I may know a thing or two about conflict: I have teenagers.
I’m the mom, so I have something besides gray hair my kids don’t have: I have authority. I have more power, more wisdom, more responsibility and more invested in them than they do. A regular source of our conflict is them lamenting the fact that they have less. They want more. It’s this imbalance of more/less that I’ve noticed in a lot of relationships. This is the stuff of conflict. I’d like to suggest the more we analyze it in our fiction, the richer our story’s conflict will be.
Understanding the nature of the authorities in your fiction will help you define your characters, it will beef up your conflict and it will clarify your antagonists. Your main character has less. The authority figure has more. As you are planning how your main character can get in and out of trouble, consider how this imbalance can build and sustain your conflict.
Use these ten questions to analyze the imbalance of authority between your protagonist and your antagonist to make your conflicts more interesting.
1. What expectations does your authority figures have of your protagonist? The greater the number of expectations, the greater the imbalance of power, the more potential for conflict. Consider having your authority figures demand more from your main characters — this will create more sympathy from your reader and a sense of justice will be a bigger drive.
2. How well does your authority figure communicate these expectations? The more unclear or cloudy that communication is, the greater your conflict! Consider shaping your antagonist’s personality in such a way that they are poor communicators, they give mixed messages or they set your protagonist up to fail.
3. How does your authority figure demonstrate inconsistency with their expectations? This falls into the classic “do as I say, not as I do” mindset. If you have an inconsistent authority figure, your protagonist may face a moral dilemma, which can add depth and meaning to your story.
4. How much empathy does your authority figure demonstrate to those who are under him? A more empathetic antagonist will encourage sympathy from your reader — not such a bad thing. A less empathetic antagonist will make the evil villain even more obvious. Think of empathy as the dial on your antagonist that makes things more or less fuzzy. If you want your reader to really wonder who to root for, make your authority figures more empathetic. If you want your reader to only root for your protagonist, then make your authority figures cold and unfeeling.
5. How does your authority figure react emotionally when their authority is threatened or the rules are broken or expectations are not met? Do they yell and scream? Are they quiet and unresponsive? Do they manipulate circumstances to make them pay? The more surprising their emotional response, the more interesting the story. You may even consider making a list of all the things the emotionally distant father could do when he finds out his son is in jail, then choose the most unexpected result.
If I’m having conflict in my house, I can almost always bet it’s an issue of authority.
Conflict is really great in stories, it raises the stakes, it drives characters and it makes the story more interesting. In life, and with the teenagers, I could do without it.
Next week? Five More Questions To Ask About Authority!