I’d have a hard time picking my favorite Miyazaki film (Spirited Away? My Neighbor Totoro?), but I have a special fondness for Kiki’s Delivery Service. Kiki, a young witch, is flying to a new town to start her training period when she runs into another girl, just finishing hers. The stranger tells her that a lot can go wrong in a new city, and Kiki is left doubting herself, wondering what she has to offer. For the next hour and a half, I waited for that other witch to appear in Kiki’s story – as an enemy, or a rival – but it never happened: the primary conflict of Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kiki’s struggle to find her place in the world, and the main obstacle to that is self-doubt. Since I’ve already tackled Man vs. Nature, Kiki’s journey seems like a good place to start talking about the ways we encounter Man vs. Self.

Man versus Self

The only people who don’t find Kiki adorable are sociopaths

1. As Primary Conflict (or the Lack of It)

Most western narratives focus on adversarial relationships: an enemy to crush or be crushed by – so much so that a narrative driven by Man vs. Self is unusual. Even in literary novels, often more aggressive conflict is used (a mystery, the threat of danger, a love triangle) to drive the narrative forward. In many of the Miyazaki movies, the primary obstacle is the protagonist’s self-doubt: once that is overcome, the other issues fall away. Most writing advice focuses hard on conflict. Concepts like happiness, self-knowledge, or enlightenment aren’t seen as compelling enough to drive (or perhaps to sell) a novel. Most advice involves “making it worse” in a very direct way: the protagonist, the city – better yet, the world – must suffer and be at risk. This focus on external conflict shows a lack of trust in the audience: to be thoughtful or self-reflective – to be able to enjoy a mix of high-tension stories and slower, more complex narratives. Whether it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy (risk aversion), human nature, or western culture, stories with a driving, conflict-filled plot aren’t going anywhere, and as likely as not, Man vs. Self will continue to be relegated to a secondary role, and primarily take the form of internal conflict, running under the surface of a more suspenseful plot.

2. As the Engine, Beneath

Human beings seek patterns to help us understand our lives, and a primary way we do that is through stories. Inner conflict is what makes a narrative of interest, regardless of whether the audience is consciously aware of it: in order to fight the serial killer, the heroine must overcome her fear. In order to be ready for the final battle, the hero must push past his self-doubt and seek guidance (and undergo a training montage). Every gun pointed at the protagonist tests resolve, every decision is a measure of character. No matter how much the plot seems to turn on external elements, without the characters’ internal struggles, a movie is nothing more than actors, running around on a screen, or words, scrawled on a page. At key points in the narrative, this essential truth forced to the surface – at critical moments, when key choices must be made.

Man versus Self

Must… kill… son…

3. At Turning Points

To be compelling to an audience, a protagonist must have agency: he or she must make decisions and take action. A passive protagonist – one who is acted upon rather than acts – is boring, and ultimately frustrating. The more complex a character is, the more that agency will be driven by personality, and bring the character to life. While most popular narratives don’t spend the majority of their time on internal conflict, almost all of them bring it to the fore for critical, defining choices. Even a character who is poorly drawn makes choices (even if they lack the narrative punch they would if the character was fully developed). Frodo chooses to take the ring to Mordor, just as ultimately he chooses to keep it when his will has reached its limit. Luke chooses the light side over the dark. These turning points hinge on Man vs. Self conflicts that bubble under the surface of the narrative: though it’s the light saber battle between Luke and Darth Vader that we watch, the audience understands that the important part of the battle is the decision he has to make. Mostly, these resolutions are affirmations of what the audience already knows. Occasionally, they are a surprise.

4. Through Plot Twists and Character Flips

Man versus Self

I just didn’t give a shit.

I gave up on Heroes somewhere during the second season. I just didn’t give a shit, any more. Using internal conflicts to create twists – having good characters turn evil, or evil characters evolve into good ones, or having characters make decisions that surprise the audience – works best when characters are complex, and sudden changes of heart flow from subtly crafted, evolving characters: in those cases, sudden flips are surprising, rather than contrived. Unexpected decisions made by well-drawn characters still seem right, but when poorly executed – like in Heroes, or Battlestar Gallactica – those same choices seem arbitrary: they undermine our faith in the writing and characters, and make us care less. How can you empathize with a character whose behavior seems to flow from nothing, or change moment to moment, based on the needs of plot?

5. As a Struggle for Identity

In novels like Annihilation and Blood Music, Man vs. Self  takes the form of a struggle to define personality, pitting one persona (usually as defined at the beginning of the work) with an emerging one. In these cases, decisions become Man versus Selfbattles, and identity itself is at stake. In stories featuring characters like Mr. Hyde or The Hulk, the self is divided, and in direct conflict. These stories are internal struggle at its most direct: about reconciling The Other, and transforming the self.

Do you like stories that feature Man versus Self as the primary narrative? Are you wigged out by narratives where characters’ personalities start falling away and they lose their identity? Does the term “Man versus…” irritate you the way it irritates me (I wish it were “person versus” but I’m not quite willing to jump away from the established term).

Because I love it, here’s a little spoileriffic commentary on Bruce Banner’s inner conflict…