Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Understanding Power 1 - Shaping the story

Conflict can draw us in, but not always. Consider a boxing match. The fun of the competition is usually the differences between the athletes. One is graceful while the other can take an opponent down with one punch. One fighter is aggressive while the other is patient. The favorite fights conventionally, but the underdog has tricks and surprises. Or they may have different personalities or traditions or attitudes toward the rules.

But, if the fight were between two identical twins, indistinguishable apart from the color of their trunks, it probably wouldn’t be much fun. The most intriguing conflicts have stark contrasts. That’s true in real life and in stories.

Usually, the differences in characters emerge organically, which is good. But sometimes for a scene, a sequence, a chapter, an act, or the whole story, it’s helpful to understand your choices as an author. I like to list the elements of power and the vulnerabilities of the characters.

Some powers: Physical strength and skill, planning and strategy, knowledge and secrets, analysis and insights. Social standing. Authority and privilege. Talent and capabilities. Flexibility. Resources and money.

Some vulnerabilities: Low tolerance of risk or pain. Incomplete knowledge or false beliefs. Debts and responsibilities. Naiveté and inexperience.

Some things, depending on the circumstances, can be strengths or vulnerabilities: Care for others. Empathy. Attachments to ideas, principles, and traditions.

Note, that it’s possible for things that are largely elements of power, like authority, to become vulnerabilities (i.e., when using authority can damage reputation.

Imagine how these (and more) might become stark contrasts within a story, illuminating the characters who are fighting for what they want, need, or believe in.

Now imagine how power might be used and abused. How protecting vulnerabilities might create obstacles. How power and vulnerabilities might change during a story depending on specific situations and how the characters grow and develop. Or become more desperate. Or begin to cross ethical lines, act rashly, or reprioritize values. What might cause your characters to use a power for the first time or expose a vulnerability? And what would the consequences be?

There’s a lot to explore. More next time.

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