Last week, we discussed the type of conflict known as Man vs. Society. This time we are talking about the kind of plot known as Man vs. Self. That is, Man versus his own inner weaknesses, flaws, and sins.
Foxfier and I discussed this conflict in Crossover Queen’s post here. In the process, Foxfier made a very interesting point: not all Man vs. Self conflicts occur only within the protagonist. She posits that there is another kind of Man vs. Self conflict: the fights that occur within a family, or a close-knit group of people which spends a great deal of everyday life with one another. Thinking about it, I have concluded she is correct and we will discuss why within this post.
Most people think of Man vs. Self conflicts and draw up images of stories like A Christmas Carol*, Marvel’s first Thor* film, Marvel’s Iron Man* movie, Gawain and the Green Knight*, or perhaps even Avatar: The Last Airbender*. Each of these stories has the protagonist facing himself and concluding that not only does he have to change, but he must change in a specific way. Thor, for instance, must realize what his war-hungry and belligerent attitude could cost not only those he loves, but him as well. His pride in his strength has blinded him to what really matters, so Odin takes away his power and leaves him “nothing” – whereupon Thor must discover what power lies in humility in order to stop his envious adopted brother.
A Christmas Carol is rather obviously a Man vs. Self conflict. The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is forced by the three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to confront his sins and repent to save his soul. He argues with the first spirit and somewhat with the second to avoid facing what he has made of himself. They wear away at his defenses enough, though, that by the time he meets the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come he can admit to himself and the third Spirit that he has in fact sinned and DOES need to repent and mend his ways. The climax comes Christmas morning, when Scrooge acts upon the promises he made in the night.
Gawain and the Green Knight follows the titular character into extreme danger, and not of the physical kind. Staying for three days and three nights at the castle of Sir Bertilak before he must face the mysterious Green Knight, Gawain agrees to his host’s proposition of a game. Gawain will stay at the castle and anything he earns he will give to Bertilak once evening falls. In the meanwhile, Bertilak will go out hunting and give the spoils – whatever they are – to Gawain when he returns at the end of the day.
It seems like a harmless game until Bertilak’s beautiful wife begins trying to seduce Gawain. According to the laws of courtly love, he should treat the lady of the castle as his queen and follow her every command. But this would mean breaking the moral law by sleeping with her, the wife of the man who has given him lodging for the last few days. So Gawain has to spend all three days dodging her advances and talking his way out of actually making love with her. This is not an easy thing to do when courtesy demands he not lose his temper with, snap at, or otherwise resort to blunt language to tell her to back off. Gawain is trapped on the rack, and the tension as he dances on the thin line between rudeness and temptation has readers even now biting their nails as they follow his story.
Avatar: The Last Airbender’s most famous and beloved antagonist, Prince Zuko, is well-known precisely for his struggles with himself. Season two puts a fine point on this interior battle with Zuko’s stress-induced fever and the strange dreams it brings as he wrestles to understand whether his personal honor is more valuable than the paternal love he craves. Honor appears to win until the season two finale sets him back several steps. So, he spends half of season three recognizing (and admitting) that his father does not and never will love him before signing up with Team Aang, who do not accept him on the spot but must learn to trust him over time. Note that even when his interior struggles end Zuko’s suffering continues, both to test (and thereby strengthen) his resolve as well as to earn the gang’s trust.
Regarding Team Aang, although they have the shared purpose of ending the Fire Nation’s war on the rest of the world they do not always get along as a group. Katara and Toph, the two girls on the team, famously get into a fight with one another in season three over Toph’s gambling (and cheating). Both girls have valid points about flaws in the other’s characters which have been exacerbated by recent behavior and stressors. Although they do fight the Fire Nation’s soldiers during the episode, that is a subplot or sub-conflict. The actual physical confrontation between both girls is also a sub-conflict, as it is an outward manifestation of their interior struggles with each other and themselves.
