Welcome back world builders!
To those of you expecting the return of the podcast, apologies, allow me to refer you to yesterday’s post explaining it’s absence.
But! We won’t let a little technological trouble keep us from our world building endeavors! So without further ado, let’s kick off this fortnights topic – conflict.
Every story needs conflict, and your world needs conflict too! We’ve mentioned the importance of conflict briefly before, but today, we’re going to get stuck into it!
During the lost podcast, I asked my writing, gaming and artist buddies their favorite types of conflict to use, and if they could give me some notable examples. Luckily, I’m an avid note-taker and so even if you can’t hear their beautiful voices, I can still bring you their wisdom!
So, let’s start with the basics!
Types of Conflict
We can divide the types of conflict we find in narratives into six neat categories;
- Man vs. Nature
- Man vs. Society
- Man vs. the Unknown/Supernatural
- Man vs. Machine
- Man vs. Man
- Man vs. Self
For the purposes of world building, we’re going to skip over Man vs. Self, as this is a source of conflict which I feel gels more with character building than world building, but most narratives combine more than one of these types of conflict, and Man vs Self can become a powerful tool to use to drive your world’s narrative, but you may find it more useful to you after you’ve established how the other conflicts fit into your world.
Man vs. Nature
Pretty self explanatory, this conflict has the protagonist at odds with the forces of nature. whether due to a need to survive the elements, a natural disaster, or some other similar situation. The man vs. nature conflict often hinges on the idea that nature is indifferent to humanity, rather than cruel. It’s a great source of conflict because unlike other types of conflict, there really is often nothing a character can do to resolve it.
Stellar examples of the Man Vs. Nature conflict include the movie The Ghost and the Darkness, (an adaptation of the true story of the Tsavo Man-Eaters.) Or Jules Verne’s classic 20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea. While Man vs. Nature is not the sole source of conflict in these stories, it is definitely a driving force. In each case, the respective creators used nature and the concept of it’s indifference to build worlds designed to be inhospitable and challenging to their protagonists.
Man vs. Society
When we’re talking about society, we’re talking about governments, cultural or religious traditions, or even societal norms. Putting your protagonist at odds with one of these things is a fantastic way to investigate conflict within a world. As far as world building goes, I think Man. vs. Society is one of the best places for you to start mapping out potential points of conflict. How your characters interact with the institutions and organizations around them, with the values of the society they live in, are rich sources for the development of both your world and your characters.
Some of my favourite examples of this type of conflict being done well include the television show Mr. Robot, which is probably one of my favourite shows on TV at the moment for both it’s attention to detail and it’s realistic portrayal of modern society and it’s ills. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention my favourite book here; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. Without giving away too many spoilers, Hard-Boiled is a fantastic exploration of the Man vs. Society and the Man vs. Self conflicts that uses two distinctly different settings to keep the reader guessing as to the mystery right until the end.
Man vs. the Unknown/Supernatural
We tend to come across this type of conflict the most in Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror, but it’s not completely unheard of in another genres and styles. This conflict is driven by mystery, and by the protagonists ability to overcome the unknown and their fear of it. Conflict of the unknown/supernatural which is layered with the classic Man vs. Self conflict has produced some of the most captivating stories on both the page and the screen. In Dan Simmons book, The Terror, he combines the Man vs. Unknown, Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Self categories to create a wonderful feeling of suspense and drama. Another perfect example of Man vs. the Unknown is The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, which pits humanity against alien invaders and again, draws on other forms of conflict to create a really multifaceted narrative. It’s also worth mentioning the film Gojira 1954, it approaches the Man vs. Unknown/Supernatural conflict, and layers it with some really interesting Man vs. Man themes. The way this conflict drives the narrative is one of the reasons why Gojira still stands up as a classic today.
The latest remake Shin Gojira, visits a lot of the political tension and bureaucratic chaos which ensues during a natural disaster or attack of some kind, and adds an element of Man vs. Society which transforms the movie from a simple monster flick into a great piece of social commentary.
Man vs. Machine
Another conflict we see most commonly in the realm of speculative fiction. Man vs. Machine often refers to man in direct competition with robots, cyborgs, super AI computers that think like man, or some other form of human/tech hybrid. But, it can also mean technology standing in the way of a protagonists goals. In the classic Sci-Fi sense, Man vs. Machine also takes on an element of Man vs. Man, however in a slice of life story, Man vs. Machine could take the form of the protagonist losing their job thanks to disruption by technology (think artificial intelligence and machine learning disrupting the manufacturing and communication industries over the last decade.) When this is the source of the Man vs. Machine conflict, it brings in elements of Man vs. Society too, as it’s the voracious appetite for new tech which is causing the disruption of traditional roles in the workplace. Michael Crichton’s Prey, focuses on a blend of the more traditional Sci-Fi conflict along with this societal conflict I’m speaking of. Another classic example of this kind of conflict comes in the anime and manga for Ghost in the Shell, which like, Prey, includes classic elements of the Man vs. Machine (or in this case, Machine vs. Machine) conflict, but it also investigate the way technological advancement changes the characters and investigates what it means to be human, bringing in elements of both Man vs. Society and Man vs. Self to create a rich world of conflict for the reader/viewer to enjoy.
Man vs. Man
This is probably the most common form of external conflict we find. Man vs. Man is clearly seen in fairy tales, where there is an obvious “good” protagonist and “bad” protagonist. But we can also see it in Shakespeare’s plays, Classic War films and other stories which have a binary definition of good and bad. But, that said the Man vs. Man conflict doesn’t have to be binary. The manga Beserk does a wonderful job of exploring a non-binary form of Man vs. Man conflict. It explores the concept of friendship, camaraderie and betrayal, and I’m sure those who’ve read the manga will agree that defining the protagonist Guts, as ‘good’, or his antagonist Griffith as ‘bad’ is a pretty difficult argument to make. Neither character fits the archetype of ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ and that’s part of what makes this conflict so enjoyable and realistic. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas, often considered the quintessential revenge story, is another beautiful exploration of the Man vs. Man conflict, although there are definitely elements of Man vs. Society in play throughout the story as well. Lastly in this section, I’d like to mention the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Aside from being a wonderfully detailed world in and of itself, Redwall does a beautiful job of exploring the concept of Man vs. Man for young readers, though it doesn’t quite avoid the binary trap of ‘goodies vs baddies’ I still consider it an excellent example of conflict done well for a younger audience. Jacques also drew on elements of Man vs. Society for his series, setting up his Redwall mice in opposition to other types of ‘vermin’ which can serve as a parallel for young readers to explore class and race issues in our own society.
The key to getting conflict right is to not just define it’s affects on your characters, but to define its affects on the world around them too. Using conflict in your world creates a relatable, living world for your audience, so don’t shy away from it! Still the most important thing to remember is that conflict exists for a purpose, you should never try shoehorn a conflict into your narrative just for the sake of it.
I’d like to take a moment to thank all my wonderful friends who gave up their time to talk to me about conflict over the last month, so thanks to my lovely co-host Rachael, the Tinker Tabletop guys, Zach and Jay, and my good friends Pat and Brian too!
And again, many apologies to my fellow world builders that technical difficulties prevented the return of the podcast. Don’t worry, it will be back again soon!
In the mean time, happy world building frens!