The Dark Knight Rises will make millions this summer, but poor Wonder Woman will probably never get her film or tv pilot made.
There is a reason that Batman is the most popular superhero in the DC universe and it is the same reason that people can’t get enough of Spider-Man, Ironman or Wolverine…
Often we creators have a hard time figuring out what to do with our protagonist after we’ve told the story of their first adventure.
Maybe your readers just aren’t invested in your characters and your dwindling website stats prove it. …or maybe you’re halfway through an arc before you realize you don’t know how to end it.
Batman and Spider-Man have been around for over half a century and people still aren’t bored. They both have heart.
And if you can get your head around the “Man Vs. Self” conflict, you can create characters with just as much depth…
Man Vs. SOMETHING:
We all remember learning about different conflict types in our high school literature class. The official number varies, but the conflict types can be generalized as: “Man vs. Nature,” “Man vs. Man” and “Man vs. Self.”
Examine your story: What is the source of conflict?
The word “story” implies that there is an ending. We have talked about this on the podcast How to Write Comics that Engage Your Audience as well as on last week’s Interview with Brian McDonald. If you can’t define your conflict, you have no way of knowing when your story is over.
As creatives, we love webcomics because they lend themselves to experimentation. Unfortunately, as a result, they’re often directionless.
Clear conflict creates direction.
Character A must do B in order to prevent/ensure that C does/does not happen.
Think of the stories that you follow. Can you clearly state the conflict? Chances are, the stronger the story, the more easily you will be able to do so.
Perhaps no genre of storytelling presents conflict as clearly as mainstream comics: Hero vs. Villain; The Fate of the World in Peril; Zombie Apocalypse is Nigh.
The monthly issue format mandates that a conflict is presented in 22 pages. Webcomics could learn a thing or two from this constraint.
Batman has to face the Joker. Ironman will take on the terroists single-handedly. And even Scott Pilgrim knows that he must be the one to defeat Ramona’s evil exes.
Once all Seven Evil Exes are defeated, the story is over.
…Or is it?
“Man Vs. Self” Is King:
All great stories, no matter what the external conflict is also have an underlining “Man vs. Self” conflict.
Though other conflicts in the story may be more obvious, the Man vs. Self conflict is the most engaging.
“Will Iron Man save the world?” is the exciting, marketable conflict. But “Will Tony choose to put aside his self-serving ego?” is the deeper, more compelling conflict that makes Tony Stark a character who is infinitely revisit-able.
Iron Man might defeat the terrorists and save the world from a nuclear war, but he hasn’t really won until he stops drinking and decides to put others before himself.
Great stories use external conflicts like Man vs. Nature or Man. vs. Man to bring about, expose or mirror the inner Man vs. Self conflict.
When Man Vs. Everything BUT Himself:
If your hero only exists in your story to complete a series of events and arrive at a predetermined outcome (or perhaps even that has yet to be worked out), once you end your arc you won’t know what to do next.
Do you simply to come up with another repeat adventure, this time with extra twists and turns? …a more exotic location? …a sexier love interest?
Do you need to kill off more characters this time just to ensure it will be bigger and better than the first and prove “the stakes are higher”?
When those things happen in stories that you’ve seen, you get bored, right? …or mad?
Don’t do that to your readers. Dig deeper.
When a Man vs. Self conflict is missing from your story, you get sequels that pale next to the original (although this time with bigger explosions!). You finish watching these films or reading these stories, disappointed that even though they turned the volume “up to 11,” they lack heart.
“Heart” in this case is another way of saying “a compelling Man vs. Self conflict.”
James Bond vs. Jason Bourne:
James Bond is good at everything he does. There is no scrape he cannot get out of, no woman he cannot seduce, no villain he can’t outthink. Bond, James Bond makes for a fun, escapist protagonist because we want to be him– confident, brilliant, victorious and uncomplicated.
On paper, Jason Bourne is a character with the same skill set as Bond. And yet when his is a very different story. Why? Because Bourne is a man against himself. In him we see good and bad. He has done heinous things and yet he has the chance at a clean slate. Except he cannot escape his past.
We all have regrets whose consequences haunt us, don’t we? Sure, they might not be chasing us through the streets in an attempt to assassinate us, but the themes addressed in Bourne’s journey ring true.
We may want to be Bond, but we see ourselves in Bourne. Which is the more compelling tale?
Yes, Scott Pilgrim has to defeat Ramona’s evil exes. But more importantly, he needs to stop being a slacker and learn how to treat a girl with respect. He doesn’t get there right away, but by Volume 6, our boy is all grown up and when he sets out on his own we have a hunch that this time he won’t screw it up.
Great stories and relatable, unforgettable characters don’t happen by accident.
So don’t devote all of your time to developing the tiniest intricacies of a confusing plot or four decades of villain’s backstory and forget that the hook for your readers, whether they know it or not, will be having an honest and relatable Man vs. Self conflict for your protagonist.
In good storytelling, heart is essential, but the explosions are optional.
Comment and Share:
Think deep about what you want to say about the world.
How can you use your protagonist’s “Man vs. Self” conflict to explore that theme?
What “Man vs. Self” conflict is the true undercurrent to your other external, event-driven conflicts?