This is what is meant about Man vs. Self as a conflict among a group or family unit. Although there are outside forces that must be defeated or dealt with in some manner, the primary conflict is interior rather than exterior. It is not a battle of physical forces meeting on the field of combat but interior conflicts resulting from day-to-day living in either a secure, mundane setting or a not-so-safe quest to reach some stated (not necessarily world-ending) goal.
Prairie Fever*, The Avengers*, and Avengers: Age of Ultron* would qualify for this. In Prairie Fever, the women whom Preston Biggs is hired to bring East are all suffering from abuse. The women are forced into close quarters with Biggs and Olivia – the woman who joins their group later on – and so must confront the abuse they underwent and overcome it in slow, necessary stages. Biggs and Olivia, too, must face their respective pasts in order to move forward and find a better life with one another when they initially only see and seek a solitary path to a future away from what haunts them.
In the process, this means they come into conflict with one another as they fight their separate interior battles. Olivia and Preston butt heads most often, but Lettie remains antagonistic to Biggs for the first half of the film as well. Abigail is not antagonistic and neither is Blue, yet both women also unintentionally clash with their caretakers on occasion. Blue’s inner conflict ends when she sacrifices her life to save Olivia, and Lettie overcomes her hostility to Biggs after he proves to be nothing like the monster who lied to and beat her. Abigail manages to calm and come out of her shell and Olivia learns someone can love her despite her past, while Preston finds a reason to live again.
As numerous fans have noted over time, the Avengers’ team dynamic in the movies is much more familial than may initially be obvious. The comics originally leaned on this heavily – Stan Lee mentioned in the introductions to both Marvel Masterworks Avengers #2* and #3* that he and the other writers saw opportunities for storytelling in the “petty jealousies” that would spring up among diverse personalities living in close quarters with a common goal. Both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron show how these disparate, strong-willed characters clash over trivial and then great matters.
Half or more of the drama in the films (and the comics) isn’t the fight against the villains. It is watching the Avengers settle interior disputes by facing their flaws and working to overcome them so they can function better as a team. The degree to which they accomplish this varies from character to character but it does occur in each film for all of them, to one extent or another, as they find ways to improve their characters after being called out by their fellows for their less-than-stellar behavior. It is hard, and it hurts more than the individual being called out, but it does lead to a change for the better over time.
Family Matters* is another good example of this format for the Man vs. Self storyline. As the title states, the series focuses on “family matters,” mundane problems that occur within the Winslow family as well as things that affect them from outside their home. Every episode has at least one of the Winslows dealing with an issue based on how it brings out the flaws or weaknesses in their own characters. Although there may be bullies or other antagonists for them to deal with in some episodes, most focus on how the family members need to improve and thus strengthen the family.
A frequent catalyst for the Winslows’ family dilemmas is Steve Urkel, a boy genius whose biological family of eccentric genii literally cannot stand him because they do not want him. The Winslows, despite their grumbling and stated desire for him to leave them all alone, still show far more charity and kindness to him than his own family. Reluctantly adopted by the clan, Steve is present as the children (Eddie and his younger sister Laura, who is the recipient of Steve’s unwanted, over-the-top professions of love) argue with their parents. Steve also often arrives when their parents (Carl and Harriet) get into arguments with one another and has recurrent disputes of his own with Carl.
While the Winslows help Steve to grow up, Steve often brings to light issues that other members of the family would prefer were not known to the rest. In one installment, Eddie Winslow lies to his teacher about why he got a bad grade, saying his home life is terrible and that this is why he did so poorly on a test he failed to study for. The teacher ends up getting advice from Steve, who does not know the troubled student she wishes to help is Eddie. When the teacher goes to the Winslow household, she arrives in time to find Harriet on strike due to an argument with Carl. The house is in disarray, Carl is going undercover (he is a Chicago police officer) to “buy drugs,” and Carl’s mother – Eddie’s grandmother – is “going out to buy a man.”
