Conflicts drive drama, and drama drives stories. The heart of every story worth reading is a clash between the protagonist and the antagonist, each seeking opposed goals. Protagonist-antagonist conflicts can be described in two ways: symmetrical and asymmetrical. The type of conflict defines each party’s strategies and the overall direction of the plot.
A symmetrical conflict pits the protagonist’s strength against the antagonist’s, matching two (nearly) evenly-matched parties against each other. This is a contest to see who is the better swordsman, the greater general, the more powerful magician. Both parties are defined by a singular trait, and with this trait they make war on each other.
Fiction has plenty of examples of symmetrical conflicts. Think of the genius detective Sherlock Holmes chasing down James Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime. Sun Wukong the Monkey King versus the Hundred Eyed Demon Lord. Octavian leading the grand coalition of Marat, Alerans and Canim against the hordes of the Vord.
Being similar to each other, both protagonist and antagonist use similar means, be it intelligence, prowess in martial arts, or military might. Holmes detects while Moriarty schemes; Sun pits his magic and his rod against the demon’s own magic and weapons; the united races of the Aleran coalition pitting their furies, beasts and raw power against the Vord’s shapeshifting and relentless consumption. The differences between the protagonist and the antagonist here lie in their goals and how they choose to wield their strengths. Symmetrical conflicts tend to be marked by slugging matches, with both sides battling each other back and forth across time and space.
Asymmetrical conflicts involves one party utilising their strengths against the other’s weakness, and vice versa. Both sides aim to outwit and outmaneuver the other, bringing their powers to bear while minimising their exposure to the enemy’s own. This is the preferred tactic of a much weaker party, since a direct confrontation will destroy them.
This is the CTU seeking out an agile terrorist cell; the seven samurai against the bandit gang, Frodo and his companions against the Ringwraiths and the combined armies of Sauron. The weaker party snipes and runs, or conceals themselves while travelling to their objective; the stronger one attempts to force the weaker party into a decisive confrontation in which they hold all the advantage.
Symmetrical conflicts match strength for strength; asymmetrical conflicts pit the weak against the strong. Yet strength in one field doesn’t necessarily translate into strength in all areas. These terms only provide a high-level view, not necessarily what happens in the story or how the conflict evolves.
Frodo and his companions are woefully outnumbered by hordes of ravening orcs and other evil creatures. However, they each have individual strengths: Frodo’s endurance, Sam’s loyalty, Legolas’ archery, Gandalf’s magic, Gimli’s brute strength and so on. By combining their strengths, they win through their encounters with the forces of evil, evade the all-seeing eye and destroy the One Ring.
Similarly, a symmetrical conflict can be suddenly upset should one party discover the other’s fatal flaw. In the real world, the American military is highly dependent on technology and popular opinion. The Chinese Assassin’s Mace concept aims to neutralise American dominance by knocking out vulnerable satellites, information and economic warfare, and anti-access/area denial weapons to prevent the Americans from deploying their Air Force and Navy assets. Successful deployment of the Assassin’s Mace would give Chinese conventional forces an overwhelming advantage on the battlefield.
This is not to say both types of conflict cannot coexist in the same story. The Lord of the Rings is primarily driven by asymmetrical conflict, but near the end, when the armies of Middle Earth rise against the armies of Sauron, there is room for symmetrical conflict between massive armies. Likewise, in a tale following a superpower conflict, you can have a story about a team of special forces operatives using asymmetrical tactics to undermine the enemy.
The kind of conflict you have is determined by the balance of power between the protagonist and the antagonist. If they are evenly matched, you have a symmetrical conflict. If one is much stronger than the other, the conflict is asymmetrical. If, during the story, the plot significantly empowers or weakens one power, the type of conflict changes, which in turn change how both sides will act and react.
How the conflict plays out drives your characters tactics, actions, behaviours and thought patterns. Think about how they will seek to uncover and exploit their opponent’s weakness, how they will conceal their own weaknesses and plans from their opponent, how they will employ the resources and forces at their command to achieve their goals.
Study your favourite stories. Identify the kind of conflict running through them. Pinpoint the protagonist’s and antagonist’s motives, tactics and resources. See how they try to turn the situation to their advantage, and whether these ideas are unique to their particular flavour of conflict or if they are universal. Study also real-world conflicts. See what strategies and tactics work and what do not. Reflect your new knowledge in your work.
Stories are about truth, and knowing the truth about conflict brings better stories.