcendence. In Freudian terms, the superego is in conflict with the id. The character is struggling with what Maslow terms lower order needs and especially physiological needs. The successful resolution of this conflict can leads to more happiness and less neurosis. The character trajectory for this sort of conflict is generally the descent from civilization to savagery but in the case of Tarzan the trajectory was reversed and therefore a more interesting story was created. The external version of this conflict is the physical struggle of man versus a force of nature and/or animal. The Old Man and the Sea is an example of the external version of this struggle. Faults tend to be idiosyncratic while the struggle with our sexuality and aggression is more universal.

1.4) Man versus Society

The character resists the socialization, institutionalization, seduction or even brainwashing of an authoritarian system. The character is not struggling with members of his/her primary group but with functionaries of a society that are just doing their job. A simple cops and robbers story focuses on the external conflict between the criminal and the system. However, if the criminal also wonders about the ethics of his actions and what his role should be in society then an internal struggle is at work. If the character struggles against an authoritarian system physically (The Hunger Games) but has no doubt of the rightness of their cause then this is the external version of this conflict.

1.5) Man versus Universe

The character wonders about their place in the universe. Not their place in society but the universe as a whole. The character ponders what is the meaning of life, truth and/or the nature of reality. This may be an existential crisis or worse. One extreme version of this conflict is the protagonist struggles with madness but the madness is so pervasive that he or she cannot tell what is real or not real. The universe may indeed have gone mad or the character is suffering from some type of psychosis i.e. manic depression or schizophrenia. Madness is not a part of the character but is the character.

Man versus the universe can be a spiritual struggle. The character is struggling with what Maslow terms higher order needs and self-actualization in particular. In Buddhism there are the three poisons. The three poisons are ignorance, attachment, and aversion. Synonyms for ignorance are confusion, bewilderment, and delusion. The opposite of ignorance is wisdom. Synonyms for attachment are desire, passion and greed. Synonyms for aversion are anger, aggression and hatred. Dealing with the three poisons successfully can lead to enlightenment which in my opinion is pretty similar to self-actualization.

In the external version of this struggle, the character is in a struggle against cosmic level forces such as the supernatural (The Shining), fate (Slaughterhouse Five) or even God (A Canticle for Leibowitz). Lovecraftian horror is also an example of this type of struggle but the struggle has a large internal dimension. The most common version of this cosmic level struggle is actually not with God but with the Devil in deals with the devil stories. Man is hopelessly outmatched in terms of power in this type of struggle and cannot win via power but must rely on his wits and/or luck.

1.6) Man versus Machine

The character struggles with technology externally but sometimes the machine is within. The character is a cyborg and struggles to maintain a human identity despite the computer implants in their brain. Deathlok and the Robocop franchise are both examples of this type of struggle. The converse version of this type of conflict is a robot that strives to be human. Data of Star Trek would be an example of this type of struggle. Jessica Alba struggles with her feline transgenic DNA in Dark Angel. This type of conflict did not show up in any of the characters analyzed but is mentioned since this is a type of inner conflict a writer might want to explore as part of the character creation process. Future Shock would be another example of the external struggle with technology effecting us within. The constant change in technology leaves some individuals in more or less a state of shock. Being a cog in the machine also effects the individual internally and externally. The character may experience alienation, frustration and boredom because of their dehumanized condition.

If the character is in a struggle against a robot and/or computer and the struggle is physical then this is the external version of this conflict. The Terminator franchise and the comic book hero Magnus, Robot Hunter would be examples of this type of conflict. Humans do not just fight robots but the machine in the form of automation which takes their jobs and the deskilling of jobs that demeans humans. Technology can also be a daily irritant when the technology breaks down.


