I may know a thing or two about conflict: I have three teenagers.
Conflict is really great in stories, it raises the stakes, it drives characters and it makes the story more interesting. In life, I could do without it.
I’m the mom, so I have something besides gray hair and tax files that my kids don’t have: I have authority. I have more power, more wisdom, more responsibility and more invested in them than they do. (Note: I didn’t say more money. They have more money than I do.) A regular source of our conflict is them lamenting the fact that they have less. And 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.
Regardless of whether or not this relationship is a formal or an informal one, the person or institution with more is the one with the authority. I am the parent, so I have more maturity, more power and more responsibility over my children. The local police department has more power and responsibility, so they are the authority when it comes to traffic laws. Your boss could have more influence and seniority. Your elderly parents may have more money. An authority figure can have more wisdom, more age, more experience, more power, more and they use that more to try to control our protagonist.
Use these ten questions to analyze the imbalance 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 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 antagonists 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 is son is in jail, then choose the most unexpected result.
6. Is your authority figure someone that your main character has chosen or is it someone who is just put in their life? This distinction will make a huge difference in the way that your authority figure is viewed and respected. Parents are not chosen, so the teens under their authority have to live with the authority whether they like it or not. (Ahem.) An employee, however, has chosen the authority figures in their lives. If they don’t like the situation, they can always quit. Or put another way, how much power does your main character have in this position? The less power they have, the more potential for conflict, the better your story.
7. Does your authority figures have authority figures over them? This can also add to your conflict. Let’s say your main character’s boss is a softie: they look the other way when main character comes in late. Yet, the CEO of the company finds out that boss isn’t doing their job. This conflict trickles down to main character and creates conflict. Examine your authority figures in your story and ask yourself, who do they have to please? Who has power over them? How can this create trickle down conflict?
8. Does your setting create new levels of authority that contemporary life doesn’t have? For example, your 16-year-old heroine in 2016 has far less authority in her life than a 16-year-old heroine in 1916. In your research, make a list of authority figures your setting will demand. Specifically list how this affects the life of your main character. Use this list to create conflict.
9. Do the authority figures in your story want more authority than they are entitled to? Your main character’s landlord already has an expectation of rent and respect of his property, what if he wants to enter the house without knocking? What if he parks his car in the driveway? What if he wants our main character, the tenant, to hide stolen goods? By increasing your authority figure’s expectations to the unreasonable or unexpected, you can create new levels of conflict and that can enrich your story.
10. How does your authority figure react when they lose their authority? Our main character quits his job so his psychopathic boss can’t harass him anymore — unless he follows him home. If your antagonist goes beyond the expectations of his authoritative position, this can add elements of surprise and drama to your story. More conflict!!
If I’m having conflict in my house, I can almost always bet it’s an issue of authority.
If I’m having conflict in my stories, (which I want!) the first and best place to look is in the relationship with authorities. So give your authorities more attention, you may be pleased with the results.
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Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.