A very basic theme when constructing the conflict between characters in a setting, or against the setting itself, is to set up two sides with opposing beliefs in how to deal with themselves and the world. The conflict will center around whether characters should seek to discipline themselves, gaining a measure of control over themselves and in so doing the world around them (let's call this side Discipline), or whether they should accept themselves and the world as it is, seeking not to control either but to coexist harmoniously with the forces in their environment (we'll call this side Harmony).
This conflict can play out in any scale and genre. From Jedi versus Sith in their view of The Force and The Dark Side (Do you let it flow through you and enact its will upon the galaxy? Or chafe at the "chains" so imposed and bend it to your will?), to a doctor choosing whether to go on punishing themselves for every patient lost, insisting that they just need to work themselves harder to make themselves be able to save every patient, or admitting that no, they can not save everyone.
Expanding on the above, Harmony will believe that untamed nature, be it physical, natural or mental, is preferable and that mankind should not try to dominate or change the environment in which it finds itself. It believes that doing so is Prideful and unnatural, leading only to heartache and calamity. It believes that it is nature (be it Mother Nature, plain old nature, Sentient Cosmic Force, The Lifestream, magic, or even human impulses) that binds us all together into a greater whole which knows how best we should all coexist. Because of this outlook, Harmony tends to be reactive, correcting problems rather than seeking to prevent them. All well and good, but the less advertised side of Harmony is that nature tends to have a wild, uncontrollable and potentially destructive side. It's (usually) completely without malice, but that's cold comfort when a tornado or magically augmented mastodon tears through your house.
Opposing Harmony is Discipline, the belief that mankind can and should master themselves and their environment for the betterment of all. Be it through mastery of the self through rigorous mental and/or physical training, study, exploration or with laws and civilization, this rigorous pursuit usually advocates science, progress,Magic in its intellectual aspect, religion in its intellectual and organized aspects, innovation, urbanization and curiosity. Discipline believes that Harmony is too focused on preserving and accepting, and is in fact defeatist by not trying to improve things, this is why Discipline tends to be active. On the flip side, Discipline can end up tampering with things best left untouched, can give its practitioners a God complex, and can lose sight of the now in favor of tomorrow.
So. Which is right? Harmony? Discipline? Both, or perhaps neither? Sometimes one and sometimes the other? This is a question of values that has Real Life counterparts and is thus entirely up to the author to decide, assuming they want to take sides in this sometimes thorny debate. Usually, a little of both is needed. Sometimes, you can get Harmony and Discipline to agree temporarily, especially in a setting where evil is neither harmonious nor disciplined. Works that come down firmly on one side or the other have been getting less and less frequent as more and more of the audience of any given work have become more educated and thus more apt to recognize the inherent hypocrisy of an author living in Real Life (where no one would be alive if we didn't have a lot of both going on, especially regarding nature itself) demonizing one or the other.
As a metaphor, this can play out in lots of variations using any of the following tropes, or in entirely new ways by mix and matching "Discipline" and "Harmony" factions from this list.
- All Work vs. All Play — All work is discipline, where all play is harmony.
- Athens and Sparta: — Generally speaking, Athens is harmony, while Sparta is discipline.
- Balance Between Good and Evil — Generally, Good is harmony and evil is discipline, though inversions are commonplace.
- Elves vs. Dwarves — Elves live in harmony with nature; dwarves seek to tame and utilize its resources.
- Or elves can be disiplined soldiers and workers while the dwarves work as a unified, harmonious force through friendship and stong bonds.
- Emotions vs. Stoicism — Emotions are harmony, and Stoicism is discipline.
- Enlightenment Superpowers — Usually the result of using great discipline to achieve harmony.
- Flesh Versus Steel — Harmony's raw strength versus Discipline's keen edge, expressed in physical terms.
- Four-Temperament Ensemble — Phlegmatic is Harmony and Choleric is Discipline. The other two are another story.
- Fur Against Fang — Werewolves represent the raw, untamed beast in Harmony with nature; vampires represent the unliving, unnatural beings that use Discipline to manipulate and corrupt their prey.