2.1) Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City

Carrie Bradshaw-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Carrie Bradshaw – Man versus Faults

Carrie is neurotic. In Season 4, Change of Dress, she breaks into a rash when wearing a wedding dress due to her anxiety about marrying Aidan. Carrie buys shoes obsessively. Miranda estimates that Carrie has spent over 40,000 dollars on shoes. Because of her shoe fetish, In Ring A Ding Ding, Carrie has zero assets and zero savings and cannot buy her apartment from her ex-boyfriend Aidan. Carrie has very little insight into her neurosis and is only bothered by the financial consequences when she might end up losing her apartment. Carrie does not reflect that she has a shoe fetish that might indicate a deeper psychological problem. Carrie does not interpret the wedding dress rash as representative of a deep inner fear of commitment but as just a fear of commitment with Aidan. Carrie is self-absorbed.   Carries column is not about relationships but about her relationships. In the episode Freak Show, there is a slight allusion that maybe Carries problem is not freaky men but her own neurosis that causes her to pursue the wrong men. Carrie amusingly uses buying sprees to relieve anxiety but also uses binge drinking and one night stands to relieve anxiety but this is less noticed because this plot device is much more common in television.

Carrie Bradshaw – Man versus Family

Carrie’s primary group is her three female friends but she has an inability to make a similar connection with males in her life. In particular, she struggles with achieving an intimate relationship with Big and also has a long list of failed relationships with men. If I met someone like Carrie and know her sexual history then I would wonder if there had been some sort of child abuse or neglect from her father when she was young. The family histories of Carrie and her friends are largely untouched except for one episode about the death of Miranda’s mother. Carrie does seem to have daddy issues and one of the older male editors at Vogue tries to exploit this perceived weakness unsuccessfully. Big calls Carrie “kid” on a regular basis. Carrie uses her friends as a substitute family and wants unconditional support rather than questions from her friends even when her decision are not well thought out. In Splat!, Petrovsky wants Carrie to move to Paris from New York and the lack of Miranda’s approval causes Carrie great distress.

Carrie Bradshaw – Man versus Nature

Carrie generally runs away from physical conflict. However, Carrie’s out of control sexuality leads to an abortion and dangerous liaisons with dangerous characters including an alcoholic (Patrick Casey) and David Duchovny, who plays Carrie’s high school boyfriend, is institutionalized. One criticism of the show is that the lack of consequences for sexual behavior provides a dangerous role model for young female viewers. However, Carries antics are amusing and there is a realism to her liaisons that make me think there is a real life story behind almost all of them.  Carrie hates Aiden’s cabin. Carrie is not a big fan of Aiden’s dog.

Carrie Bradshaw – Man versus Society

If men can be promiscuous then why can’t women? Carrie and her group often spout feminist rhetoric to rationalize their promiscuity. Theirs is a pseudo feminism that serves a rhetorical function to justify the exploitation of men for financial reasons and fleeting sexual pleasure regardless of the damage such behavior might cause the men in their life. There is also a lack of a sense of self-preservation. In the real world men do not get pregnant and are less likely to be raped. Carrie and her friends claim independence but are more than willing to use men in the very traditional role of sugar daddy in exchange for sex. Charlotte receives a huge apartment in exchange for having been married for a short period of time. Carrie is offered money from Mr. Big to buy an apartment. Carrie cheats on Aiden with Big to satisfy a sexual itch. Aiden is hurt deeply by Carrie. Carrie cares more about the label her behavior may carry than the consequences of her behavior in Critical Condition. Carrie does occasionally reflect that there is a dissonance between her feminist rhetoric and the actual behavior of her friends.

Carrie never reflects on social justice. Charity functions are backdrops for fashion. Carrie takes her life of privilege for granted but this actually makes the character more real since we all know people like Carrie who have made consumerism their social philosophy.

