The Agony of Indifference Discovered

03 May

I’m taking a content leap on today’s blog. Putting aside my fixation thus far with high fashion, dragons, and flowering trees, I’d like to focus on ORGANIZATION THEORY. Now, hold on, there, fast-fingers. Don’t click to another site.

In the spirit of ‘write what you know’, I’ve sifted through some of the drearier theory gunk to pull out a couple of gems. Today’s spotlight is due Chester Barnard. Decades ago, Mr. Barnard proposed that a person . . . (he said ‘man’, but let’s presume he didn’t intend to exclude half of the population)  . . . a person would obey any order given by a ‘superior’ as long as he or she:

1 –understood the order

2 –believed the order consistent with organizational purpose

3 – viewed carrying out the order as compatible with his/her self-interest

4 – was physically and mentally able to comply

In ethics classes, we use this concept to ask how seemingly kind, well-intentioned people could carry out orders resulting in the horrendous abuse of humans, animals, or environmental treasures. But Mr. Barnard’s Zone of Indifference offers writers a way to take a hero or heroine through a series of decisions or events and drop them into a knuckle-buster of a dilemma.

So, let’s pretend . . . .

. . . our heroine, Betsy, carries out a series of tasks in her role as personal assistant to a San Francisco entrepreneur. A week later, she learns the company’s main rival dies in a boating accident. Our highly intelligent heroine recognizes a pattern – and the role that her efficiency played in a murder plot.

Being a moral person, Betsy agonizes at discovering the deadly outcome of her competence — if only she’d paid more attention to ‘why’ of the tasks. Betsy decides she is complicit, however innocently, and seeks justice.

Of course, her murderous boss disagrees; threats ensue. Toss in your favorite alpha male cliché (cynical detective or playboy son changing to avenge father’s death), season the plot with descriptions of his absolute male physical perfection (this to writer’s taste, I default to tall, dark, and parahuman). Sprinkle in a few hormones and you’ve a tasty character arc packed with orgasms, angst, and atonement. (I dare you to say that quickly three times.)

C’mon, play with Mr. Barnard’s Zone of Indifference.

What three innocuous steps could your favorite character take to lead them into a delicious sort of conflict?

How could you create a more sympathetic antagonist by working backward on this model?


Posted by on May 3, 2011 in conflict, writing


Tags: , ,

11 responses to “The Agony of Indifference Discovered

  1. LBlankenship

    May 3, 2011 at 5:50 AM

    >C’mon, play with Mr. Barnard’s Zone of Indifference.

    Sure. Is that supposed to be a link…?

  2. Liz Fredericks

    May 3, 2011 at 6:27 AM

    I’m sorry about the underlined title appearing to be a link. It’s a writing habit that doesn’t translate well to the internet.

  3. Clarissa Southwick

    May 3, 2011 at 7:35 AM

    Liz, I just love that you’ve sifted through all the boring stuff to bring us what is useful to our writing. Find the thing your character would never do. Now put him in a situation where he has to do it. What great drama. What great fun. Thanks for the insight 🙂

  4. Meredith Allen Conner

    May 3, 2011 at 8:24 AM

    Torture your characters Liz! I love it.

  5. Liz Fredericks

    May 3, 2011 at 8:48 AM

    Thanks Clarissa and Meredith! I’m learning that everything I help organizations avoid works exceptionally well as a device to make my heroine and hero suffer – until the happy ending, of course.

    • Janis

      May 3, 2011 at 11:00 AM

      Rock and a hard place.


      Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

      These make for great writing.

      Thanks for the great article, Liz.

  6. Carley Ash

    May 3, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    Great advice – thanks Liz.

  7. lynn mapp

    May 3, 2011 at 8:35 PM

    Liz, Liz, Liz,
    I sounds so simple, yet…this is where the screws tighten.

  8. liz fredericks

    May 4, 2011 at 6:21 AM

    Thanks for the comments – I hope the zone was useful. I think it’s a nice, deliberate way to walk through that Catch-22, Argh – I didn’t mean to rhyme.

  9. Johanna Harness

    May 5, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    Ooh. I love finding new patterns like these. I’m definitely coming back to this. Thanks, Liz!

  10. Mary Vine

    May 5, 2011 at 2:12 PM

    Good stuff, Liz.


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