I’ll Take the High Road and You’ll Take the Low
by Jason Black
We’ve all heard to keep conflict in every scene, to maintain pacing and sustain our readers’ interest. However, the way a character conducts himself during a conflict is wildly indicative of what kind of person that character is. Every conflict revolves around a set of axes that govern the manner in which the conflict unfolds, and each axis presents characters with a choice: to take the high road, or the low. Those choices speak volumes about the people themselves.
The source of the conflict
How many TV shows have you seen where characters end up fighting over a simple misunderstanding? How many situations where, if they had simply talked it over, everything would have been fine? This is low-road characterization: the conflict stems from characters jumping to erroneous conclusions about each other, without bothering to verify their beliefs. Had one of them taken the high road and said, “I’m upset because you said ...,” the other person could have said, “No, that’s not what I meant. What I meant was ...” Bam, conflict sorted.
The low-road choice paints your characters as judgmental and quick to condemn. The high road gives characters who are mature, fair-minded, and trustworthy. This doesn’t mean the high road always averts a conflict. Cliché TV show examples involve foolish misunderstandings, but what if the high-road character’s conclusions turn out to be accurate? Then, at least he knows he’s justified in feeling upset.
Questions or dictums
In any argument, there are lots of ways to get your point across, and how you frame your viewpoints can be just as important as the viewpoints themselves. The high road on this axis is engaging your opponent by asking questions. The low road is to assert dogmatic opinions which practically dare your opponent to disagree.
Imagine an environmentalist character arguing with a pro-development character over the value of wilderness preservation. The environmentalist might take the low with a hyperbolic dictum: “We have no right to pave the planet at our grandchildren’s expense!” The low-road strategy practically guarantees continued disagreement.
The high-road strategy is to ask a carefully constructed question: “Are you saying there is no possibility at all that robust, wild spaces might have some value in fifty or a hundred years? Are you saying it’s impossible that future generations might look back and say ‘gee, I wish we still had some rain forest?’”
A question implicitly demands an answer. Constructing the question so there is only one reasonable answer—which happens to align with the high-road character’s goals—compels the other character to think at least momentarily in the questioner’s terms. The high-road strategy doesn’t guarantee agreement, but it does bias the argument that way.
What versus who
Too many arguments go south by devolving into personal invective instead of staying focused on the substance of the conflict. Dialogue such as, “You’re forgetting about the school budget, you idiot!” is clearly a low-road ad hominem attack. The high road is obvious: keep the character’s statements phrased in terms of the subject rather than the opponent: “But that doesn’t take the school budget into account.” Again, the high-road character is the one who comes across as reasonable and sympathetic.
Reaching an impasse
It may be that agreement really is impossible. Perhaps characters disagree on something so fundamental to their worldviews that neither one can ever change. Even then, there is still a high road and a low road. The high road is agreeing to disagree, to end the conversation with respect, so both parties can at least live and let live.
The low-road character escalates, refusing to accept that the other character won’t bend to his will. The low roader makes a disproportionate response, declaring literal or metaphorical war on the other person. To bear a grudge, to start a blood feud, to slander them, to blacklist, or in some other way make the person suffer not for their opposing view, but for having not agreed. There’s a lot of drama in the low road, but be clear what it conveys about the character: this person is unreasonable, venal, and petty.
What happens when the two sides in an argument opt not to take the same road on one of the above axes? If one character goes high-road while another goes low, you create conflict on a higher level, a second conflict about the rules for pursuing the first conflict. What if one person is interested in at least agreeing about the source of the conflict while the other isn’t? What if one person consistently asks engaging questions, while the other resorts to dis-engaging dictums? The mix-and-match possibilities are endless, but they all excel at showing a contrast between two characters. And in most cases, readers will naturally side with the character who is trying to take the high road.
Low-road conflicts often escalate into violence. Characters come to blows, guns are drawn, armies march into battle. But even when using physical force, characters still have a high and a low road to choose from. We can fight fair or fight dirty. This is why movies so often show the bad guy throwing sand in the good guy’s face. It’s a classic low-road move that clearly demonstrates just how much of a snake the bad guy is. In war, armies can follow or ignore the rules of the Geneva Convention.
Conflicts are great. They sustain the pace of your novels and keep readers engaged in your story. Fights mean somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose, and that’s as good a hook as any for keeping readers turning pages. But in all your conflicts, consider the tactics. There are always high roads and low roads. Your job is to make careful choices about which roads your characters take to vividly portray what kinds of people they are.
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com.