Previously, we discussed conflict – its definition and how to build it in a story. This article and the following ones will delve into types of conflict, an idea that was prompted by a discussion I had with Foxfier in the comments here. It brought to mind the idea that the kinds of conflict which authors rely on ought to be fleshed out more so writers could see and consider them in some depth. That way, they would know what to aim for in their various stories.
A great part of this is Foxfier’s point that if you narrow the conflict too much you end up hamstringing yourself as a writer. If you must write a report for school about a book you read, then this narrowing helps to focus you on the point you need to make to earn your grade. However, while such contraction is useful for analysis, it is detrimental to storytelling. By its very nature, fiction is meant to be broad enough to encompass a “secondary world” as Professor Tolkien called it. If you narrow it too much, the reader is left looking not at a room in a world, but a room in a void of…nothing.
This is why today we will be looking at the Man vs. Society conflict, with the other conflicts to follow in subsequent posts. Well-known examples of Man versus Society stories are tales such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington*, To Kill A Mockingbird*, or even the X-Men films*. In each of these stories you have an individual or a group acting to bring about a change of some kind in society. For Mr. Smith it is a fight against corruption in the U.S. Senate; To Kill a Mockingbird’s plot shows a lawyer fighting racism on behalf of his client, and the X-Men are literally fighting for peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants.
Each story has one individual or one group standing against society itself in an effort to alter the culture – hopefully for the better. The Avatar films would also qualify for this conflict since Jake Sully is fighting human society on behalf of the Na’vi. While the films may be better defined by the Man vs. Man conflict, they do have a secondary struggle underlying them, which is the point of this and following essays. A leading conflict is important, but every story has a series of sub-conflicts – better known as subplots – occurring concurrent to the main one.
Avatar’s main conflict is the human/Na’vi (or Man vs. Man) battle, with Jake Sully vs. the human military presence on Pandora as a sub-conflict. It is smaller than the Man vs. Man contest because Jake is the pivot point on which this subplot turns, yet it reaches its climax and resolution at the same time as the main one. While there is another sub-conflict in the film worth mentioning we will save that for the next post on this topic.
The main problem with utilizing the Man vs. Society conflict these days is that the patterns in the above-described stories have become so familiar they strike most people as trite. In large part, to a point, they are; market saturation and the fact that reality does not bend to this model of rebellion have combined to exhaust and/or numb audiences to their climaxes and resolutions. This type of Man vs. Society conflict has become a sign of the writer’s lack of imagination and/or creative reliance on those who have come before and done the work much better.
Serenity*, the finale of Joss Whedon’s Firefly* series, is less trite than these in many ways as it follows a civil war. There is a sense of unrest and simmering discontent in the universe and the Serenity crew’s dangerous attempt to light a spark and touch it off makes the story intense. Avatar’s plot is that of cowboys and Indians in space, and the Indians win, a plot that was seen in a multitude of other films and which – based on actual history – is more fantastical than the CGI used to bring the movie to life. We all know how the historical “cowboys” vs. Indians plot went in real life. (It was the U.S. Army more than the cowboys who won this contest, since the cowboys had civilian jobs and didn’t mess with the Native tribes unless they had to.) The idea that a space-faring civilization could be defeated by such tribes is not realistic in the slightest.
It does not help that James Cameron basically ripped off the animated film FernGully to make Avatar, either. The plots are largely the same, with only the trappings significantly altered. FernGully is, ironically, thus somewhat less jarring than Avatar. At least a story with forest fairies fighting to save a rainforest from loggers and succeeding makes more surface sense than an alien species relying on bows, arrows, and flying dinosaurs somehow defeating an interstellar power that could vaporize them from orbit, yet decides not to do so. Also, if the Na’vi didn’t like them and unobtanium (what an uninspired name) was so valuable or Earth so desolate, why not simply terraform and colonize an empty world? Why stay where one is not wanted (and where the atmosphere is toxic) when there are so many better options out there to choose from?
None of this is to say that the broad conflict has no merit. It is only to point out that Cameron and others like him have come to rely on this type of narrative so much that they no longer stop to think about how it works or how to make it better. They have stopped acknowledging reality in their stories and that makes said stories fall flatter than shadows, which have slightly more substance than these types of movies and tales do now. After all, the consensus which I have heard from those who have seen Avatar 2 is that the CGI is the only reason to watch the movie. The plot is a rehash of the previous film’s – only with several unneeded character deaths and a few extra gaping plot holes.
