One of my earliest monster memories is of Godzilla, tearing up Tokyo, and my childhood is full of kaiju. Chief among the reasons for my fascination was the juxtaposition of on one hand raw power and primal destruction, and on the other terror and flight. Godzilla, and the monsters he spawned, are manifestations of Man versus Nature. As a child – simultaneously mighty and powerless – it was easy to see myself both in the monster, tearing up the countryside, and as a hapless victim, fleeing in fear.
These days, I’m more likely to be on the side of the protagonists as they struggle against nature (though no matter how many hospitals and fleeing extras Godzilla crushes, I’m still going to be on his side), and outside of speculative fiction, Man versus Nature is more likely to take the form of a storm, bitter cold, or volcano than it is to be embodied by a giant lizard or robot.
Man versus Nature is all around us: every day we face the possibility of an earthquake, superstorm, or flood (and these days, those seem to be coming more often). Man versus Nature exploits this underlying anxiety, and makes real our fears that at any moment the world around us might change and leave us fighting for our lives. As in other types of narrative conflict, Man versus Nature is a manifestation and exaggeration of day-to-day fears. It appears in different forms – some direct, some subtle.
1. Primary Conflict
Movies like Jaws, Volcano, The Towering Inferno, and a host of others use Man versus Nature as their primary conflict. Nature’s unpredictability and our inability to control it make it an ideal engine to move action forward, and an ongoing trigger for additional conflict (Man vs. Man, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Society) as well as a host of interpersonal, romantic, and plot elements.
Put simply, we love Man versus Nature – from asteroids to earthquakes, and as movies ratchet up the conflict, we get multiple instances of it in a single story: a volcano leads to an earthquake, leads to a fire, leads to a flood, and so forth. It can get a bit exhausting, but the essential core of the dynamic remains the same: a protagonist, dealing with primal, unstoppable forces, fighting for survival.
2. Bridging Conflict
Conflict drives story, and especially in modern fiction (most notably in thrillers), readers have come to expect ongoing tension. One way of adding drama and turning it up or down is through “bridging conflict” – conflict that though not intrinsic to the primary story arc, is used to fill the valley between rising and falling action.
The tension of two people arguing as they drive down a deserted road is heightened if there are blizzard conditions. A sudden, minor crisis can be used to bring characters together or pull them apart, in places where dialogue or exposition would slow the narrative down. When characters are travelling or in flight, Man versus Nature can provide variety and keep the tension high.
3. In the Background
Sometimes, hints of Man versus Nature are used less to drive or transform story, and more to create mood, or define character. Setting a novel during a cold, gray winter makes a different statement than setting it in a sweltering summer. Man versus Nature can be used to create a world that – if not directly opposed to him or her – is on some essential level set against the protagonist.
The same storm that in a more aggressive narrative might represent a dire threat, can be used to show emotion and reveal point of view, whether the hero is frustrated by a drive during icy conditions, or stopping to watch a house fire. Depending on the protagonist’s point of view, natural forces can define moment and character, and be seen as punative, cleansing, or something in between.
4. Human-Made Nature
One of our deepest fears is that humanity’s own nature – our aggression, or our failure to understand the consequences of our actions – will destroy us. This conception of Man versus Nature involves struggling with a new, human-made nature, often in hopes of returning to the status quo.
Fears that our moral and technological missteps will result in a new and terrifying natural order play out in stories about outbreaks, problems with the earth’s core, and everything from giant ants to radioactive spiders. Our mistakes can also create a new natural order where we are no longer dominant, a theme explored by movies like The Matrix or The Terminator, and novels like Extinction or Nexus. In these cases, the fight against the new order represents a struggle against ourselves.
Speculative fiction carries with it the possibility of creating – through science or magic – new, hostile ecosystems. In the arena of The Hunger Games, a world is created by science that is set against those unfortunate enough to be trapped within its confines. In fantasy, protagonists are often introduced to supernatural worlds along with the reader – worlds with their own, unpredictable rules. Alien planets are the stomping ground of science fiction, tailor-made for Man versus Nature struggles, as everything from alien creatures to the laws of physics themselves can be brought to bear in ways that add to the conflict.
What are your favorite Man versus Nature stories, real or speculative? Can you think of other ways that Man versus Nature is used in story, either directly or indirectly?