In this miniseries, I’ve given you a working definition of conflict (with some reasons to include it in your fiction writing) and a look at one common kind of conflict (man vs. man). This week, I’ll look at the next kind of conflict:
Man vs. self—a conflict in which the main character has to overcome his or her own behaviors, emotions, beliefs, personality traits, or decisions.
This type of conflict is very good for very short fiction like the Writing Challenge—if you wanted to, you could write the whole story with only one character. However, it’s also possible to write a man vs. self story with other characters in it, as long as the main conflict takes place within the spirit of one character.
You might think that man vs. self stories are often moody, introspective, or serious. You’d be right—they often are, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to be. I’ve read light-hearted man vs. self stories, and they’re great fun—often written with a self-deprecating humor as the main character (usually the narrator) recounts the folly of her ways.
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the more serious man vs. self story. It’s a great vehicle for a story in which a character has to make an important decision which may have life-altering consequences…or a story in which she deals with depression, anger, jealousy…or a story in which she acts impulsively (or deliberately, for that matter) and then has to handle the implications of that action. As you can see, these stories are perfect for the Challenge, and there could easily be a spiritual application in all of those situations.
If you’re thinking about writing a man vs. self story, consider writing it in 1st person. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of “telling” if you write about a person’s feelings in 3rd person: Gertrude was peeved…Dexter felt goofy…Wilma acted angry. But in 1st person, it’s more natural to “show” how your narrator is feeling: I felt a pulse in the back of my throat…A curtain of shadow covered my eyes…I opened and closed my fists until my knuckles ached. Writing man vs. self in 1st person isn’t a requirement, but if you’re used to writing in 3rd person, this type of story would be a good one in which to branch out.
A side note about first person writing: occasionally someone will post to the boards their concern about writing in first person: what if someone thinks this really happened to me? Am I being dishonest, somehow, if I write in first person but I’m totally making it up? In a word: NO. You’re not being dishonest; you’re being a fiction writer. If someone thinks you really experienced those things—you’ve done a great job!
Here are a few examples of Man vs. self conflict that we might all be familiar with.
1. This isn’t fiction, but it superbly illustrates man vs. self conflict—when Jonah’s desire not to go to Nineveh causes him all kinds of trouble.
2. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the emperor’s vanity ultimately causes his downfall.
3. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund has to overcome several negative emotions and behaviors before his eventual redemption.
4. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is miserly and antisocial.
Before I give you some homework, I’m going to suggest a few man vs. self stories from the Writing Challenge for you to read (mine, but only because it’s easy for me to find them). Pick one or both of these, and then come back for the homework:
Stalled Shopping Cart in the Baking Aisle is a 1st person story.
Poot’s Hatchet shows how you can do man vs. self in 3rd person.
1. Read one of the above stories, then answer these questions:
a. In one sentence, describe the nature of the man vs. self conflict
b. How is the conflict resolved?
2. Make a comment or ask a question about man vs. self conflict.
3. Give another example, similar to 1 – 4 above, of man vs. self conflict in books, stories, or movies that will be familiar to most people.
4. If you have a Writing Challenge entry that features man vs. self conflict, link to it, along with a question or a comment about that piece. Please don’t just link to your story; the best part of these lessons is the exchange of ideas.
These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
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