This leads me to Monte Walsh*, the movie based on the book by Jack Schaefer. The main conflict of the film is of a cowboy and his fellows who are working at the closing of the American West. Walsh is a proud cowboy who lives by the code of the Western man. But with civilization finally coming to the frontier, the ready work and wild lifestyle (wild in the sense of having few regulations, not of being outrageous) that he and his fellow cowboys have enjoyed is beginning to disappear.
Work has become scarce and most of the jobs they loved are gone. Now the best jobs they can find are “riding fence” for ranches that have been bought up by companies back East. These companies send capable accountants who have no knowledge of cattle or ranching (and who do not wish to learn more about either, or about the men they have hired and the culture they come from) to oversee the operation.
Along with the others, Walsh chafes at this change. One of the men he knows – a former Civil War veteran who is older than him but loves the wild range – ends up actually building the fences that will keep the cattle in. The man rides his horse over a cliff to commit suicide and one of the cowboys who watches wonders aloud if he felt anything when he hit. “Reckon he felt it before he went over the cliff,” Walsh replies.
But where some of his friends marry and settle down or turn to outlawry, Walsh continues to stay in the saddle. He does attempt to marry his longtime paramour, the Countess, but even that recourse is taken from him by circumstance. The end of the film sees him riding out to find work that has become scarcer still as the years have passed; for the world has changed, and he has not.
It is not a type of Man vs. Society conflict which is seen often these days: That a man should fight society and society not alter its course for him is something Hollywood and other writers cannot seem to fathom outside a certain few. Walsh’s Man vs. Society conflict ends with Society the apparent victor as the “age of the cowboy” is at an end, at least technically. Walsh’s victory – and it is a potent one – is that he has not allowed changing norms of society to alter him. He has remained true to his calling and his values and while the world may forget him, considering him nothing but a “poor cowboy uninterested in change,” he has maintained his character in the face of adversity. When he dies, he will therefore die with honor and be an inspiration to the next generation of cowboys to come.
The Captain America film trilogy is a Man vs. Society series in this same vein; although The First Avenger* has it as a tertiary subplot, it is there. Steve’s fight to join the Army despite his frail constitution and the fact that the world looks down on him for being feeble is a Man vs. Society conflict as he seeks to fight the good fight regardless of his own weaknesses and society’s prejudice against him. This conflict becomes far more pronounced in The Winter Soldier* and especially Civil War*.
As Professor Geek points out here more explicitly in Civil War than Winter Soldier, the sequel films have Steve Rogers facing off with society once again. Is the world – or, more properly, America – really worth saving in Winter Soldier? The value system of the world has once again shifted in opposition to Steve’s value system, shown when Fury takes him to see the Insight Helicarriers. “Thought the punishment usually came after the crime,” Steve says, trying for flippant but showing by his strained tone that he does not approve of SHIELD’s scheme.
Fury states that it’s “time for [Steve] to get with [the] program,” not stopping to consider that there may in fact be something wrong with said program that he has missed and Steve can see. Steve is, in the end, proven correct – the Insight program is compromised from its inception and the only way to stop this leviathan is to destroy it. The same thing happens in Civil War where he and the Avengers are told the values they fight for are causing harm, and thus they must all be put on leashes or else incarcerated for breaking the law.
Note that in each case the world or society’s opinion shifts, but it shifts in one particular direction: it sees no value in the individual with the ideals it says it wants but which it shirks because they are “too hard.” It is “too difficult” to find value in a scrawny, 90 lb. asthmatic. Society “can’t afford to wait” for a crime to be committed before punishing the perpetrators, yet it can stand around and let crime go unpunished in broad daylight, as it does in the first Iron Man* movie in Gulmira. Ultimately, the world and the society that conforms to it cannot stand the mere sight of the values which the individual needs to survive: life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (a corruption even at the time of “happenstance,” meaning essentially a pursuit of opportunity favorable to the individual who wants to better his lot honestly).
In each case Society stands opposed to the individual as represented by Steve Rogers. Steve stands for these ideals which motivated his country from the start, and he stays true to them when the government and American society itself drifts away from them. While Society never changes for him, Steve remaining true to his ideals after questioning himself to make sure he is not in error means there is always hope. For, as Monte Walsh said, “As long as one cowboy remembers [their way of life] it’s not dead!”
