Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Conflict and the Moral High Ground

Writing Wednesday

I recently listened to a history of the US Marine Corps from World War II (WWII) to the present. There's no such thing as a "good" war, but some of the conflicts during the last seventy years seem more necessary than others.

The Marines say that warfare is fundamentally a clash of wills, and the party with the stronger one will prevail. The will to fight and win is closely tied to the notion of the moral high ground.

What I noticed is that the party that has no choice but to fight often gains the moral high ground. Whereas the party that has more options literally has an uphill battle in the moral landscape because they have to show why choosing to fight is better than choosing not to fight.

This is why so many stories start when the protagonist's world changes because of the actions of the antagonist. The formally ordinary protagonist is forced do do something because of actions the antagonist chose to take. The protagonist essentially has no choice (because doing nothing isn't much of a story). That fact gives them easy access to the moral high ground.

This pattern is probably clearest in stories of overt conflict, but I think it applies just as well in stories about characters where the conflicts are primarily emotional. The character who is "forced" to resolve a difficult situation is more sympathetic than the character who chooses to cause the situation.

Keep this in mind as you develop your protagonist and your antagonist. The one who is forced into a conflict will almost always be more sympathetic than the one who chooses to cause the conflict.

Image: Simon Howden /


Paul West said...

Great comment. Thanks.

RaShelle said...

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Scott said...

Good post.

The interesting thing about the way the moral high ground works with conflict is that, usually, both sides believe they have it.

Your battle example is a good one, because we usually believe we have the moral high ground, and that gives us the edge. Thing is, the other side feels the same way. Both sides believe they God on their side. Even if one side claims not to believe in God, they still believe there's something that makes them Right.

Politics is another example. No matter which party you belong to, you believe you have ultimate right and the other side is wrong. And if you're a true moderate, you believe being in the center gives you ultimate right and the two wings are are wrong.

And, of course, we are so convinced of our correctness that we know that the other side is deceived and evil. We can't possibly be wrong. God has our back.

And the other side feels exactly the same way.

This is what makes an interesting story. (I blogged about this several months ago.) The protagonist is the character the author wants us to sympathize with, the character we're supposed to believe is right, the guy who must win no matter what. But the antagonist is equally convinced that he is right. These characters conflict because they stand in each other's way as each of them pursues a goal he or she is convinced in absolutely right. Each character, in other words, tries to destroy the other's moral high ground, out of a strong conviction that only they have the moral authority and are acting for the cause of rightness.

Some very interesting stories play with the reader by exploiting the moral conviction of each side. Maybe the protagonist isn't as right as we're supposed to think he is. Maybe the antagonist is not such a villain.

Some of the most interesting stories come about when the author plays with us and teases us, manipulating our natural tendency to believe our position (or the position of the character we identify with) is the only correct one.

This is fun stuff, and (as you can tell) one of my favorite aspects of story to talk about.

And I hope this comment makes sense. I had knee surgery this morning and am lying here in my room, on the remainder of the surgical cocktail and a post-op Percocet. It's been hard to type this and make my thoughts coherent. I hope I made my point. Because, of course, my point is the only ultimately correct one. :)

Scott said...

Wow. My comment Wednesday was long and rambling. Not surprising, considering my condition at the time. Summary: it's not one side having the moral high ground that creates conflict. It's opposing sides who each *think* they have it.