A lot of people, myself included, grew up on heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. There’s a certain clarity of worldview that comes with a hero going up against a nemesis, whether it’s for the greater good, retribution, or as likely as not, both. Of the major types of narrative conflict (Man versus Nature, Man versus Self, Man versus Society, and Man versus Man), I think that Man versus Man is the one that most proliferates, and on the surface is the most obvious, though if I’ve picked anything up from writing about narrative conflict, it’s how often the lines blurs, depending on how complex the story is.
1. The Classic Nemesis
How many action films feature a hero whose strength is only realized when provoked by a villain? From Luke Skywalker and the Emperor (“I’ll never turn to the dark side!”) to pretty much any hero and villain in any action movie, it’s fascinating to see how often internal struggles are made external through a nemesis, and how much we think – if the hero/villain trope is to be believed – that to be our best selves, we need to be set in opposition to someone else. The ease with which a simple, primary villain can be used to create conflict sometimes results in tired (usually sexist) tropes, where the hero’s family/friends/loved ones are brutalized in the name of defining an enemy as villainous, and giving a protagonist a reason to take action.
2. Conflicting Desires
It’s easy to think of Man versus Man strictly in terms of a hero and a nemesis, but the conflict isn’t always so straightforward: every drama, every crime story – almost every story – features conflicts that are less about direct opposition than they are about conflicting desires. When a parent wants one thing for their child, and the child wants something else, that’s Man versus Man conflict. Romances are full of it (ha!), not just in the ways that characters struggle to keep the lovers apart, but in the way the romantic couple struggles against each other (and themselves, as a little Man versus Self is added to the mix) to resolve the differences between them. Remove the hero/villain aspect of Man versus Man, and it becomes the stuff of day-to-day drama.
In a similar way that internal conflicts (and of course external ones) manifest in a straight-up hero/villain paradigm, sometimes in speculative fiction the self is literally split, and a Man versus Self story is told as Man versus Man. Whether it’s Evil Ash in Army of Darkness, The Incredible Hulk, Jeckyll and Hyde, or even one of the many evil twin stories out there (the twin might be a separate person, but I’d argue that on a subtextual level the twin is often a reflection of the hero), on some level we recognize that we’re our own worst enemy, and sometimes that conflict makes its way into the real world, through a physical embodiment of the protagonist’s dark side.
4. Man versus The Other
The classic Man versus Man paradigm involves pitting one mind (and usually body) against another, but the antagonist can, instead of being a human being, be a version of The Other with human-level intelligence. Whether it’s Dave versus Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film that I have yet to get through without falling asleep), or Bilbo versus Smaug in The Hobbit, whenever the protagonist is pitted against an inhuman (but human-level) intelligence, that intelligence is standing in for a human antagonist. When a human protagonist is set against an inhuman foe of lesser intelligence, Man versus The Other becomes a tool for comedy (in my mind I’m thinking of Popeye versus the fly in The Fly’s Last Flight), and when the protagonist is set against a greater intelligence, the story drifts into Man versus Nature.
What are your favorite Man versus Man stories (or Person versus Person – like I’ve said before, I struggle with the sexism of the name of these conflicts but wasn’t quite ready to change their names)? Do you think that cultural differences impact how often one form of conflict or another pops up? I was thinking about how western (especially U.S.) culture tends to be fairly oppositional (capitalist?), and as a result leans towards Man versus Man as expressed through the hero/villain paradigm (i.e. you have to beat someone else in order to succeed), as opposed to, say, the Miyazaki movies, whose conflicts usually fall more under the category of Man versus Self (note that I’m not saying that the Miyazaki movies stand for Japanese culture, but I think that as a strand of it, they can be used to make a point). Thoughts?