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My protagonist lives with a deep lie that causes internal conflict and pain throughout the story but it basically cannot fuel any struggle to the external plot. This subconsciously motivates the character to leave a safe home and is somewhat prevalent later on.

I also introduced a flaw to the same protagonist (that is more like a wound but also can be seen as second lie) that causes external things to fail and makes things harder. They are both connected (they developed from the same event).

The flaw is overcome at the end of the second act, while the lie is overcome in the climax. Both the deep unconscious lie and the conscious flaw contribute to defeating the antagonist; the protagonist cannot accomplish that without learning both truths.

Can that double lie in one arc work? Or it is just too convoluted and confusing to the reader? I want that deep lie to convey the true theme—"moral imperative"—but it won't make protagonist fail in action. While the second flaw contributes to more direct tension perfectly, it's too weak to be the true core of the book.

  • Hi, I edited your post to clean up the grammar and make it easier to read. Please check it and make sure I haven't changed anything that shouldn't be changed. I wasn't sure about some of your wording so I left it as is. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 24 '19 at 21:44
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Human beings are complex and flawed creatures. We do not each have just the one flaw. We have multiple failings, and multiple lies we tell ourselves. Now, for a story one has to simplify reality somewhat - focus only on those lies and flaws that are conductive to telling the story. But if you simplify the story to the point of each character just having the one flaw, you've simplified your characters to the point that they're flat and made of cardboard.

Take a simple story: Othello. Othello is jealous, that's part of the story. There's a lie he's been told - that's another part. And there's an insecurity in him about his position as a stranger - Iago can play on this insecurity to fuel Othello's jealousy. And even then, it takes a certain mindset to proceed from jealousy to murdering your wife.

Take a different simple story: Harry Potter. Harry isn't very smart. His inability to think before acting is repeatedly used by Voldemort, in addition to landing him into trouble without Voldemort's involvement. In addition to that, Harry is rash, rather lazy, and that's before we add into the mix the misunderstandings and the lies from other characters.

Complex characters are interesting characters. Don't think of your characters as checklists of traits - think of them as people, with multiple strengths and weaknesses.

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I don't think it is too much. Many characters have "double lies", and in a way one can block the other. You say the deep lie won't make your MC fail in action, but that isn't true: You say the MC cannot defeat the antagonist without learning both truths: Thus continuing to believe the deep lie would indeed make the MC fail.

Sometimes, undoing a deep lie changes the person to let them undo other lies.

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There are two theories of character. One, to which most people give lip service (at least) today, is the one that Galastel has expressed: characters, like people, are complex multidimensional constructs. This view of character seems to come from the modernist school of literary realism. It can, according to what I have read, but have not independently verified, be attributed to EM Forster.

The other, of which the critic James Wood may be the great contemporary expositor, holds that great characters are simpler than that. Rather than having all the shades and ambiguities of actual people, they are far simpler, exposing a single human trait. Their complexity comes not from the juxtaposition of multiple traits, but the thorough exposition of just one.

Some of the greatest characters in literature fit this model. Uriah Heap, for instance, or Quillip, or Little Nell, or Scrooge, or... well... any Dickens character you care to name. Captain Ahab. Gandalf. Lucy Pevensie. Emma Bovary. Becky Sharp. Jean Brodie. Jack Aubrey. Kurtz. Pinkey (either one). Hulk Hogan. Mr. Toad.

I am of the latter school. A story is neither a window nor a mirror but a lens. It brings one aspect of human life into sharp focus. It produce a sharper, clearer, simpler, more digestible, more exciting, more colorful, and more satisfying kind of experience than ordinary life provides, which is why we value stories in the first place, since the the experience of the murky realities of actual experience are available to us 24/7 if we want them.

And so a character is not as complex as a real person. Real people seldom act because their lives are too complicated and their spirits too weak and oppressed. They yearn for the shining stars of bold action, but almost never act like them. We want characters that are bolder, simpler, more vivid than ourselves; characters that are easy to grasp, to anticipate, to cheer for or to hate; characters, above all, who get on with things in a way normal people almost never do. Characters are not round, they are pointy.

So yes, two sources of conflict may indeed be too many. One source of conflict is plenty to drive a great story. And managing one convincingly, while maintaining tension throughout the story, and bringing it to a satisfactory climax and conclusion is difficult enough. Trying to do it with two may well prove impossible.

Don't confuse this, though, with having two sources of opposition. Characters with one problem often have multiple sources of opposition, because it takes multiple sources of opposition to force them into a situation where they have to finally confront their problem. No one wants to confront their problem. It wouldn't be much of a problem if they did. They have to be forced by circumstance into having to confront it. Trying to do that twice in one book is a tall order, and it simply is not necessary to create a fine compelling story.

My advice, therefore: pick one.

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Different levels of complexity are necessary for different types of readers. If you’re writing for kids, they’ll only really keep track of one thing. But for young adults and above, I think this is appropriate. Readers are smart and they love to wrestle with more difficult things like that.

While you’re writing, just go with it and don’t think about it. Leave the analyzation for later. If it turns out that having two lies to overcome is too confusing, in your second draft you can revise it so that one takes center stage and the other fades into the background. Or perhaps you can remove one entirely. Just see how it plays out, and you’ll know if it feels right or if you need to change it.

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