While not mutually exclusive, the goals of my co protagonists do conflict and I need to keep them balanced.

MC1 works for the CIA and is being burned. He needs help from someone so he can find out if the burn is sanctioned or just some desk man who dislikes him.

MC2 needs to know who the mole is in her organization and needs help. She captured MC1 and decides to use him to determine who among her people can be trusted and who was complicit in the assassination committed by MC1.

Each will need the other but MC2 won’t want MC1 distracted by thoughts of who betrayed him - solve her problem and maybe they can work on his.

How best to keep these occasionally polarizing aims balanced without creating reader whiplash?

  • 2
    This reminds me of what's called race condition in multithreading in programming. I think you could treat your MCs similarly by having a common goal for both to achieve but only one of them control it (mutual exclusion). Once that is achieved, this could give you another chance for conflict.
    – iamtowrite
    Mar 21, 2019 at 1:02
  • They have the common goal of survival and both seek a truth, but the truths differ. What he needs to know will neither help nor harm her and vice versa.
    – Rasdashan
    Mar 21, 2019 at 1:22
  • Every creature's goal is, ultimately, to survive. But if you can make the survival of one, depend on the other, and have the latter absolutely control the survival of the former. By the way, this is me trying to create a critical section for the MCs as we do in threads programming.
    – iamtowrite
    Mar 21, 2019 at 1:26
  • True, though if I have MC2 keep MC1 under her thumb, he remains a prisoner and his duty is to escape - which would logically occur when least convenient to her. She needs his loyalty - even short term - to render him an ally rather than a prisoner.
    – Rasdashan
    Mar 21, 2019 at 3:18
  • 1
    Perhaps you could turn this into an answer
    – Rasdashan
    Mar 21, 2019 at 4:54

4 Answers 4


Hide their goals.

You are writing about professionals. They would be less than amateurs in their line of business if they were to reveal their goal so easily. In fact, revealing one's goal gives the other leverage to achieve theirs.

Instead, structure their goals like an onion. Layer after layer of misleading goals. A pile of seemingly righteous objectives, which they will strive to achieve, but that mean nothing to your characters.

These fake objectives can be negotiated (creating conflict), and surrendered (resolving conflict, advancing the plot) if needed, but not without giving the impression that was really their true goal. Let them reveal that their "real goal" is in fact , while, in fact, it is just another ploy.

Of course, these alternative goals have to somehow be related to the global intended goal, else they may completely derail their overall mission. E.g. if they need to uncover a mole in the organization, the fake goal should not really be "resigning to grow tomatoes in the garden", but rather "hiring a new trustworthy member" or "getting in touch with foreign agency".

In this way, the agendas of your characters are fairly balanced. They will try to:

  1. achieve their global goal
  2. pretend to be achieving their fake goal
  3. put obstacles against the fake goal of the other character in order to gain leverage
  4. try to second guess the true goal of the other character, and putting obstacles against that as well

Of course, your readers will have no clue until the end, and just revere these two masterminds outsmart one another.

  • 1
    Interesting. MC2 has already caught MC1, but that could end up being part of a larger plan. MC1 might only seem to be burned to provide cover for a deeper operation. Is that what you mean?
    – Rasdashan
    Mar 27, 2019 at 23:48
  • 1
    Something like that. And there could be an even deeper operation in which this cover will be burnt as a bargaining chip. MC2 will have a similarly complicated scheme. They may reveal the deeper plans as a last resource to come out of negotiation deadlocks.
    – NofP
    Mar 28, 2019 at 9:23

There's a third issue that affects both of them, something so serious that both of them need to set aside their own agendas and team up to deal with it.

This gives them a chance to know each other better - each learns how the other thinks, and gets a better understanding of the other's motivations. Over time they may even become more sympathetic to each other's positions.

They don't need to become good friends (although you can do this, if you want), but allies. You just need to reduce the tension between them enough so they can later work on each other's problems without too much conflict.