Carrie Bradshaw – Man versus Universe

Carries does not worry about God or the universe or the meaning of life and neither do her friends. Her friend Samantha doesn’t think twice about seducing a priest in The Agony and the Ex-tacy. Charlotte converts to Judaism but her biggest issue with this conversion is that she will have to give up Christmas decorations! Houses of worship are largely a fashion accessory for Carrie and her friends. Carrie has an abortion but does not see the issue in religious terms in the least. Carrie visits Chad, the father of her aborted baby, in Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda and he is a loser and would not have been a good provider so her decision is justified. Right to life arguments pro or con are irrelevant to Carrie.

In the film, Sex and the City 2, Islam is used as a fashion backdrop while any attempt to explore the clash of world views between a largely Christian US sensibility and Islam is totally ignored. I suppose one “heartening” message is that Arab women like American women wear high fashion labels so they are united in the sisterhood of high fashion consumerism. However, in my opinion this actually makes Carries a more realistic character since this lack of any reflection of her place in the universe is representative of many Americans, unfortunately. The big issues like AIDS, abortion, religion can all be solved by Carrie with a shoe buying spree that will allow her to forget all her troubles! The fashionista side of Carrie makes her interesting but the slight hint that the fashionista face of Carrie is indicative of a dangerous shallowness is what makes the character work.

Carrie is superficially a sympathetic character but upon analysis is an example of absurd consumerism at the expense of all other values and this means you want to watch in the same way you want to watch the eye of a beautiful woman being cut in Un Chien Andalou. How can such a well-dressed and pretty girl be such a grotesquerie spiritually? Carrie revels in ignorance and attachment and shows almost zero spiritual growth. Carrie gets Big in the end and that’s all that matters. Carrie is not in conflict with the three poisons because she is blissfully unaware of the three poisons. I reject the argument that we forgive characters, like Tony Soprano who is a murderer but detest Carrie who is guilty of so much less. Tony Soprano represents an exotic evil I have only seen in fiction. Carrie represents an Ugly American whose banal evil is all too common. They hate us because there are too many Carries in America!

Carrie Bradshaw – Man versus Machine

Carrie struggles with technology. In My Motherboard, My Self, Carrie’s Mac crashes and she has not backed up her data. Carrie does not have a cell phone and is admonished to get one by Miranda. Carrie does switch from a Mac to a Hewlett Packard PC in the movie Sex and the City 2. Carrie is frustrated by technology but does not really suffer from Future Shock and like many deals with one technology crisis in her life at a time.

2.2) Don Draper from Madmen

Don Draper-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Don Draper – Man versus Faults

Don Draper drifts from serious alcohol abuse to out and out alcoholism from the first season to the last season. Don Draper also has hallucinations and sees dead people! Draper sees his father Archibald Whitman during a drunken hallucination in Seven Twenty Three. Drapers sees Anna Draper in The Suitcase. Don saw his half-brother Adam Whitman in The Phantom. Draper watched the recently deceased Bert Cooper dance in Waterloo. The good news is that Draper is generally drunk out of his mind when he see’s dead people so he is probably suffering from alcohol induced episodic psychosis rather than out and out psychosis. Draper may be drinking because he had a horrific childhood. Draper may be drinking because he has a deep dark secret that causes anxiety. Draper may drink so much because it’s part of the ad man lifestyle. Finally, Draper may be drinking because he is addicted to alcohol and that seems to be the case towards the end of the series. In the last episode of Season Six, Megan, his second wife, states, “You want to be alone with your liquor and your ex-wife and your screwed up kids.”. Megan dear, he just wants to be left alone with his liquor. I think we have all known someone like that in our lives!

Don Draper – Man versus Family

Draper was born Richard “Dick” Whitman and had a horrific childhood and is born into poverty. His mother was a prostitute that died in labor. His stepmother Abigail is abusive towards Draper. Draper loses his virginity to a prostitute in none consensual sex. Draper wants love but probably because of his early experiences with women, has a hard time allowing women past his defenses. Draper does flirt with SM with the housewife and neighbor Silvia Rosen.