Once one stands up, others will follow. Civil War sees one specific team in the debate grow while the other diminishes. Team Iron eventually consists only of Tony Stark, James Rhodes, and the Vision – and Infinity War shows the latter two have come over at least intellectually to Steve Rogers’ position. Society may not change but that does not mean it is doomed.
Another series which follows the Man vs. Society conflict pattern is Stargate SG-1*. This might seem odd given the show’s premise, which has a “team of four” up against literal armies of slaves convinced that their alien masters are in fact powerful gods. But SG-1 does follow the Man vs. Society conflict in that the eponymous team can be read as the “Man” facing off against the “Society” of the Goa’uld.
It has always seemed to me that SG-1 is an Americanization, in some ways, of the Spanish Conquistadors and their conquests in the New World. The two-part introductory episode “Children of the Gods” has Teal’c – a Jaffa slave leading the armies of the Goa’uld false god Apophis – notice that SG-1’s technology is far above that of his own enslaved people. The Goa’uld’s technology and ships are better than Earth’s, of course, yet Teal’c still takes special note of Jack O’Neill’s digital wristwatch, which the latter explains helps him keep time.
Why is this significant? How different is this from the Aztecs marveling at the Spaniards’ armor and at their horses? Horses were extinct in the Americas before the Conquistadors and then the English and the French came to the continents. Initially, the Native tribes in South America thought that the Conquistador and the horse he rode were one being. They had never seen anything like it before. The Conquistadors’ tiny ships might as well have been the starship Enterprise as far as they were concerned.
Likewise, in North America, the Native tribes had never seen beads or metal worked as that which the Europeans brought. What were trinkets to the settlers were of great value to the tribes who had no means to make mirrors or guns. The Jaffa may have had staff weapons but they had no portable timepieces to wear on their wrists nor weapons that could be switched to fully automatic fire. Most of the races they conquered for the Goa’uld lacked this type of technology as well.
So if SG-1 had this type of tech and refused to be cowed by the “gods” that made everyone else tremble, maybe Teal’c could actually free them to fight the gods. Maybe there was hope for his people, his Society, after all. It is just a matter of seizing it while he has the chance and running with it.
Needless to say, this puts Teal’c on the outs with his society. He is called a traitor to his face repeatedly throughout the series by Jaffa loyal to the “gods” as he helps SG-1 work to free his people from their tyranny. Once again, as in Avatar, we have a clash of cultures seen through the micro lens of a “team of four.” A team of four who win despite their own lesser technological level in a fight against an alien race of oppressors feigning godhood.
The Society is here again in line with the world’s views and out of alignment with what is right. It also takes much longer for any kind of cultural shift to take place among the Jaffa than it does in other stories, for a variety of reasons. Not only is this a TV show and, therefore, able to run longer and tell more stories over a greater time period, but it is a series that looks reality in the face and says, “Okay, how would something like this actually work?”
It would take time. There would be a cost in blood to be paid, as well as treasure. But in the end, it would be worth it.
My final example of Man vs. Society is Leverage*. This might seem to be the strangest choice because the protagonists are not seeking social change. They are thieves who have decided to use their skills to help the innocent victims of other, far less scrupulous thieves which the law cannot or will not touch. Although they may “steal a law” or even a politician, their aim rarely coincides with a movement meant to steer the culture one way or another.
Yet they, too, are still operating against society. Initially they did so in a detrimental way to serve their own ends, before Nate Ford convinced them to use their abilities to help innocents who couldn’t fight back. Society prosecutes the Leverage crew’s far more honest crimes quicker and more judiciously than it does those of the monsters they take down in their schemes. Again, Society is evading its true duties because they are “too much work” or “it’s just how things operate” rather than face them directly.
The Leverage team has no such compunction. Having worked outside Society’s bounds for most of their lives already, they are accustomed to simply maneuvering around it to get what they want. It is not that hard – physically – to begin doing this on behalf of others while still taking care of themselves.
And after all, they’re not really making themselves heroes. They are just providing innocent, wounded people some…Leverage. 😉
So, when you next consider a Man vs. Society conflict, think about these stories. Not all conflicts are made the same or need to adhere to a popular pattern – in some cases it is better for the stories and for you, future authors, if your conflict is different. Readers like variety as much as anyone else, after all. Give them a new conflict to sink their teeth into, and they will remember it.