- Gentle Touch vs. Firm Hand — This duality is at its purest when applying guidance to others.
- Heaven Versus Hell — One is Harmony, and the other is Discipline; which is which depends on the author's feelings on the topic.
- Ludd Was Right — Discipline is inherently faulty.
- Mother Nature, Father Science — Harmony is feminine, Discipline is masculine.
- Magic Versus Science — Magic is Harmony, Science is Discipline.
- Order Versus Chaos — It's assumed Chaos is Harmony, and that Order is Discipline. But then again, Order could be either Harmony or Discipline, with Chaos off in another dimension.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni — The Red Oni tends to be Harmony, and the Blue Discipline.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment — In general, Romanticism is Harmony and Enlightenment is Discipline.
- Science Is Bad, Nature Is Good — Science is inherently unharmonious, and thus bad.
- Slobs vs. Snobs — Slobs are Harmony and Snobs are Discipline.
- Technician vs. Performer — One contestant is good because he worked at it (Discipline), another because it seems to come naturally to him (Harmony).
- Unequal Rites — Magic should be controlled, treated as art, or as religion.
These are examples of character or location types that fit into an associated group.
- The path of the Martial Pacifist requires both Discipline and Harmony. In fact, this path to Harmony requires Discipline to follow. Many martial artists would view this trope as a False Dichotomy. Removing either facet can lead to a variation on the Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy.
- Many religions teach love, harmony, and acceptance. It takes true discipline to reach the point where you love your enemy as yourself.
- In Watership Down Cowslips warren is a Utopia of the extreme of harmony with no Chief Rabbit, no need to forage, and no struggle to survive— and an unavoidable dark secret. Efrafa is a Utopia of discipline where rabbits follow The Spartan Way. Neither are regarded as pleasant places. Though interestingly the Efrafan way at least gets an ambiguous kind of respect.
- On Firefly Simon is an example of Discipline. Though as it happens it is possible to kill him nothing and nobody can break him and River only melts him. Kaylee is an example of Harmony, with her love of everybody and her love of Serenity (an odd example of "harmony" being represented by a machine and its mechanic). River too, represents Harmony the way she loves to dance, and mistakes a gun for a leafy twig. Mal, of course, is the epitome of Discipline, as his resolve is made of iron.
- In Chariots of Fire, Eric is more Harmony, though he as a good streak of discipline as well. Harold is the extreme of discipline.
- In Magic: The Gathering's color wheel, this is the core conflict between green and blue. Green is Harmony: it believes in staying in tune with nature and allowing progress to occur at its natural, gradual pace. Blue is Discipline: it believes in the pursuit of knowledge and technology, and in working actively to improve oneself.
The conflict is manifested in the gameplay: blue looks for tactical advantages with card drawing and various forms of disruption. Green discards the complex strategies and simply fights, summoning the biggest monsters and using them to smash things, the way nature intended. Flesh Versus Steel shows up too, with blue having the most cards that interact with artifacts while green excels at destroying them.
There are also tinges of this in the two colors' relationships with the other three. Green abhors black's exploitation and ambition, while blue respects its pragmatism and drive for self-improvement; green admires red's sheer passion where blue dismisses it as Chaotic Stupid. White is the middle ground between green and blue, believing that discipline is an integral part of harmony.
- Musical ensembles can't produce Harmony without Discipline.
- The Jedi and the Sith actually both embody Harmony and Discipline, but in opposite areas. The Jedi strive to master their emotions and do the will of the Force while the Sith seek to bend the Force to their will while giving in to their emotions. The Jedi belive in internal Discipline and external Harmony, while the Sith believe in external Discipline and internal Harmony (or Passion, which may not be identical; either way, a lack of control).
- In The Sound of Music Maria is Harmony married to Captain von Trapp's Discipline. She is a merry Manic Pixie Dream Girl who loves singing and dancing, while Captain von Trapp is a Stoic Officer and a Gentleman whose Death Glare is a weapon of mass destruction.