Don Draper – Man versus Nature

Don Draper chases women.  His out of control womanizing damages his first marriage. Don is reflective enough to realize he has a problem in this area. Draper gets into a fist fight with a reverend in a bar. Draper is a he-man in the classic fifties model but is smart enough to realize the limitations of this act and by the last season is a nomad seeking deeper meaning and escape from his baser side.

Don Draper – Man versus Society

Draper switches identities with his commanding officer during the Korean War after the officer is killed. Draper steals his role in society via fraud. This is Draper’s deep secret and there are major consequences. His half-brother commits suicide presumably because Draper must keep him away in order to keep his secret. Draper may be comfortable with his deception but he is not comfortable with the death of his half-brother the deception caused. Draper has made the cold blooded decision that self-interest is more important than the truth and this is a “realistic” decision that we will see again in other complex TV protagonists.

The Civil Rights Movement provides some background noise and some external conflict in the series. Draper has an African-American receptionist at one point and one episode takes place during the assassination of Martin Luther King. Two of the major characters represent two pathways to be a successful woman in a sexist sixties world. Joan Holloway uses a combination of obvious sexuality that is possible with her voluptuous figure and assertiveness in tandem to play men. Peggy Olson has real advertising talent and is less willing to use her sexuality. Predictably the two join forces to create a company that will film ads.

Don Draper – Man versus Universe

Draper doesn’t care about money compared to his peers. Draper gives his second wife Megan a check for a million dollars that he does not have to as part of the divorce settlement. Draper is an ad man that manipulates consumers but is not manipulated by consumerism. Don is struggling to find the meaning for life and goes to a commune and presumably writes the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad that may or may not be an expression of self-actualization.

Don Draper – Man versus Machine

In Mad Men, television becomes an increasingly more important part of advertising. Harry Crane’s character rises in the organization due to his expertise in this area and is also in charge of the new computer the organization buys and installs. What’s interesting is that Harry Crane’s lack of people skills are not over the top as is the stereotype with technology nerds in television and he does move to California and become more at ease and fashionable but is always making faux pas with Draper with comments that are inappropriate. The technology shift in advertising has almost no effect on Draper. Draper is a pragmatist that can soon adapt to new external circumstances.

2.3) Dwight Schrute from The Office

Dwight Schrute-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Dwight Schrute – Man versus Faults

One of the reasons I watched The Office was to see what outrageous action Dwight would take. Dwight is immature, lack social skills, suffers from paranoia and engages in splitting. Dwight’s in the first few seasons has very little self-awareness of his faults. His faults cause external not internal conflict. Dwight does modify his behavior and is portrayed as a quirky but effective manager in the last episode of the last season. Dwight even lets Jim Halper, his previous arch enemy, become is number two man in the office. There is no real “aha” moment but Dwight has obviously mellowed by the last episode. A lot of Dwight’s behavior makes sense when you realize that Dwight is basically paranoid. Dwight has weapons hidden all over the office because he fears physical attack. Dwight engages in splitting, black and white thinking about other people and there is a consistent pattern to his conflicts with other characters. Dwight idolizes his boss Michael Scott and decides that Jim Halpert is his arch enemy more or less in comic book terms. Dwight’s family history suggest extreme neglect.   Dwight is in touch with an extended family including his cousin Moe, and Dwight shares a lot of information about that extended family but not his parents. If I met a person with Dwight’s problems then I would wonder if he had been neglected by his parents while growing up. However, why Dwight acts so crazy is all and all a mystery. Jim Halper in particular reacts to Dwight’s misbehavior with punishing pranks but does express more than once his utter mystification why Dwight is the way he is but again there are hints.

Dwight Schrute – Man versus Family

Moe Schrute is Dwight’s cousin and he they have a love/hate relationship. In one episode, Dwight leaves a message to Moe and his unborn son. Dwight warns his unborn son about Moe. Dwight also warns his cousin about his unborn son. The boss, Michael Scott is a surrogate father and is picked as such perhaps due to neglect from his real father.