The teacher comes to the completely wrong conclusions due to this, Steve quickly exits the scene when he realizes he made a mistake, and Eddie has to face up to his father about not only the poor grade on his test but the lie he told as well. Thus Eddie must confront his own weakness in trying to avoid punishment for doing badly on a test he didn’t study for, something that would have been less embarrassing and which would have disappointed his loving parents less than the lie. Carl and Harriet don’t solve their argument in this episode but it does show that their disagreement has gotten far out of hand and hints that they will, eventually, solve and settle it as a truly loving couple ought.
In all, the episode proves Foxfier’s point: there is no external conflict in the sense that the Winslows are facing a threat of some kind. The issues are all internal to their family life and themselves. Eddie’s attempt to avoid punishment increases it, while Carl and Harriet’s dispute reaches blatantly childish levels that give outsiders the wrong impression entirely. All this springs not from an exterior source but interior sources in each character, and the conflicts can only be resolved when the characters face this and work to amend their behavior.
NCIS* is another example of this type of Man vs. Self conflict. Though each episode focuses on a Man vs. Man conflict in that the team must hunt down a killer or rescue a kidnapped victim, a typical installment will have one or more Man vs. Self plots that spills over into the teammate’s interactions with the others. Tony DiNozzo is particularly good for this, being a bundle of issues who is also an observant, hardworking detective.
DiNozzo is a good investigator but, while his behavior can be endearing, it can also be extremely annoying or even ill-suited to the moment. This puts him at odds first with Kate Todd and then later with Ziva David, whose upbringing in a war zone and lack of familiarity with American culture simultaneously leaves her vulnerable to his charades while perfectly positioning her to burst his balloons. Timothy McGee – initially a naïve and relative innocent probationary agent – often gets caught in the crossfire between the two, being the butt of DiNozzo’s juvenile humor and taunts on most occasions.
Riding herd on the entire group is Leroy Jethro Gibbs, a man with baggage of his own who nevertheless must make sure the disparate personalities, quirks, and flaws of his subordinates don’t compromise their work ethic or capsize the “boat” of their team. His signature head slap to end debates is most often applied to DiNozzo, who will usually press his advantage so far that he risks alienating his teammates at least temporarily. Thus, a large part of NCIS’ appeal isn’t just Gibbs’ fathering of the team, it is Gibbs’ guidance and paternal management of DiNozzo.
The Hobbit* and The Lord of the Rings* fall into the Man vs. Self conflict category as well. In the trilogy, the central conflict which must be faced is Frodo’s. While the One Ring is the proximate cause of this, it can have no power over a creature that is not somehow fallen or concupiscent. The Ring’s main tactic is temptation to seize power, but power comes in many forms, as Gollum proves.
While Gollum would never be the true master of the Ring, it did achieve control over him by tempting him to seize the power he could grasp on his own. This was not only in Déagol’s murder but in how he would turn invisible and spy on his neighbors and family. As Tolkien, Jonathan Witt, and Jay Richards* point out, Gollum used the Ring’s minor power of invisibility for his own gain and/or amusement, leading to his eventual expulsion from his family for causing strife and discord within it.
Frodo taking the Ring at Mount Doom shows just how much it has worn him down, as no mortal (and even immortals such as Galadriel and Gandalf) can permanently withstand the temptation of the Ring. What makes Frodo’s quest and strength so amazing is that he held out as long as he did. He stayed true until he was so worn down that he could no longer resist the Ring’s power at the Crack of Mount Doom, when its power was at its height.
The rest of the trilogy follows this pattern. Boromir falters during his own interior conflict, which leads him to try to take the Ring from Frodo, splintering the Fellowship and nearly costing him his soul. Ironically, he only saves his life by losing it to protect Merry and Pippin, the latter of whom not only attracted the attention of the orcs in Moria but nearly put the entire quest in jeopardy by stealing a peek at the Palantír when he had been told to leave it alone. Denethor and Saruman each fail in their own battles with their weaknesses, in both cases by tacit choice; Denethor puts his faith in his own power and so succumbs to despair while Saruman willingly gives into the desire for domination that the Ring tempts all to believe they can acquire by possessing it.
