Playing with Power

01 Nov

Ok, again with the disclaimer – this seems a permanent feature of my blogs – do not read this if you have Pollyanna tendencies, prefer your stories to be happy-happy environs where all love and are loved in return, or think you’ll acquire some super secret key to the paper due in PubAdm 502 at 8am on Friday of next week. Not happening, so suck it up. Nope, the following skiff across theories of power and influence is just that – a brief jaunt into the tick tock of human experience.

The use and abuse of POWER is fundamental to human relationships, political structures, and social culture. So, of course, survivalists (and aren’t we all in some small way?) and writers should understand exactly how we might wield, or yield to, influence. Power is the capacity to compel action, words, and, at times, even thought.

If the best novels use conflict to pull us forward through chapters to happy (or not) endings, then we should think of power as a central vehicle to spark conflict. In reality, as Gandhi argued, people, cultures, and organizations only have power over us when we grant its influence. Unfortunately, few of us are strong enough to resist the influence of others indefinitely, even if we believe we’ve the right to do so. And, despite holding such strength, we might not recognize power’s touch.

So, let’s presume one or more characters (or institutions) desire a nefarious outcome. For this example, our antagonist, Dr. Doody, (no reason, this is fiction) wants our protagonist, Madame Femme, to sell her ancestral home. She refuses.

Strange. Dr. Doody’s targets often acquiesce willingly, others under duress, but with the correct lever – power base – he knows they eventually give in.


Perhaps, when the arrogant doctor faces Madame Femme, she might wield a different base to counteract his influence. Or perhaps she ‘ups the ante’ within a particular power base. Luckily, she can draw upon the insights of Professors French and Raven. Decades ago, they categorized power by source – reward, coercive, legitimate, reference, and expert.

Reward Power depends upon what rewards Dr. Doody holds and whether they have value to Madam Femme. And whether or not she believes he can deliver. Perhaps he offers her a million dollars. This might compel a poor woman, but our Madam Femme is ‘a woman of independent means’ and, anyway, she doubts his check is good.

Coercive Power is linked to Dr. Doody’s real or perceived ability to harm or remove something Madame Femme values or to deliver something she fears. He threatens to kidnap her Schnauzer or put a snake in her mailbox. This might work, unless she dislikes the dog and adores snakes. Our Madame Femme is a maverick.

Legitimate Power refers to authority drawn from formal political, organizational, or social auspices. If Dr. Doody was the president of the bank holding Madame’s mortgage, he might compel her to sell. As an informed consumer, Madame Femme appeals to federal regulators to claim Dr. Doody is violating bank policy.

Referent Power is a social construct. Like Santa’s sleigh, it flies if we believe. Dr. Doody fancies himself admired by an adoring community and he believes Madame might sell to please him or to align herself with him. Silly man. Our dear Madame Femme sneers at such idolatry; Dr. Doody is once more out of luck.

And finally, we have Expert Power. In this case, Dr. Doody is a physician who tells Madame Femme she has an illness requiring a warmer climate. If she views Dr. Doody as knowledgeable, then she might be compelled to sell. If she gets a second opinion and learns Dr. Doody is full of  . . . himself, then Madame would decline his proposition.

As our characters acquire, use, and manipulate power, they add twists and tension to our stories. Our ability to recognize power and the subtle play of influence spices up our stories and may be useful in ‘real life’ too. How do you play with power?

French, J. R. P., Raven, B. The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander. Group dynamics. New York: Harper & Row, 1959.


Posted by on November 1, 2011 in character development, conflict, Idaho, power


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15 responses to “Playing with Power

  1. johannaharness

    November 1, 2011 at 6:06 AM

    Great post, Liz! Thanks for giving me another way to examine the power structure in my novel. Very helpful.

    • Liz Fredericks

      November 1, 2011 at 11:20 AM

      Thanks Johanna! I admit to defaulting back to my comfort zone (theory) when I draw a blank on writing. This blog was a blank page until one of my students emailed me with questions about leveraging power – and bless his heart, I was off and running. I think of you every time I hit inspiration through teaching as I see so much of it in your blogs.

  2. Janis McCurry

    November 1, 2011 at 7:03 AM

    This is a great page to print off and use when upping the stakes or putting twists in our conflict. Thanks for the help, Liz.

    • Liz Fredericks

      November 1, 2011 at 11:21 AM

      You’re most welcome, Janis and thanks for letting me know this is useful to you. That’s a huge compliment for me and I’m very interested to hear how it applies in your WIP.

  3. Peggy Staggs

    November 1, 2011 at 9:05 AM

    I’m keeping this one…like most of your other blogs. What great ideas the different types of power bring to mind. You’ve just given me the cores to my next five books. I’m excited. As a recovering psychology major, I find the use and abuse of power one of the most interesting of the human psyche. Thank, Liz, for another great post.

    • Liz Fredericks

      November 1, 2011 at 11:22 AM

      I love ‘recovering psychology major’ – do any of us really recover from college? Thanks for your kind comments, Peggy.

  4. Meredith Conner

    November 1, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    Fabulous post Liz! I always find a new way to look at things when I read your blogs!

  5. Mary Vine

    November 1, 2011 at 3:37 PM

    This is a great help for writing ideas, Liz. Thanks!

  6. Liz Fredericks

    November 1, 2011 at 5:16 PM

    You’re most welcome, Mary!

  7. Susan Russo Anderson

    November 1, 2011 at 9:19 PM

    Liz, Excellent post! Never thought of my characters in relationship to how they use, abuse, or are oblivious to power, but now I will. Thanks for deepening our understanding of this important dynamic.

    • Liz Fredericks

      November 2, 2011 at 8:15 AM

      You’re most welcome, Susan. I like your phrase ‘oblivious to power’. As a reader, I’d be interested in watching a character arc as someone became aware of and savvy about the influences around him/her.

  8. ramblingsfromtheleft

    November 1, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    Thanks, Liz. There is a fine line we walk when we attempt to use these techniques with our characters. Too much and we can turn off the reader. Too much and the character comes off as a softy. I love the way you broke this one element into categories. Good job 🙂

  9. Liz Fredericks

    November 2, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    There’s nothing more annoying than a wimpy heroine and you’re right about what a delicate balance it can be.

  10. Clarissa Southwick

    November 3, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    Great information here, Liz. Sorry I’m so late to the party. NaNoWriMo has a strange power over me. 🙂 Referent or reward? Probably a bit of both.


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