Dwight Schrute – Man versus Nature

Dwight is a hunter. Dwight uses absurd parallels between survival in the animal kingdom and those are lessons that humans should use to guide their own behavior. Dwight is a student of the martial arts and uses multiple martial arts classes to handle his pent up aggression about not being given the job of office manager.

Dwight Schrute – Man versus Society

Dwight has an authoritarian personality and accepts Social Darwinism. Dwight is a volunteer deputy sheriff and would probably be a police officer if he could get past the psychological test. Dwight is rude and even cruel to his fellow office workers but subservient to his boss Dwight. In one episode, he does tell the documentary crew that he does respond to authority.

Dwight Schrute – Man versus Universe

Dwights world view has been heavily influence by Dungeons & Dragons and their alignment system. You don’t see much evidence of Dwight classifying characters as lawful or chaotic but Dwight does engage in splitting and the people around him are good or evil and there isn’t much grey in Dwight’s world view.

Dwight Schrute – Man versus Machine

Economies of scale in the paper industry threaten Dunder Mifflin, the company that employs Schrute. The real life Staples is often mentioned as a competitor to Dunder Mifflin. Technology is not mentioned directly as part of the company struggle but part of Staples success is superior logistics which is possible with superior information systems. Schrute himself likes computer games and likes Sharper Image type gadgets.

2.4) Nancy Botwin from Weeds

Nancy Botwin-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Nancy Botwin – Man versus Faults

Nancy is impulsive, has an oral fixation, is reckless and soft.

Nancy Botwin – Man versus Family

Nancy has ongoing conflicts with three members of her family. Andy Botwin is the brother-in-law of Nancy and is sexually attracted to Nancy and she uses her sexuality to manipulate Andy until he realizes what is going on and removes himself from her presence permanently. Shane Botwin is the youngest son of Nancy. Nancy and Shane have an ongoing struggle for power and authority. Silas Botwin is the oldest son of Nancy and embraces their criminal lifestyle.

Nancy Botwin – Man versus Nature

Nancy is out of control sexually. Weed is an increasingly a symbol of nature as the series develops.

Nancy Botwin – Man versus Society

The theme song is “Little Boxes“. For Nancy, crime is an innovation that allows her to accomplish middle class goals.  Nancy is an example of Merton’s version of Strain Theory.

Nancy Botwin – Man versus Universe

The American dream is stolen from Nancy by her husband’s death. Nancy is a middle class housewife until her husband’s death forces her to sell weed to support her family. Destiny not God forces her into a life of crime. The husband was Jewish and the brother-in-law Andy goes to Rabbi school and provides some background noise in the form of musings both Jewish and New Age.

Nancy Botwin – Man versus Machine

The Botwin family is off the grid and in a RV in Season Six but their version of roughing it pales in comparison to The Walking Dead. Cellphone usage is ubiquitous yet communication snafus are a common plot device. Skype type technology used when the sons are in Copenhagen. Discussion of pot growing tech is pervasive.

2.5) Enoch Malachi “Nucky” Thompson from Boardwalk Empire

Nucky Thompson-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Nucky Thompson – Man versus Faults

Nucky is a surprisingly well adjusted gangster surrounded by gangsters that have numerous psychological problems. Is Nucky’s saneness a weakness? In the world of gangster’s unpredictable, psychopaths often have the advantage over Nucky but in the long run Nucky can form alliances the psychopaths cannot. Crazy men have a tactical advantage in the world of crime. Sane men have a strategic advantage in the world of crime.

Nucky Thompson – Man versus Family

Nucky’s brother is Eli Thompson. Nucky marries Margaret Thompson. Eli works for Thompson but sometimes resents how he is treated by Nucky. Margaret is a moral person who is eventually leaves Nucky because of his gangster lifestyle. Both characters provide ongoing conflict. The conflict with Eli is largely external. Margaret does make Nucky question his lifestyle so this struggle has an internal element.

