Wednesday, June 9, 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've 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.

I think 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 /

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