Narrative conflict is the reason why you’re watching the movie or reading the book. Let’s think about this practically: when you decide to watch a movie, what do you expect?
- to follow the peaceful life of an average protagonist where nothing bad happens
- to see the protagonist struggle to solve a problem
If your answer is B you’re the average movie goer. If your answer is A… why would you pay money to watch a movie where nothing happens?
Types of narrative conflict
There are two types of narrative conflict: external and internal. Those two are divided into different categories:
- man vs man (see here an example with a scene from Stranger Things)
- man vs nature
- man vs supernatural
- man vs society
- man vs self
In real life, we try our hardest to avoid conflict, but in fiction, we look for it
People always say that they don’t want to see their favorite character suffer, but how did they fall in love with that character in the first place? By seeing him or her suffer.
A fictional character must be put through some kind of ordeal in order to gain the sympathy of the audience.
If Batman hadn’t watched his parents die, he would have just been an eccentric cocky millionaire who like cosplay a little too much.
If Jon Snow hadn’t been mocked for being a bastard his entire life, all that unjustified brooding would have made him look like an annoying prick.
What makes Bruce Wayne and Jon Snow iconic characters is the fact that they were able to overcome their problems and rise victorious from the conflicts and tragedies that shaped their lives.
What is “man vs society”
This type of narrative conflict is not as popular as “man vs man” or “man vs supernatural” but it’s just as compelling. Here, a hero (or a group of heroes) have to face against a society (not a single individual).
Just to be clear: the “society” doesn’t necessarily have to be a nation or a specific geographical area, and the hero doesn’t have to fight individually each member of that society.
This type of narrative conflict usually involves some kind of large institution or organization that directly provides an obstacle for the protagonist.
In order to find a resolution to this type of conflict, the hero has to fight in order to change the law, or set himself or others free, or expose the “grand scheme”. The only constant is that the evil institution has to actively and consciously oppose the hero’s moves.
To give you an example: Shaun of the dead is not a “man vs society” conflict, but rather a “man vs supernatural” one. Because the zombie apocalypse wasn’t caused nor planned by some kind of evil corporation, it’s just a disease that spread itself uncontrollably.
Example of narrative conflict – Loving
Loving is a biographical movie about the supreme court case Loving v. Virginia. It tells the story of the married couple Mildred and Richard Loving and the fight for their marriage.
Let’s look at the 3 elements that make a narrative conflict a “man vs society”:
Antagonist without a face
In this type of conflict, the antagonist is not a single individual, but a large and organized group.
This antagonist can be represented by various characters: a police officer (for an oppressive government), bullies (for a community with prejudices), secret agents or hitmen (for a shady organization/corporation).
But at the end of the day, each one of those characters is interchangeable. If the hero manages to defeat one police officer/hitman/bully/secret agent, another one will show up.
That’s why the society in this type of conflict doesn’t “have a face”. Each character that tries to stop the hero is not the antagonist, he is just a representative for the bigger, scarier, real antagonist.
This is what the antagonist in a “man vs society” conflict really is: a small or large group of people that collectively try to prevent the protagonist from reaching his goal for one specific reason (usually something related to morality, ethics or religion).
In the movie, the couple meets various antagonists that provide obstacles to their happiness. They get arrested by a sheriff, treated like criminals by a local judge, discriminated by the
Almost all the people around them, in a way or another, is providing an obstacle that they will need to overcome.
The oppression is caused by the society
The lovings encounter many people that try to break them up, one of those is Sheriff Brooks.
He is not a constant presence in the story, just like any other antagonist. But he sticks out because he says out loud the reason why society believes that the Lovings need to be separated:
“It’s God’s law. He made a sparrow a sparrow, and a robin a robin. They’re different for a reason”
Brooks says this because, like many other people, he has been told by his peers and his community that interracial marriage is wrong. The problems of the couple are not caused by him or any other individual operating on his own, but by society itself (the law, the prejudices etc…).
If the protagonist feels oppressed because he despises his own appearance, the conflict is caused by the protagonist himself. Therefore this is not a “man vs society type of conflict.
But, if the protagonist develops insecurity over his appearance because his community mocks him, the conflict is caused by the society.
Layers of conflict
Another interesting aspect of this type of narrative conflict is the fact that as a writer you can add multiple layers to the story.
The first layer is the conflict between the couple and the institutions. The second layer is the conflict between the two protagonists themselves.
For a protagonist, a challenge is a chance to show his true colors by making important decisions that will highlight his true intentions.
As I said before, the Lovings have to overcome multiple “tests”. The harder and riskier those tests become the more pressure the two protagonists feel. This pressure leads them to clash with each other.
In the movie we rarely see them fight, but through subtle changes in their attitude (like Richard being skeptical of the lawyer, or Mildred being more confident in her actions) we see that they are reacting to their adversities in different ways.
To sum up, in a screenplay centered around “man vs society”, the protagonist “attracts” the enemies. Something he does or something he is doesn’t conform to the norms of his community and because of that his peers feel compelled to stop him.
This type of narrative conflict is important because it forces us to reflect on what we think to be right and wrong.
Before 1967, a “sparrow” couldn’t marry a “robin” because in the eyes of the law that was wrong. Nowadays, we may have stopped using those terms, but we’re still looking down on the people that try to challenge our idea of right and wrong.
We’re still trying to silence people who dare to speak up because they don’t conform to our expectations of what a person should do.
In a way, there are many people out there like the Lovings who are living in real life their “man vs society”.