Bureaucratic Red Tape as a Plot Device: Can Your Protagonist Get Through?

barrier bureaucratic red tape as a plot device

Coming through!

Bureaucracy, if you’ll excuse my French (why is it French?), is an inescapable facet of real life, and is, therefore, handy for realism. After having my own bewildering struggle with bureaucratic red tape recently (I’ll tell you about it in a minute), it occurred to me that nothing beats bureaucratic red tape as a plot device – at least not for frustration and realism (and absurdity).

The Blockade of Bureaucratic Red Tape: Plotting Frustration

Often, bureaucratic red tape fits in one of two categories: 1. something that seems pointless but is actually useful – to the bureaucracy – or 2. something that was once useful but was taken to extremes or is only useful in very extreme circumstances.

A Real Life Bureaucratic Plot Twist

This week, I took a long lunch break to get some paperwork filled out. It’s the type of paperwork you have to fill out, turn in with a fee, wait for a response, and then sign up to do something else, so while I was out, I decided to drop it off at the government office to expedite matters (instead of mailing it and waiting…). So I drove downtown, paid for parking, and crossed the street to the government building.

When you go in, there’s a desk with a sign saying that all guests to the building must check in with a photo id. I told the security guard I needed to go to the 20th floor, and she said, “I’ll just need to see your license.” So I pull my purse off my shoulder and start to get it out.

“Wait. Does that have two straps?”
“Yes…?” (It’s a backpack purse.)
“You can’t take that into the building.”

That’s right. Nothing with two straps can go into the building, but I could put it in my car and come back. One problem: I had my laptop in it. I didn’t really want to leave that in my car in the middle of downtown (would you?).

Not sure what to do, I called the office I needed to go to. On that busy street corner, I told the woman who answered the situation. She said to come back in to the lobby, and she’d come down and get my paperwork.

And that’s what happened.

This government worker came down from the 20th floor to get my paperwork, went back up to enter it, and came back down to give me my receipt. And I’m lucky she did – 0therwise, I’d’ve probably left downtown, shy the cost of parking and without having turned in my paperwork. She said that with the new security measures they weren’t even letting diaper bags up.

Wow.

I’d say that falls under the 2nd condition – the rule had good intentions and probably decent reasoning behind it (I’ll assume), but the written rule and the intent got separated somewhere along the way. I saw people entering with larger purses (mine’s on the small side), but because of the strap types, they were allowed in where I wasn’t.

I’m trying to picture how the straps alone made the bag more dangerous, but unless there’s some way to conceal something in the straps that can’t be concealed elsewhere, I’m pretty much at a loss. It made me wonder how often government workers have to make trips to the lobby under similar circumstances (which inspired this article).

Using Bureaucratic Red Tape as a Plot Device

The protagonist is one step away from the climactic battle of his hero’s journey when he’s delayed because he didn’t pay taxes on his loot from battle to a walled town they’d passed through. Before the doctor can leave his station to get to the wounded, he has to get permission from three different officers and fill out a series of paperwork. A band of palace guards rushes to save their king, but they aren’t allowed into his presence because they’re wearing weapons. Or aren’t wearing court apparel – take your pick.

Whatever type of story or bureaucracy, there are two major requirements to using red tape as a plot device:

  1. A law or rule (for the main character to have broken or to have to follow)
  2. An enforcer (somebody to care about it)

These two requirements are a bit like the chicken and the egg: it’s hard to be sure which one should go first creation-wise. You’ll have to decide which order makes the most sense to you and your story.

A Law or Rule

I think we’ve all read books where the protagonists come up against a law that seems deliberately designed to keep them from reaching their goals. Granted, sometimes, the law was deliberately designed by their enemy, but it could very easily be the result of an old, outdated law that’s usually ignored (and that said enemy is taking advantage of).

The rule side of it has more flexibility in some ways. For the most part, laws are passed and then a group of unelected officials somewhere makes up all the rules to enforce it (scary thought, right?). These types of rules include but are not limited to…

  • under what conditions you can or cannot apply for something
  • what paperwork needs filled out for anything and everything
  • due dates for paperwork, fees, continuing education, etc.
  • which departments are responsible for what
  • what color your house can be
  • what types of animals are allowed where and under what conditions

And, of course, these rules and laws occur on multiple levels: federal, state, county, city, township, neighborhood, etc. That’s a lot of possibilities for inconveniences plot-wise.

An Enforcer 

Laws and rules aside, the key to making bureaucratic red tape work as a plot device (IMHO) is the pedant. After all, the law doesn’t become a conflict if no one’s enforcing it, and if the circumstances are save-the-world drastic, who’s going to insist you turned in the forms in triplicate except someone overly obsessed with rules and following them?

Only the pedant. Or an enemy. (They’re not the same thing – although the effect may make them feel similar.)

The enemy is going to either insist on following the rules as a deliberate means of slowing/stopping the heroes or will pass off the information to the pedant for the same effect with less effort. The pedant, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the heroes or their motivation, just the rule(s). That’s the danger and the glory of the stickler.

Now, in that situation (end of the world), there has to be a reason that the stickler doesn’t care  about the protagonists’ goal. The heroes could’ve been discredited, the stickler could be so isolated in his/her own little world that the end of the world is unbelievable, and so on. Part of overcoming the obstacle could actually be convincing the pedant that the emergency is real.

And it isn’t always a life-or-death matter. It might be something that doesn’t matter to the stickler at all. But it could still block the goal of the story.

For example, at the end of The Muppet Movie, Lew Lord’s receptionist tries to stop the protagonists because they don’t have an appointment. Does she care about their dreams of becoming movie stars? Nope. If they get stopped there, is it going to affect her world at all? Not so much.

Are you counting? Now, we have two types of sticklers: one who doesn’t care at all and one who would care but doesn’t know.

That difference is why some sticklers are likable and some aren’t. The first one is more callous and antagonistic, and the other is a basic rule follower who either doesn’t know or doesn’t believe the situation is that severe. That type will unknowingly block the hero and think that he or she is helping (arg!).

Hmmm. That leaves a lot of options for a story.

Law + Enforcer = Road Block

Pick a law and design an enforcer who’d care about it, or make an enforcer and then design a law. Either way you go about it, you come up with a road block that has the power to delay if not stop your protagonist (or antagonist…), and because we’ve all had similar experiences, it adds a note of realism (and possibly humor).

And it doesn’t have to be the military or some modern government building. History had its share of bureaucracy, too (No reading scrolls without a scholar’s medallion!). Remember: rules and rule-lovers can exist in any setting.

Well, any questions? Are you ready to baffle and outrage your characters with bureaucratic red tape?

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