More than that, you will know what you are capable of accomplishing. You will know what kind of conflicts you can write and which kinds do not appeal to you or your readers. Knowing what you can and can’t do is priceless.
Don’t waste it. Push past your boundaries, if only a little bit at a time. You might surprise yourself with what you have in you.
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue, Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue, and another may be read over at Ember Journal. Vol. 1* and Vol. 2* of her series – The Guardian Cycle – is available in paperback and ebook as well. Order them today!
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7 thoughts on “Forms of Conflict, Part 1: Man vs. Society”
Unobtanium – whatever else one wants to say about it, has been a real word for half a century.
From Smithsonian magazine,
“The Etymology of Unobtanium The much-mocked wonder-rock from the 2009 blockbuster ‘Avatar’ doesn’t have an atomic number, but engineers have used the actual word for decades. Chris Klimek Staff Writer December 22, 2022 The silly-sounding name of the material provided a ready punchline at the time, and even 13 years later, some still haven’t figured out unobtanium is a real thing. Not an actual, corporeal substance like copper or tin or sour grapes, but a concept in engineering dating back at least as far as the 1950s.
James R. Hansen’s space history Engineer in Charge: A History of the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, 1917-1958 documents the term’s usage in an October 1957 meeting lamenting “the lack of a superior high-temperature material (which the Langley structures people dubbed ‘unobtanium’).” The word became a sort of placeholder for an unknown material that would have the properties designers required of it, like plugging X into an equation. …”
And from Today I Found Out,
“What is Unobtainium? August 13, 2015 Karl Smallwood …Although it isn’t clear who first coined the term “unobtainium”, the first known documented case of it appeared in the February 27, 1956 edition of the Marshall, Michigan Evening Chronicle where it stated, “The metal is so hard to come by that the scientists have devised a lugubriously-humorous name for it. They call it ‘unobtainium.’”
The next known documented instance occurred in the 1957 Ohio based newspaper, The Zanesville Signal. In it, Major General William O. Senter, the chief of procurement and production at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, explained that the Air Force was currently looking for a virtually weightless material that was simultaneously “infinitely strong” and easy to work with. Senter went on to explain that this wonder material also needed to be able to “resist any degree of heat” while being “available at negligible cost”. The Major General then jokingly added that although the Air Force had yet to find such a substance, they did have a name for it- “unobtainium“.
Just one year later, in 1958, unobtainium was officially defined by the Interim Glossary of Aero Space Terms as a noun that refers to:
“A substance having the exact high test properties required for a piece of hardware or other item of use, but not obtainable either because it theoretically cannot exist or because technology is insufficiently advanced to produce it.”
In that glossary, and all subsequent reproductions of it, the word is listed as being “humorous or ironical”, a sort of inside-joke amongst engineers and scientists. However, just because the word is often used jokingly doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a useful place in the world of science as a shorthand way of talking about a material that possesses the exact set of properties you need for a given project, but for whatever reason you either can’t get a hold of the substance or it simply doesn’t exist yet. In the latter case, it certainly is slightly more professional sounding than using something like the word “thingy” when drawing up specs and discussing design elements. …”
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Evil overlords are so handy
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Reblogged this on Head Noises and commented:
>>> . Well-known examples of Man versus Society stories are tales such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington*, To Kill A Mockingbird*, or even the X-Men films*. In each of these stories you have an individual or a group acting to bring about a change of some kind in society. For Mr. Smith it is a fight against corruption in the U.S. Senate; To Kill a Mockingbird’s plot shows a lawyer fighting racism on behalf of his client, and the X-Men are literally fighting for peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants.
>>> It is only to point out that Cameron and others like him have come to rely on this type of narrative so much that they no longer stop to think about how it works or how to make it better. They have stopped acknowledging reality in their stories and that makes said stories fall flatter than shadows, which have slightly more substance than these types of movies and tales do now.
Little sample of the basic theme– quotes are paragraphs apart.
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Arg, browser ate my comment.
Great article and analysis. 🙂
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Thank you! Glad you liked it! 😀
I will double-check to make sure your comment was eaten and not chucked in the spam for some bizarre reason….
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Drat. Your browser did indeed eat it. Argh! BDE! (Browser delenda est!)