Nucky Thompson – Man versus Nature

Nucky drinks but in moderation. Nucky likes the ladies but doesn’t let that interfere with business.   Nucky does not shy away from violence but sees uses violence as a tool not for vicarious pleasure like the gangsters around him. Nucky is an adult and in control and all thmore dangerous because of this maturity.

Nucky Thompson – Man versus Society

Crime is inherently a struggle against legitimate social norms. Crime is ethnic redress. In real life gangs generally divided along ethnic lines. The Italian Mafia in America requires made men to be of Italian ancestry. Nucky is the mayor of Atlantic City and one of the reasons is that Nucky gets most of the black vote.

Nucky Thompson – Man versus Universe

Nucky rejects Catholicism. This is not a big area of conflict for Nucky.

Nucky Thompson – Man versus Machine


2.6) Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black

Piper Chapman-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Piper Chapman – Man versus Faults

Piper suffers from reduced affect display. Piper stares into space and very rarely shows any emotion much less empathy. Piper is comfortable with being clueless. Piper is a white middle class, thin, attractive protagonist that made one mistake. Piper smuggled drugs once years earlier. The white middle class audience should identify with Piper but cannot due to her lack of empathy. Ironically, the violent, none white career, often over weight, career criminals are more sympathetic characters than the protagonist. Is Orange is the New Black a new version of the women in prison genre? Piper is being punished for not just being a dumb blond but a clueless dumb blond. Unlike past version of this genre, Piper is not innocent but guilty of being a bad person so the audience gets sadistic pleasure from witnessing her pain! Piper is a subtle version of the character you love to hate. Piper’s tale is also a cautionary tale and provides the audience a certain level of satisfaction as this sort of story.

Piper Chapman – Man versus Family

Piper’s family includes Carol Chapman (mother), Bill Chapman (father), Cal Chapman (brother) and Celeste Chapman (grandmother). However, the real “thou” in Piper’s life is Alex Vause (lover). Piper and Alex are lesbian lovers. Alex is a manipulative, amoral, selfish person. Piper doesn’t show a lot of insight about Alex but instead becomes more like Alex over time in a monkey see, monkey do sort of manner. Piper’s replacement of family with a dysfunctional lesbian lover makes her the poster child for the subatomic family which is the successor of the disintegrated nuclear family in our current post-modern social apocalypse.

Piper Chapman – Man versus Nature

Piper is in a total institution in which natural sexual impulses are perverted due to the institution. Sex becomes a commodity that is bought and sold between inmates. More importantly sex is one of the few commodities the female prisoners can offer the male guards. Authentic romantic feelings invariably lead to leveraged relationships within the context of a total institution.

Piper Chapman – Man versus Society

Piper experiences extreme downward Social Mobility. Piper cannot use her cultural capital within a Total Institution as she is accustomed to.

Piper Chapman – Man versus Universe

In Fool Me Once, Piper states, “Look I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all of the random shitty things that happen to us. And I wish I could get on that ride, I’m sure I would be happier. But I can’t. Feeling aren’t enough. I need it to be real”. Overall, Piper is comfortable with her atheism.

Piper Chapman – Man versus Machine

A prison is a total institution and there is a level of surveillance that does not exist even for an outlaw like Tony Soprano or Walter White has to deal with. Piper is assigned an electrician job which allows her access to tools that the other inmates do not have and whether or not to use these tools illegally is an ongoing plot device.

2.7) Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead

Rick Grimes-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Rick Grimes – Man versus Faults

Rick Grimes hears the voice of his dead wife on a regular basis. Rick struggles with a psychotic breakdown but seems to recover later. Overall, Rick has very few faults and is a heroic character that tries to the right thing in a world gone mad.

Rick Grimes – Man versus Family

Rick has a wife Lori Grimes who is too soft for a zombie world in the judgement of Rick. The wife later dies and Rick does lose an ethical touchstone. In contrast Rick’s son, Carl Grimes becomes more ruthless in a zombie world and perhaps too ruthless in the judgement of Rick.

