Wednesday, July 16

Talking About Conflict: Harmony vs Discipline

Talking About Conflict: Harmony vs Discipline

I’m always looking for new ways to include conflict in a story.

As you know, a basic theme of any story is the conflict that exists between characters--as well as between characters and the setting/environment itself. One effective way of generating this conflict is to set up two sides with opposing beliefs. Today I’d like to talk about two such opposing beliefs: Harmony and Discipline.


According to the excellent article, Harmony versus Discipline over at,[1] those who believe in Discipline hold that:

People should seek to gain “a measure of control over themselves and in so doing the world around them.”

Discipline is “the belief that mankind can and should master themselves and their environment for the betterment of all. Be it through mastery of the self through rigorous mental and/or physical training, study, exploration or with laws and civilization, this rigorous pursuit usually advocates science, progress, capitalism, Magic in its intellectual aspect, religion in its intellectual and organized aspects, innovation, urbanization and curiosity. Discipline believes that Harmony is too focused on preserving and accepting, and is in fact defeatist by not trying to improve things, this is why Discipline tends to be active.”

But everything has its drawbacks. People who believe in Discipline can be prone to the following errors:

- Interfere where they shouldn’t

People who live their lives according to Discipline often don’t know when to leave well enough alone.

Develop a God complex

Sometimes a person can feel they know so much about the world around them and how to control it that they are, in effect, god—or at least a god. This is never a good thing.

- Sacrifice today for tomorrow

All we ever have is the now, today. Occasionally the followers of Discipline ask others to sacrifice their todays for tomorrows that may never come.


Those who believe in Harmony hold that:

People “should accept themselves and the world as it is, seeking not to control either but to coexist harmoniously with the forces in their environment.”

Those who believe in Harmony hold that “untamed nature, be it physical, natural or mental, is preferable and that mankind should not try to dominate or change the environment in which it finds itself. It [Harmony] believes that doing so is Prideful and unnatural, leading only to heartache and calamity. It believes that it is nature (be it Mother Nature, plain old nature, Sentient Cosmic Force, The Lifestream, magic, or even human impulses) that binds us all together into a greater whole that knows how best we should all coexist. Because of this outlook, Harmony tends to be reactive, correcting problems rather than seeking to prevent them.”

Like Discipline, Harmony has a dark side:

- A door to chaos

“Harmony tends to have a wild, uncontrollable and potentially destructive side. It's (usually) completely without malice, but that's cold comfort when a tornado or magically augmented mastodon tears through your house.”

Harmony vs Discipline: Increase Conflict & ‘Hook Into’ Setting

These beliefs relate to how a person should live their life—that is, what the best possible life would be like—and how the world should be. 

Interpersonal conflict as well as societal conflict

The dichotomy between Harmony and Discipline presents a way to amp up conflict in your story; furthermore, this is a dichotomy that science fiction and fantasy writers have been using for decades. For example, think of pretty much any episode from Star Trek, the original series (This Side of Paradise, The Apple, What Are Little Girls Made of? and so on).

Conflict between characters (as well as societies) and the world in which they live.

We all know that to tell an immersive story one’s characters must be ‘hooked into’ their environment—in other words, into the setting—and working with the themes of Harmony and Discipline is a great way to do that, one that many science fiction writers have used for years.

Example: Jedi vs Sith

Do you let The Force “flow through you and enact its will upon the galaxy? Or chafe at the ‘chains’ so imposed and bend it to your will?”

Question: Have you used the Harmony vs Discipline dichotomy in your own writing?


1. All quotations in this article are from Harmony Versus Discipline over at

Photo credit: "At The Water Hole" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Very useful summary, and something I need to consider for my WIP (my problem is that I haven't decided what side of this dichotomy the good guys are on).

    But you're evil for providing a link to tvtropes! (I managed to wrest myself away after only 40 minutes this time, using superheroic powers of self-discipline!)

    1. lol Yes, tvtropes is like that. Great site!

      Thanks for pointing that out, Kim. I agree. Good/evil is independent of Harmony/Disharmony, it can go either way.

      BTW, I was thinking about your story today. I need you to finish so I can read it! ;-)


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