As for The Hobbit, the Battle of the Five Armies only occurs because Bilbo is the sole member of Thorin’s Company not to be overcome by gold lust after Smaug is killed – or fear of what the Oakenshield will do if he absconds with the Arkenstone. This might seem like a Man vs. Man conflict, but the only reason the Battle of the Five Armies almost became the Slaughter of Allies is because those who ought to have been friends were driven apart by a lust for precious metal and/or desperate need. Bard and the Lakemen need treasure from Thorin’s hoard to survive – and, truth be told, since he and his Company set a dragon on them (albeit unintentionally), he did owe them recompense. Thranduil’s avarice and his desire to settle the score with Thorin were both far pettier and could have cost him far more than they did if not for Bilbo stepping forward with the Arkenstone. And Bilbo would never have gone to such heroic lengths to end a war before it started if he had not faced his own weaknesses throughout the course of the book. So by growing and overcoming his own interior faults, he saved others from theirs.
While The Hobbit is an adventure story with a clear Man vs. Man plot (the Dwarves and Bilbo vs. Smaug and then the orc armies), that plot is subordinate to the interior Man vs. Self battles which the protagonist must confront. The same is true of The Lord of the Rings, which have the overarching plot of bringing down Sauron interspersed with interior battles that determine the outcome of the all-encompassing conflict. A Man vs. Self plot is pivotal to the greater battles precisely because it determines what kind of character the protagonist will be and how he will choose to approach the victory he seeks.
James Cameron’s Avatar has Jake Sully fighting with himself to decide whether his growing attachment to the Na’vi and particularly his burgeoning love for Neytiri are worth turning away from humanity. This interior struggle reaches its climax when he goes to the tree goddess Eywa and pleads for help driving away his fellow humans to save Pandora, and it comes to its conclusion when he and Neytiri finally meet when he is in his human body rather than his avatar. It is a far more subtle climax and resolution than the exterior Man vs. Society and Man vs. Man conflicts in the film, but it is there and it has a purpose to moving the other clashes forward. For if Jake had made any other decision or been a little slower in siding with the Na’vi, then the other conflicts would have taken entirely different courses from that seen in the film and may have been lost completely.
From this overview it is possible to see that there are more variations on the Man vs. Self conflict format than are apparent at first glance. It is also possible to see how plots and subplots intertwine from this vantage point, as many genres will need a Man vs. Self sub-conflict to help move a greater Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society, or even Man vs. Nature plot along. Unless your characters know who they are from start to finish, they will have to look inside themselves and at the world outside to see whether or not they are acting in accord with their beliefs or even if they are certain those beliefs are right.
Remember, the villain often thinks himself in the right from start to finish. He never questions himself or his convictions past a certain point because if he does, he will see that he has built his house on sand. The hero must always question himself, though not necessarily his beliefs (see Captain America), to be sure he is adhering to an objective standard of reality, i.e. truth. Otherwise, he might turn into a villain himself.
So check your Man vs. Self sub-conflicts, future authors. You might find you need to realign or otherwise tweak them to get the rest of your tale flowing properly. Unless your protagonist is also the villain – in which case you will have to decide if he is redeemable or not. A villain can question himself and thereby become a hero…
…but only if he is willing to confront his sins and admit that not only has he sinned but if he wants to save his life then he will have to lose the one he holds now by dint of avoiding reality. That could mean he dies or it could mean he sacrifices some perceived good, as Zuko and Jake Sully do by allying with others opposed to those they initially trust and wish to please. Either way, once he comes to the conviction that he needs to change, he must follow it quickly with action.
Otherwise, his choice is intellectual and has no practical value to the story – or the audience – whatsoever.
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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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3 thoughts on “Forms of Conflict, Part 2: Man vs. Self”
Romance novels generally have the obstacles being internal
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