by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The way that a protagonist moves through the world should be filled with challenges and tests of the ego. There is perhaps no better way to accomplish this than by thoughtfully creating differences in power between your character and the others she interacts with. Because there are so many types of power in the world, the possibilities for how to execute the differences in power are nearly endless. When a character has less power than another, there are certain scenarios and emotions that arise. When a character has more power than another, an entirely different set of scenarios and emotions arise. Finally, when a character is on equal footing with another, the dynamic is again different. For example, comradery may exist between those characters, which is often executed through the use of a best friend or sidekick of the protagonist. However, it is also possible for a competitive dynamic to exist, as might be the case with two co-workers vying for the same job.
When the power dynamics in a story feel natural and true to life, audiences will engage. When the power dynamics feel manufactured and artificial, they will not. Here are three ways to utilize universal and archetypal power dynamics in the story you are writing.
1. Create Dynamics of Wealth, Class, Race, or Age
Power dynamics come down to difference. The more profound the difference between characters, the greater the opportunity for conflict, which is the path to emotional movement in the audience. Power dynamics based around things characters cannot change, such as race and age, can build desires for fairness and justice in the mind of the viewer. Dynamics based on issues that can change throughout one’s lifetimes, such as wealth and class, produce different feelings. Anger toward characters that exploit any of these factors in a story is a common reaction for audiences, which is a sign of investment in the narrative.
In Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel Chu is confronted with several power dynamics when she meets her boyfriend’s mother, who becomes her antagonist. Rachel is far less wealthy and from a completely different class, which her antagonist exploits for her gain. There is also an age gap between the two characters that creates a power dynamic, pitting spunky youth against traditional experience.
2. Create Dynamics of Experience
When one character has had a major success or made a major mistake, a power dynamic is created between him and the other characters. If the protagonist’s experience was a success, admiration and envy may surround the character. If the experience was a mistake, shame and embarrassment may accompany their journey. When the protagonist is living under the burden of a heavy blunder, it creates struggles of self-worth, especially when characters affected by the mistake enter the story.
In The Happytime Murders, the puppet protagonist has made a grand error before the story begins. The dynamic between him and the other characters is clearly a result of that mistake, but we only learn the details and more clearly understand the relationships as the plot develops. As is common in stories with this dynamic, the underlying motivation for the protagonist is to restore the balance in power through some act of redemption.
3. Create Dynamics of Occupation or Position
Within any organization or company, there is a natural hierarchy of power. It is no wonder that stories are often crafted in these worlds. The dynamics automatically lend themselves to conflict and opportunities for exploitation. While there are a number of ways to explore dynamics within the institution, one of the more common ways is for the protagonist to discover an injustice or oversight within their organization that their position prevents them from correcting. Many times in these stories, when the protagonist brings the issue to the attention of those that can affect it, the character is ignored, placated, or sometimes punished. This often “forces” the character the take matters into their own hands, upsetting the power dynamics of their occupation or position.
This trope is seen across genres in a wide variety of stories from Mrs. Doubtfire, who must challenge the dynamics within his own home to Mile 22, where an elite intelligence officer must work outside the boundaries of his position and government in order to smuggle a mysterious man with sensitive information out of the country. While the character may suffer the consequences of the power dynamics at play, the reward at the end tends to be worth the sacrifice.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.