Do you agree with me? Let’s see.
It’s a well-understood principle of storytelling: If your protagonist has something to do, make it difficult. Obstacles. Complications. Handicaps. Rising stakes. Shortening time. Peril. Moral peril. Psychological resistance. Self-doubt. Self-sabotage.
There are plenty of ways to make it tougher on your main character, but here’s the thing: the familiar methods of making the job difficult presume that your protagonist’s looming task is positive, good, necessary and urgent. Simply put, your protagonist must do what needs to be done. It’s the right thing. No alternatives. No doubt.
But what if that isn’t true? There always are alternatives. There are other ways to look at the situation. Is what needs to be done absolutely necessary? No, not necessarily. In fact, something else could be done instead. That thing, whatever it is, could be tempting. It could even be better. It could become equally necessary, or even more so.
Someone knows that. Let’s call that person your story’s moral antagonist. That moral antagonist has a job of his or her own, which is to persuade your protagonist to take a different course, do something other than what we expect or first imagine is good. The moral antagonist must, naturally, sell the alternative to your protagonist, using the psychological methods of persuasion.
The ways in which we are persuaded to do things which we wouldn’t ordinarily do are well known to time share developers, encyclopedia salesmen, Girl Scouts with cookies, spies, con artists, street scammers, cult leaders and psychologists. Persuasion is a science. You can be trained in it. Its methods work not because they convince others of a better idea or superior choice, but because of psychological pressure.
Persuasion appeals not to reason, but plays on our inborn human nature. It’s made up of mind tricks that are difficult, or almost impossible, to resist. For insight into the devious methods of persuasion, I am indebted to researcher Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, whose book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is an eye-opening explanation of how we all are manipulated. I will never again see in the same way the cheese and crackers offered at a wine tasting.
Let’s look at some of the means of exerting influence, for they can be put into the hands of moral antagonists.
First is the principle of reciprocation. Give something small, and thus incur a feeling of obligation to respond in kind. A Hare Krishna in a saffron robe has a better chance of getting money from you if he first hands you a flower. Politicians call in favors to pass legislation. Cult leaders not only isolate and indoctrinate their followers, they give them privileges and gifts. The psychological burden of debt is powerful. We will do things we dislike to avoid being the person who does not reciprocate. We can’t help it.
Related to that is making concessions. First ask for too much, then ask for something less. Agreement is more likely. If a character is asked to murder someone, it’s too much. Instead break a leg? That too can be refused. Well then, threaten someone instead? Well, that’s not so bad. There’s no physical harm. So, a character agrees to do that…and, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly the outcome that the moral antagonist wanted in the first place.
Another principle of persuasion is commitment and consistency. Get someone to agree to something small, and thereafter that person is likely to go along with propositions much bigger. It’s related to the political phenomenon of affirmation bias: Once having voted left or right, a voter will dig in and justify his or her choice even when reasons for regret and reconsideration pile up. This method is especially effective when the subject of persuasion has real problems needing solutions.
The simplest and most effective way to use the consistency principle is to extract a promise, which later must be kept even when doing so means doing wrong. Promise me you’ll always take care of your sister. Please don’t ever tell. You’ll be there for me when I need you, right? It’s easy to see how agreeing to those promises puts pressure on a protagonist to follow through. Similar is gaining agreement to something fairly benign—admit it, your monster-mother was nice sometimes—which then causes a character to stick to that position even when it is later shown to be incorrect. The more public a statement of position is, as well, the harder it is for anyone to retract, especially when that position is also widely held by others.
Laugh tracks on TV are what is known as social proof. If others are laughing, it must be funny. The same principle works in clubs and cults. When others are going along, it’s hard not to do so as well. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson is founded on this human reality. In Jackson’s story, townspeople stone to death a randomly chosen innocent because that’s what they have always done. The scientific term is pluralistic ignorance. Practically speaking, though, we go along with what is wrong because it is socially worse not to. Indeed, people will go out of their way—even to extremes—to demonstrate conformity.
There is no more effective way for a moral antagonist to gain psychological leverage over a character than to be likable. Friends of friends are hard to resist. People who are trying to help must be good, mustn’t they? Dressing nicely, smelling good, offering compliments, fitting in, being familiar and seeming alike…such qualities are persuasive. From Tupperware parties to choosing romantic partners, those who are likable and familiar are hard to resist. (Case in point: good cop, bad cop.)
Even better is when a moral antagonist pitches in toward a common goal. It’s hard to hate someone when you’ve worked together. Authority is another persuasive tool. Titles, clothes and trappings are persuasive all by themselves, before even a word is spoken.
The illusion of scarcity and last chances also breaks down resistance. Act now! Final clearance! Only two tickets left at this price! Even more powerfully, the forbidden, banned, and hard-to-get are always highly desirable. Think Tickle Me Elmo when you’re a toddler or Valley of the Dolls when you’re a teen. Persuaders know how to create scarcity and sway behavior with it.
Losing the freedom to choose also creates a powerful urge to have that that thing. Juliet was all the hotter to Romeo because their parents would disapprove. That’s scientifically demonstrable in real life. People desire what is disallowed. Revolutionaries gain support when they are silenced; their ideas gain credence when censored. In the legal realm, juries believe testimony when they are told to disregard it.
So, let’s turn these principles of persuasion into practical tools which you can put into the hands of your moral antagonists:
- Who is your current story’s moral antagonist? What does that character want to prevent your protagonist from doing? What does that character want your protagonist to do instead?
- What can your moral antagonist give to (or previously have given) your protagonist? How does your protagonist feel obligated to give something in return?
- What can your moral antagonist urge your protagonist to do that is extreme? Less extreme, but still disagreeable? Reasonable by comparison?
- What (at first) reasonable-sounding promise or proposition can your moral antagonist get your protagonist to agree to? How can that pledge or promise be made public? How can it then be used to weaken or pressure your protagonist? (“Look, you already agreed to this, are you going back on it now?”)
- How can your moral antagonist argue that your protagonist’s plan goes against community values or social norms? How will your protagonist lose status, be shunned or be driven out?
- Can your moral antagonist be a friend? Well regarded? Well liked? Attractive? An authority, with impressive title and trappings?
- How can your moral antagonist make the alternative plan perishable? An option available only now? A rare, or one-time opportunity?
- How can your moral antagonist convince your protagonist that his or her original plan does not represent who your protagonist truly is? Whereas, the alternative plan does affirm your protagonist’s true and better nature?
- Who backs up your moral antagonist? (“You know, she has a point.”) Conversely, who casts doubt on your protagonist? (“Are you really sure you’re doing the right thing?”)
- What’s the first, slippery step your protagonist could take to go the way your moral antagonist wants? Having done that, what makes it increasingly hard to reverse course?
What your protagonist must do ought to be difficult, but that is not the only way to create drama. Creating an alternative path is possible and even better when there is someone in the story to persuade your protagonist that it’s the better way to go.
Persuade how? There are tricks, as we’ve seen, and if those tricks can sell you unneeded Amway soap or unnecessary encyclopedias then they can surely sell your protagonist on the wrong thing to do. All it takes is a skilled persuader.
Who is your story’s moral antagonist and what does he or she want your protagonist to do? What methods of persuasion will he or she use?
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