Psychology in Writing: Authority

As a therapist I rely ­­on my clients imparting some level of authority on me.  If clients did not believe that their therapist had some level of authority why would they a. come to them and b. listen to them.  A good therapist though does not want to overshadow clients as an authoritative figure; there is an inherent power differential in the helping relationship


Young people have no respect for authority now...

Young people have no respect for authority nowadays (Photo credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy)


between the therapist and the client, and the therapist should minimize it the best s/he is able.  Therapists strive to have clients identify themselves as agents of change in their lives, so that at the conclusion of therapy clients believe that they can continue to solve their own problems and do not need to come back to a therapist for every challenge they face.  Good therapists are barely be recognized as part of the change process and should basically work themselves out of a job.  To be successful at this they have to be aware of the different types of authority and how they utilize it.


Max Weber identified a tripartite classification of authorityRational-legal authority, Traditional authority, and Charismatic authority.  Rational-legal authority is derived from modern law and bureaucracy, which is legitimized through belief in rules and those who enact them.  In this system, people are held together by following rules and by the enforcement of the rules; power is vested more in the rules than a ruler, those in power are in their position to enforce the rules.  Ideally, therapists do not use this type of authority, but occasionally we are legally bound to protect our clients or protect others, which require the invocation of this level of authority.  Traditional authority comes from tradition or custom; the authority is, because it has been.  This authority comes from a dominant leader, and is inherent in the position or title (e.g., king, shaman).  For therapists, the title of therapist denotes authority; it is attached to the historic archetype of healer, as one who has knowledge beyond the common person of healing.  This is why individuals seek out therapists, because of the perceived authority based on the traditional association of having arcane knowledge of healing.  Charismatic authority comes from personal characteristics, so it extends from and is based on a person’s extraordinary qualities that draw others to them, and makes others want to follow them.  This is therapists’ primary form of authority, it stems from therapists’ ability to demonstrate competence and likeability to the degree that a client wants to follow them on the strength of their personality.


As writers authority in writing can take two different positions in our works.  The first position is external authority, i.e. the authority that operates in the world that our characters function.  Does the character live in a regimented dystopian society based on rational-legal authority that has strict rule of law that everyone is expected to adhere to (e.g., 1984)? Is our character a teen who is submitting to a parent or caught in a religious organization (e.g. Opus Dei from the da Vinci Code) based on traditional authority?  Or is the character under a fascist regime lead by a charismatic leader (e.g. History)?  As writers, when we are focusing on the external authority it is usual part of what is antagonizing our lead character; it sets up an additional conflict for our character to resolve, navigate, or overcome.


The other type of authority is the type of authority our characters wield or are confined by.  It answers the question of why do others follow them.  We could have characters trapped by their own struggle with the rule of law; s/he may feel fidelity to this type of authority though s/he views it as unjust leading to an internal struggle (e.g. a police officer in a corrupt system).  Or if our character is a leader of a group, why does the group follow her/him?  Does our character evoke prophecy, setting her/himself up as a traditional authority for others to follow?  Or is our character charismatic, and because of her/his vision and the ability to convince others of a cause that s/he is followed?  Of course, this applies equally to our antagonists, and can help create a contrast with our protagonist.  Why is our protagonist rebelling against the authority of the antagonist?  And what about the antagonist makes her/him so appealing to others that they submit despite what our protagonist may view as being in their best interest?


The deep exploration of authority helps set up power dynamics in our creative worlds.  It paints the picture of the world in which our characters operate in, those who stand against them, and those who stand with them.  Our readers need to have a picture of a world that is justified in being rallied against if that is our goal; if the reader doesn’t disagree with the authority of the world we’ve created why are they going to align with our character?  And if our character does have a compelling characteristics that provide a reason for others to follow her/him, why would our reader?  By understanding this level or world and character creation, we can continue to fine tune into helping our writing connect with our readers psyche.


Writing prompt:  Choose a type of authority and write a character using that type of authority to convince others to follow her/him.  What would a character have to say to persuade you to a cause you may not believe in or adhere to rules you disagree with?  What is the motivation behind the character using a particular type of authority—are they using it because they believe in it or is it a means to an end?



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