Factions add depth to organizations that would otherwise be flat. They create internal conflicts that leaders must confront while facing external threats. They also highlight diversity in your world that will make it feel real and lived-in. Societies aren’t planets of hats, and great institutions aren’t monolithic. If a character says that all Correllians ignore the odds, the story should prove them to be ignorant or bigoted later on.
We’ve previously explored all the reasons why adding factions is good for your story. Whether they’re separate organizations in competition or rival groups within a larger institution, factions add interest. Now to build that interest, follow these three steps for creating factions.
Spoiler Notice: Game of Thrones Season 2 / Book 2, Avatar: Legend of Korra Season 1, Babylon 5
1. Define Conflicting Motives and Priorities
Factions form because the motives within a group are not unified. Most obviously, this occurs when interests are mutually exclusive. If two families vie for the throne, only one can achieve their goal. Conflict will naturally arise as each faction’s efforts to secure their goals interfere with the other. In the second season of Game of Thrones, a disputed succession quickly spirals out of control and initiates The War of the Five Kings. Two brothers fight over succession with their nephew, King Joffrey, as well as each other. Meanwhile, two more great houses try to declare independence from the Iron Throne altogether. Each of these factions fight for a different motive:
- The Lannisters and their allies support the claim of Joffrey, who is considered the firstborn son of the former king. They believe the throne to be his birthright and their legacy.
- A significant portion of the Baratheon banner-men flock to Stannis when he declares Joffrey a bastard with no legitimate claim. As the eldest brother to the king they believe the throne should go to him.
- Many more of the Baratheon banner-men, plus several newly allied houses, support Stannis’ younger brother Renly. Renly is beloved by his supporters, and they believe that he would make a wise and good ruler despite the normal rules of inheritance.
- To the North, the banner-houses of Stark declare Robb the King in the North. The northern houses believe they will be better off independent from the cruelty of the distant capital.
- In the small and isolated Iron Islands, the warriors loyal to the Greyjoys support Balon’s bid for independence. They despise the mainlanders and use the chaos of war to resume their raiding heritage.
The War of the Five Kings illustrates how quickly opposing factions can come into direct conflict when they see opportunities to secure their interests. Ostensibly one kingdom, Westeros falls into chaos over what started as a grudge between two houses.
2. Create Characters to Personify Factions
A faction is a group of people with common interests and goals. So if a faction exists, it should have at least one person who believes in and is motivated by its goals. They publicly personify the values of the faction and fight for its interests. Additionally, they give your audience someone to focus on and relate to. As that character’s motivations are explored, audiences have an opportunity to empathize with a faction that otherwise would have been a faceless mass of people.
In Avatar: The Legend of Korra’s first season, the Equalists were represented by Amon. He led this faction in their rebellion against Republic City and a bender dominated society. The personal narrative that he performed was a fabrication, but it was a story that easily won over many supporters because it was familiar to so many. Bending gave great power to heroes and criminals alike, and those without it were often left feeling helpless to protect themselves in the Avatar setting. Amon’s narrative, and its reinforcement by other key antagonists, helps the audience empathize with the Equalists’ grievances, even if they don’t support their methods.
3. Make Factions Actors of the Story
To make factions relevant to the story, they need to make decisions and take steps to achieve their goals. Factions without agency are little more than window dressing or a static obstacle for heroes or villains to surmount. If you have characters representing a faction already, it will be easy to remember their agency in the story. Characters make choices and push their faction in new directions as the story unfolds.
G’Kar of Babylon 5 shows how a character’s agency can turn factions into actors in the story instead of obstacles or plot devices. When his homeworld is conquered by the Centari, G’Kar initially puts all of his effort into smuggling weapons to the resistance and leading their struggle. However, after a religious experience, G’Kar sees that there is a greater threat to both his people and everyone else in the galaxy. He inspires his people to temper their hatred and be willing to sacrifice themselves for this greater struggle.
“What is there left for Narn if all of creation falls around us? There’s nothing. No hope, no dream, no future, no life. Unless we turn from the cycle of death toward something greater. If we are a dying people, then let us die with honor, by helping the others as no one else can… We are fighting to save one another, we must realize we are not alone. We rise and fall together. And some of us must be sacrificed if all are to be saved. Because, if we fail in this, then none of us will be saved. And the Narn will be only a memory.”
Rather than being a static feature in the show’s background, the Narn make the difficult choice to stop their attempts to kill and overthrow the Centari. Instead of being a static entity, their interests evolve with the story and continue to have a role in its outcome.
With a little development, factions can have a depth and complexity that improves your stories. It gives them realism, provides conflict, and advances the plot. Think of your factions as macro-characters. They grow and change, and can take on a life of their own that pushes your story in surprising directions.
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