Rick Grimes – Man versus Nature

Rick’s right hand man is Daryl Dixon. Daryl is a skilled hunter and tracker that can use a cross bow. Daryl can live of the land unlike most of his band. Rick at first relies on Daryl for his skills but later Daryl takes on the role of an advisor but not necessarily a confidant. Rick becomes more savage as the show progresses. Daryl becomes more social as the show progresses. Rick and Daryl exchange roles along the man versus nature dimension.

Rick Grimes – Man versus Society

Grimes struggles with his pre-zombie apocalypse role as a police officer. There is no government. Should Rick still act like a police officer even though society has broken down? Rick becomes more and more pragmatic about the use of violence but always at the core there is some of the police officer still in him.

Rick Grimes – Man versus Universe

Grimes asks for guidance from God even though he was “never much of a believer”.

Rick Grimes – Man versus Machine

The machine has broken down. Mass communication no longer exists.

2.8) Tony Soprano from The Sopranos

Tony Soprano-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Tony Soprano – Man versus Faults

Tony suffers from depression, panic attacks and is arguably a sociopath.

Tony Soprano – Man versus Family

Tony’s mother is Livia Soprano. Livia Soprano is a narcissist that attempts to have Tony killed. Tony struggles with the realization that his idealized version of his mother has very little to do with the truth about his mother. Tony’s wife, Carmela Soprano is the good wife. Carmela raises the children and provides a good home for them and Tony. Carmela slowly realizes that she is married to a man who does evil thing and therefore she is an accomplice to evil. Jennifer Melfi is Tony’s therapist who initially tries a counseling approach until she slowly realizes that evil is evil and that perhaps her counseling is just helping Tony become a better sociopath. Tony is a charismatic protagonist. Carmela and Jennifer him struggle with their attraction to Tony on the one hand but being an enabler of evil if they continue a relationship with Tony.

Tony Soprano – Man versus Nature

Tony is out of control sexually. Tony is extremely violent. Tony is a nature lover. Tony loves the ducks in his pool. Tony is willing to kill a made man over a horse.

Tony Soprano – Man versus Society

Crime is capitalism by other means.

Tony Soprano – Man versus Universe

Catholicism is a tool that Tony uses to avoid divorce from Carmela. Tony at one point states that he is a soldier and God forgives soldiers. In the end, religion is just another legalistic system that Tony exploits via loopholes while doing terrible things.

Tony Soprano – Man versus Machine

Tony is aware of computers but doesn’t use computers. Tony has an extreme fear of surveillance and his caution makes it difficult for the FBI to make a case against him. Tony is very comfortable with human infrastructure. Tony may not understand the intricacies of the law but has enough sense to get a lawyer that does and follow his advice more or less. Tony may not be a theologian but can figure out enough theology to justify his actions when needed. Tony is the Italian prince that uses the machine.

2.9) Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones

Tyrion Lannister-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Tyrion Lannister – Man versus Faults

Tyrion is a complex character. Tyrion is an alcoholic. Tyrion is also a whore monger. Most of all Tyrion is a dwarf and in an age of knights a man who is a dwarf is seen as less than a man. Tyrion comes from one of the most powerful and wealthy families in the Seven Kingdoms so he may not be able to earn respect through knightly deeds but can buy solace with fine wine and fine whores.

Tyrion Lannister – Man versus Family

Tyrion has a sister named Cersei. In the novels not the TV show, the reader discovers that Cersei tortured Tyrion even when he was a baby because she blames him for the death of their wife during childbirth. Tywin Lannister is Tyrion’s father and the mighty head of the Lannister family. Tyrion is disgusted with his son because he is a dwarf, drunkard and whore monger. Tywin has a sense of duty towards Tyrion but very little empathy towards his Tyrion. Tyrion ultimately kills his father with a crossbow because he stole is lover Shae and Cersei wants vengeance upon Tyrion.

