Use caution when writing a Man vs. Society conflict into your script.
If you don’t think through what a Man vs. Society conflict will cost your hero, you will wind up with a Man vs. Nature conflict instead. …except your storm will be made up of human faces.
Last week, Chris talked about Man vs. Nature, the conflict that pits your protagonist against an unintelligent force. The world-ending earthquake does not willfully attack the hero, nor does the hero have complicated emotions toward it. “This is bad,” will usually suffice.
If you take society at a surface level, you can accidentally end up with such a force of nature instead of a complicated, multifaceted group of people, pressures and expectations. You get Indiana Jones vs. The Nazis. “Nazis are bad,” and so they act like The Borg in your script.
(Note from Chris: Lora and I both think Indy is amazing. We’re just saying that the Indy-version of the Nazis are more a force of Nature than they are a complex Society.)
You might miss this oversimplification in a script (even your own) if one or two members of the societal group are used as villains, in a Man vs. Man conflict (which we’ll address in an upcoming post.)
But if these characters are simply photocopies of the larger group with a more menacing snarl and a fancier name, you’ll never get deeper into the real magic a Man vs. Society story can conjure.
Avoid this two-dimensionality by addressing the sacrifices that your protagonist must make when he stands against a society.
A Man Loses No Part Of His Soul By Taking On A Tornado.
…but he might loose it all if he takes on The Firm, for example.
Societies are made of individuals.
This is what makes them so dynamic, hard to nail down and evasive. Every member of a society does not share all of the values with every other member. But viewed with a wide-angle lens, a society agrees on and enforces certain beliefs, rules and expectations. But zoom into an individual level, and things get much more complex.
In my life outside of Paper Wings, I write a historical fiction comic about the American Revolutionary War.
The thing that fascinates me most about that war is how different all of the founding fathers were in their beliefs and yet, for the most part those differences didn’t truly manifest themselves until later. In order to rebel against England and win their independence, they banded together, united. However, after the war, their differences became pronounced when they tried to create this new government they had just won.
Former friends and allies pitted against each other, some even turned into all-out enemies.
Never forget that a group of seemingly like-minded human beings will have as many different motives and opinions as there are members of that group.
Homogenize the members of a society and you’ll wind up with antagonists like Mr. Smith and his agents. But think through the individuals who make up that group, and watch what it does to your hero when he chooses to stand against them.
Suddenly, there are stakes.
The Cost of Relationship.
The book and film The Help took place during the Civil Rights movement in the deep south.
Skeeter, a young college grad comes home to find her friends entirely different… mostly because they have stayed the same. She has changed during her time at university and that experience has given her new eyes to see things she once took for granted.
Throughout the story we see over and over again what taking a stand against racism and segregation is costing “the help,” as their livelihoods and their very lives are threatened. But for Skeeter, a privileged WASP,the cost of participation is comparatively low.
So what if Skeeter never gets invited to another afternoon bridge party? Her girlfriends are racist elitists who make us cringe every time they open their mouths. Skeeter would be better off without them, and they appear to be mostly irredeemable.
But throw in a love interest for the geeky girl who’s never had a man and watch the stakes change. Suddenly Skeeter has something very real to lose.
Your Man Vs. Society conflict should cost your hero a valued relationship. By turning your back on society, you are turning your back on actual people you know.
The Cost of Reputation.
Jerry Maguire begins with Jerry writing a manifesto. He has become disillusioned with his life as a successful sports agent because the agency is corrupt. He not only writes his manifesto, he mass-produces it, and leaves a copy on every co-worker’s desk.
When his impassioned coup d’etat only manages to inspire one other employee, Jerry is left in a tough place. He sticks to his convictions, though, and walks out anyway, Dorothy in tow, and he spends the rest of the movie dealing with the cost of that decision.
It turns out that leaving his comfortable, successful career won’t be easy. A lot of the advantages and power he thought he had actually came from the reputation of the agency rather than himself.
Most of his former clients don’t want to touch him with a ten foot pole, just in case his idealistic, freethinking spirit is contagious.
Your Man Vs. Society conflict should make your hero risk something, if not everything. Society is where we make our lives. So when we take ourselves out of it, what is left?
The Cost of Future.
Remy in Ratatouille is not your typical rat. After his gourmet cooking antics and a freak thunderstorm conspire to separate him from his family, he finds himself in Paris, living his dream as a chef. Not your typical day for a rodent.
Through his experiences working with humans in a restaurant, Remy comes to see that perhaps, (in this magical Disney world, at least) rats and people can coincide in 5-Zagat-starred harmony.
…except that he cannot convince his family that there is a better life outside of stealing dumpster garbage.
Remy gives up his future twice, first when he leaves his father, brother and the safety of a rat living a rat’s life. But then again when he finds out that it is dangerous for a rat to mingle with people too closely.
Both worlds are right and yet neither are. Remy has to learn that you can have roots and wings, but can only learn that by giving both up.
What does your hero value more than his future? The current confines of his society are obviously not going to provide him with his dreams. But what is the safety he is risking by taking on this Man Vs. Society conflict?
The Cost of Failure.
Your protagonist does not need to triumph in his war against society. As a matter of fact, your story might be far more poignant if he fails.
In The Devil Wears Prada we are thrown into the vapid culture of the fashion industry, where bagels and the dress size 6 are forbidden.
Andy Sachs accepts her new job at the fashion magazine as a means to an end– a gateway into the world of journalism. At first, we laugh along with her at the absurdities of the industry, and yet bit by bit, character by character, we see a much more complicated and, dare we say it, endearing, world.
Andy falls prey not just to the trappings of the fashion industry, but to its genuine charms. And those charms are not just expensive shoes, they are the people who are as complicated as the history of a frumpy, cerulean blue sweater.
This assimilation costs Andy all of her relationships, outside of the industry and even inside when she stabs a co-worker in the back to get what she wants.
It’s by failing in her Man vs. Society conflict that Andy is interesting. She doesn’t change the world, it changes her.
And yet, because of the colorful cast of Runway magazine employees, mixed motives, values and all, we can sympathize with Andy each and every time she makes a soul-sucking decision.
Because really, though we might never have had Miranda Priestly breathing down our neck to get the new Harry Potter book, we all have made self-serving decisions that hurt the people we love.
This is why your hero’s failure to change the world can be just as poignant as his success. After all, at the end of 1984 when Winston Smith declares that he loves Big Brother, we can hardly hold it against him. It is his failure that gives power to the message.
Man vs. Society is a Mirror.
Ultimately, your Man vs. Society conflict is a mirror. Your hero is a part of the group he is either working to change or rebelling against. And by being a member of the thing he seeks to change, he first must change himself.
Every Man vs. Society conflict inevitably has a Man vs. Self conflict at the heart.
Hold him up against the group he is a part of…
- Skeeter is naive and a passive participant in segregation.
- Jerry is a selfish, greedy liar.
- Remy is an elitist and a thief.
…but pull him out of it and see what emerges:
- Skeeter is an activist, making a difference in her world.
- Jerry can be selfless, and is even capible of love.
- And Remy finds a way to fit in and give back.
Comment and Share:
Who was your hero, and who does he/she want to be?