  • I am not sure what would distract MC2 from the perceived breach of national security she is trying to find and stop. Interesting idea
    – Rasdashan
    Mar 21, 2019 at 1:36
  • @Rasdashan Hmm... would this breach of national security cause someone to try and kill both your MCs? Survival's a pretty powerful motivator.
    – user36961
    Mar 21, 2019 at 1:39
  • It could, though the danger would be primarily to MC2 as she is investigating it, but MC1 is most certainly a loose end who needs to be tied up
    – Rasdashan
    Mar 21, 2019 at 1:41
  • 1
    @Rasdashan So, what you're looking for is a reason for him to not escape at the first opportunity? I think the key point is that MC1 can't trust his own organization. He doesn't know who betrayed him (and from the wording of your question, I'm assuming he doesn't have the resources to investigate himself). What would he happen if he called for help? Would he get help or would he get assassinated? He might decide it's safer to stick with someone he can keep an eye on. "The devil you know is better than the one you don't" and all that.
    – user36961
    Mar 21, 2019 at 23:43
  • 1
    @Rasdashan That makes sense. (What works for me, when I need to have a character make a stupid & dangerous decision: Make all the other options even worse/unrealistic. How you want to go about this is up to you.) One last suggestion: your other questions mentioned that MC1 was tortured? He might be waiting until he recovers to make an escape (stalling for time somehow), especially if he realizes he's only dealing with 2 people and not MC2's entire organization.
    – user36961
    Mar 22, 2019 at 17:48

Your characters are in a situation that reminds me of a programming problem. I'm referring to the Race Condition between two threads problem.

Briefly, a race condition happens if two parallel execution threads attempt to manipulate a common resource. A typical solution for this is to create what is called critical section surrounding the common resource. So, the first thread that obtains control over the critical section, will lock the resource for others until it frees it.

You could treat your MCs' plots as threads. Since you wrote in a comment that their common goal is survival; make the survival of MC1 depend on MC2, and have the latter absolutely control the survival of the former. This control is your critical section.

Rasdashan wrote in comments:

...if I have MC2 keep MC1 under her thumb, he remains a prisoner and his duty is to escape - which would logically occur when least convenient to her. She needs his loyalty - even short term - to render him an ally rather than a prisoner.


That conflict was always there, but how to preserve the balance between the two occasionally opposing goals of these two who have been set together yet in opposition.

You could preserve the balance by bouncing the "ball" between the two characters. In other words, give control of the critical section to the opposing side alternatively until you find the pace you are looking for.


How best to keep these occasionally polarizing aims balanced without creating reader whiplash?

This is character conflict and it's a good thing

I think it's not about which character is "winning" at any given moment, but about this trust dynamic between the characters.

Over the course of the plot, each character will need to negotiate their own level of habitual nature, short-term goals, and long-term goals. There's something they want/need in both the short term and the long which makes them willing to form short and long-term alliances, but there's also something that triggers them – a personal breaking point.

Story-wise, the breaking point won't be an accumulation of circumstances, it will be a specific thing that "breaks the suspension of animosity". It's a specific story beat, which is probably built up to or repeated as a pattern. The character can put up with a lot, but this one thing is a line that when crossed, the alliance is over. The characters won't telegraph it to each other – they will keep their game faces – but the reader should pick up when that line has been crossed. The sub-text changes, or the character begins to act with suspicion or caution.

This dynamic has it's own arc that you can roughly pace against the timeline of events. It might look something like:

  1. Enemy agents, anonymous distrust
  2. Personal encounter, direct animosity (They shoot at each other.)
  3. calculated negotiation (surrender and you will live.) long-term/short-term compromise
  4. long-term goal, and anonymous trust (As a members of law enforcement, we have reasons to work together.)
  5. long-term goal, personal trust (Working together, seeing the other is competent)
  6. long-term goal, but a trigger leads to personal mistrust (trust erodes)
  7. short term compromise (work together for now, but look for exit strategy)
  8. Other character's trigger (the discovery of an exit strategy undermines trust in both long and short term goals)

You are moving the trust "needle" through the various stages. Build trust with shared long and short term goals, break trust with triggers but negotiate with long vs short term goals.

The characters won't act until an opportunity arrives, and they won't telegraph their trust level to the other characters ahead of being able to do something about it. Use this shifting trust dynamic to justify the twists in the plot, not the other way around. Signal the trust level ahead of plot twists and sudden character turns. The reader won't get whiplash, the story will start to make sense because the character's behavior is consistent with their goals and triggers.

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