Most of the time, storytellers use Father Figures in a positive fashion. They use the figure to provide a Mentor to the main character, to give the Hero something to aspire to, or to provide an emotional anchor for the Hero (or other characters).
But interesting things can be done if you turn the purpose of the Father Figure upside down. When Father Figures go wrong, a storyteller can get a lot of drama and conflict from the resulting turmoil.
The third season finale for White Collar does just that.
Earlier in the season, we had been introduced to Peter Burke’s Mentor in the FBI, Special Agent Kramer. Kramer is skeptical about Neal’s reformation and makes no attempt to hid this skepticism. He does, however, apparently like Neal personally, and he certainly likes the asset Neal has become to the White Collar Crimes Unit.
But Kramer acts as if he is still in full-on Mentor authority to Peter. He tells Peter that he believes Peter is getting too close to Neal. In doing so, in his very “I’m doing this for your own good” manner, Kramer treats Peter as a wayward son still in need of supervision, rather than a competent adult peer.
Likewise, Kramer’s attitude toward Neal shows the mindset of an oblivious, ruling parent. He believes Neal to be incapable of chosing the “right” action, and so intends to restrict Neal even more, by making sure Neal’s sentence is not commuted, and by removing Neal from the (actually healthy) influence of Peter, taking Neal back to the FBI’s DC office and making him work for Kramer there.
Peter advises Kramer that the senior agent is making a mistake. If Kramer treats Neal like a wayward minor child (or more brutally, like slave labor) by removing Neal’s freedom of choice, Peter warns him that Neal will react badly. But with all the willfulness of an out-of-balance Father Figure, who is sure he knows what is best for all concerned, Kramer plows right ahead with his restrictive plans.
The result, of course, is the season’s cliffhanger. Not only has Neal gone on the run, but Peter basically warned him to do so, rather than see Neal in Kramer’s smothering clutches. In this case, the next round of drama for the show will involve two “sons” in rebellion against an erroneous Father Figure.
Storytellers should note an interesting point here. Kramer is not actually evil. In spite of what we may think of his intended restrictions on Neal’s actvities (and his idea of forcing Neal to work with the DC bureau does reek of slave labor), Kramer believes his choices are good. He fears Peter’s character may be contaminated by association with Neal. He believes Neal needs even greater discipline. He believes he really does have the best interests of both younger men at heart.
He has mistaken the subtleties of the relationship between Peter and Neal. And his mistakes cause conflict. He is trying to assert one aspect of the Father Figure (Ruler) when he would be better served if he exercised a different aspect (Priest). Instead of paying attention to Peter’s reasoning (treating Peter as a less-than-peer in understanding), Kramer asserts rulership authority without experiential knowledge. He only knows what is in the files on Neal and the cases he’s worked.
Skewing the effectiveness of a Father Figure can benefit storytellers looking for additional ways of adding drama to their tales. There are plenty of evil Father Figures, of course. But one who is just plain getting things wrong can be far more engaging in a story because of the unsettled emotional dynamics.