Tyrion Lannister – Man versus Nature

Tyrion exists in period when men fight nature with swords. King Robert dies fighting a giant boar and this creates the Game of Thrones. Tyrion’s stunted body means he cannot fight nature with a sword but perhaps he can triumph with his intellect.

Tyrion Lannister – Man versus Society

For Tyrion patricide is freedom. Tyrion’s family is society! Tyrion is at odd with his sister and father and therefore society.

Tyrion Lannister – Man versus Universe

Tyrion has stated that if there are gods then they are cruel since the world is cruel and they made the world. Tyrion probably wonders why the gods made him a dwarf. Tyrion’s rationalism is often at odd with the superstition that is prevalent in the medieval culture of the Seven Kingdoms. Tyrion has killed his father so if there are gods then he is probably cursed!

Tyrion Lannister – Man versus Machine

Tyrion lives in a land before the machines have risen to their current heights. There is no conflict with machines but there is conflict with dragons and White Walkers with their wights. Magic is the advanced technology of this world. Tyrion reads all he can about dragons. Samwell Tarly, who is obese, reads all he can about wights. Will this world be saved by the scholars and not the warriors?

2.10) Walter White from Breaking Bad

Walter White-Authentic Characters Have Complex Conflicts

Walter White – Man versus Faults

Walter cofounded Gray Matter and sold his shares for 5,000 dollars and the company went on to make a fortune of over 2 billion. Walter seems to have accepted this loss and his current role as a high school chemistry teacher but deep down Walter is angry and resentful as to how his life has turned out. Walter is found to have cancer and enters the drug trade at first to take of his family. However, Walter makes more money than he can count over time. The wife uses the size of the pile of cash to try to guess how much money they have and points out its more money they can spend in several lifetimes. Walter’s cancer is also in remission by that time. Why does Walter go on in his illegal activities? Walter suffers from hubris and must prove he is at the best at something to make up for his loss of Gray Matter. Walter wants to be the Coca Cola of the methamphetamine trade. Walter wants to be the best at something and if that something is drug dealing then so be it.

Walter White – Man versus Family

Walter has cancer. Walter wants to provide for his family after his death. Walter gets into the drug trade in order to provide for his family. Walter is a drug dealer because he is a family man. This parallels the broad plot lines of Nancy Botwin’s story. Walter’s family includes Skyler White (wife), Walter Jr. White (son) and Hank Schrader (brother-in-law). Walter also has a surrogate son in the person of Jesse Pinkman his on and off crime partner. Is there some sort of color symbolism between the last name White and the last name Pinkman? Walter’s illegal drug trade ultimately causes him to lose his family, get his brother-in-law killed by neo-Nazis. Jesse is taken prisoner by the same neo-Nazis but manages to escape in the last episode.

Walter White – Man versus Nature

Walter White slowly becomes more ruthless and eventually becomes a cold-blooded murderer. Walter is forced to struggle with nature due to the need for isolation to make meth. Walter almost dies in the desert in one of the early episodes.

Walter White – Man versus Society

For Walter, crime is capitalism by other means. Walter states that he wants to be the Coca Cola of the drug trade. Walter applies the rational principles of capitalism to the drug trade.

Walter White – Man versus Universe

Walter is probably an atheist but this is never clearly stated. Walter sees success in work as his legacy. Walter does mention in one episode that if there is a hell then he is probably going there no matter what so he might as well leave a legacy of success in this world.

Walter White – Man versus Machine

Walter has a doctorate in chemistry. Walter is highly intelligent and applies this intelligence to crime just like he would to any technical problem. Walter understands the machine better than other criminals and this is why he is more successful.


Complex characters make for interesting television and more importantly for many, successful television. Complexity can include quirks and habits but internal conflict may be the best way to make truly complex characters. Perhaps authors should start from the inside not the outside to make rounded characters.

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