Right vs. Right

from Hunger Mountain, August 15

On Characters: Dual Capacities

A Craft Short

from: Diane Lefer



It must be eight years since A Tale of Love and Darkness was published in English and Israeli author Amos Oz spoke at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. In his memoir, Oz writes about the troubled marriage of his parents as well as the conflict in his country between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. At the bookstore, he explained that in telling these stories, he had tried not to take sides: “I’m no longer interested in the conflict between right and wrong, but the conflict between right and right.”

His words startled and excited me then and came immediately to mind as I watched Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film from Iran, A Separation.

In the film, every character tries to do the right thing. For guidance, they look to religion, to secular law, to ethical standards of family loyalty, human rights, ideas of reputation and friendship. Yet every time a decision is made, no matter how sincerely, someone gets hurt and something goes awry. There are no guns, no car chases, and yet the tension in this film had me on the edge of my seat.

Both Oz and Farhadi come from the Middle East, from societies that are polarized. Maybe that explains why both have used art to question the demonization of the Other and of those who disagree. But American society is also polarized. Except for Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog which concerns—coincidentally?—an Iranian man, I can’t think of an example from our literature, including my own fiction, that recognizes the legitimacy of opposing claims. Is such complexity beyond us? If fiction must (as we’re often told) involve conflict, must it mean the clash between Good and Evil?

What if I drop the distinction between protagonist and antagonist? Instead I see two people on a seesaw, only momentarily in balance. When one goes up, it’s unavoidable that the other will go down but they are in this dynamic together and I must respect them both.

Look at the last story or memoir section you wrote, or the last short story you read. Did you (or the author) make it clear which character was right? How might the piece change if no one had a monopoly on justice?

When there’s a character I really don’t like, I try to keep in mind that everyone has dual capacities though we don’t all (or always) act on them. This exercise helps me:

Close your eyes and imagine. What experience makes you feel empowered, expansive, strong? Then, what does it feel like to be insignificant, unnoticed? Go into your memory to find the experiences that have triggered these feelings. Now think of your characters and imagine what triggers these emotions in them and how they express those feelings in action. Imagine your characters feeling greed/generosity, love/hate, fear/security, rage/forgiveness, truthfulness/deceit.

Our favored character isn’t a saint, and the character we don’t like shares our humanity.

*Warning: Seesaws, now considered a safety hazard, are being removed from playgrounds all around the country. Use this metaphor at your own risk.

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