- As per the standard dichotomy of Law and Chaos, Shin Megami Tensei usually features this as a core undercurrent. Harmony is generally associated with the Chaos Faction (which favors emotions), and Law enforces Discipline (which operates via logic and strict control). That said, there are exceptions: Chaos may utilize Discipline to gain and enforce power while Law may use Harmony to foster its ethic of conformity. Yet as with everything else Lawful and Chaotic, Harmony AND Discipline become limiting when used exclusively.
- In the Ultima series, two of the six Ophidian Virtues are known as Ethicality (adhere to the rules of conduct) and Tolerance (accept that the world is what it is and that you're part of it). They are considered opposing Virtues by the forces of Law and Chaos, but in actuality it is necessary to balance both against each other, resulting in the Virtue of Harmony (be at peace with yorself and the world).
- In The Wheel of Time, the two halves of the One Power, saidar and saidin, are wielded through harmony and discipline, respectively. Saidar is described as a powerful but gentle river which one must surrender to in order to master it, whereas saidin is described as an all-consuming, violent maelstrom of fire which must be dominated and controlled. Either one can produce amazing results, but the greatest magical feats of all require both forces acting together.
- Two major philosophies have governed China for most of its history. Confucius was obsessed with discipline, duty, and academic knowledge. While Taoism is all about seeking harmony with nature and going with the flow, with some suggestions of anarchism.
- Friedrich Nietzsche espoused two different "muses" or sources of inspiration for art, attributing them to the Greek gods Apollo (representing visual art and inspiring through dreams) and Dionysus (representing music and inspiring through intoxication). According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian (Discipline) was subordinate to the Dionysian (Harmony) insofar as Dionysian inspiration - hearing the mother's heartbeat in utero - was more primal and developed in the consciousness earlier than Apollonian, once the eyes were opened. However, the Apollonian also served to distinguish a more "enlightened" Dionysian art from aimless hedonism for its own sake.
- In Teen Titans, Raven was Discipline (her powers required focus and would quickly get out of control if she was emotional) and Starfire was Harmony (her powers required her to feel). This was explored in one episode where they changed bodies.
- In Civilization: Beyond Earth, you need to colonize a new planet for humanity survive and need to choose an affinity to your faction. You have a choice of either harmony, living in accordance with nature; Supremacy, disciplining humanity by way of transhumanism; or Purity, discipline trough maintaining humanity and terraforming the earth. You can gain points of affinity in all options early, but in the late game it's almost certain you will have more affinity for one of the options, having a dominating affinity that reflects in your units, building, improvements, and may change what you need to do to win the game. Your chosen affinity will certainly generate diplomatic problems and can even escalate to war with factions with other dominating affinities.
- The Harmony affinity is very much Exactly What It Says on the Tin - using extensive gene-splicing and biotechnology to integrate humanity into the alien ecosystem, with the intention to never allow the tragedy of the Great Mistake to ever happen again. Supremacy is strongly Discipline, as they modify their environment and even their own bodies with cybernetics and robotics to suit all their needs. Purity at first seems strongly Discipline as well as their entire philosophy can be summed as "no, universe, you change for us", with technology focusing on surviving and eventually terraforming the hostile alien ecosystem. However, their refusal to modify their bodies and their cultural reverence for Old Earth have distinct harmonious flavour.
- In The Vow, the Shēnghuó Province's Shan Palace and Gongmen City's Tower of the Sacred Flame are both described to be breathtaking structures, albeit in opposite ways, with the former being the Harmony to the latter's Discipline.
The Shan Palace blended with the nature that surrounded it, a part of the luscious gardens and mountain springs, as if it had grown from the mountains that it was built in; the Tower of the Sacred Flame was a monument of might and majesty, set as an achievement of what its builders could do without nature.
- Antonio Vivaldi's opus 8 alludes to the duality in its title: Il Cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (the contest of Harmony and Invention). A collection of 12 violin concertos, of which the most famous are "The Four Seasons," the title refers to the pleasure Vivaldi experienced in alternating the ritornello (theme recurring like a refrain) with flights of fancy. Inverted, in that the "harmony" of the title (the concerted ritonello) is Discipline, while the "invention" (the fanciful, programmatic passages) is Harmony, in the sense of this trope.