Brian Thiem writing about conflict: Authors know conflict is essential to good stories. We place our characters in conflict with other characters—the detective trying to identify and bring to justice the murderer, who is trying to avoid capture; or the woman who is looking for love, but ends up encountering the wrong kind of men who have opposite goals. We place characters in conflict with outside forces—extreme weather, rugged terrain, or the like. But the deepest conflict characters often face is often within themselves—struggles between two conflicting ethics or values.
My prime motivation for following the Trump vs. Comey saga and the reason I watched the interview of former FBI Director James Comey on ABC the other night is because the issues it raises include similar ethical conflicts that the fictional characters I write about in my novels face.
If we believe James Comey’s version of the encounter with President Trump, where Trump requested his personal loyalty and asked him to drop the probe into Michael Flynn, we see Comey as the reluctant hero thrust into a classic loyalty conflict. In this story, the hero must choose between personal loyalty to his boss and the leader of the free world versus loyalty to a higher ideal—fuzzier concepts such as right and wrong, duty, honor, country, and democracy. And even within those loftier ethical concepts, he must make other choices, all of which have downsides. As writers, we know that our heroes choices must be difficult; if there was a clear right and wrong choice, any hero could do it—right?
Where one’s loyalty should lie is a theme often explored in great fiction. Should a man lie to protect his wife when he knows she committed a murder, or does he owe a higher loyalty to truth and justice? Should a man cover up fraud and embezzlement by his boss to protect his job (and thus the financial security—maybe even the physical survival—of his family), or does he owe a higher loyalty to the company, its shareholders, and the law?
What about the cop who must decide between reporting his partner for wrongdoing, when he is the officer who had her back numerous times and on whom she depends for her very life in the dangerous city in which she works? And where does one draw the line? Should she ignore the fudging of Miranda rights to get a confession from a serial killer to keep him off the streets and thus save future victims’ lives?
How about beating a confession out of the perpetrator? Or planting false evidence to get a known killer off the street? What is the higher loyalty—to innocent lives that the cop has sworn to protect, or to the vague and sometimes muddy ideal of justice, or to the procedural rules of the law?
These are some of the many conflicts that my fellow crime fiction writers and I love exploring in our books, and it’s why I try to view the saga playing out in our nation as an unfolding story as well.
And just as the truth is slowly revealed in a good novel, I see the same slowly taking place in real life. Whether James Comey remains the conflicted hero with human flaws, or whether he becomes just one of numerous characters in a larger story that might have no clear villains or heroes will have to wait until the story is completely told. Although I like a happy ending with all the loose ends neatly tied up in the books I write, I’m not placing any bets for the same in this story.