Ever feel like the wide and wicked world is out to get you? When it comes to the third form of conflict, that’s just the case for your protagonist.
Man versus Society
A woman struggles to reform the school system so that her child has a better place to learn. A gay couple braves public disfavor for their right to love each other. A girl rebels against a twisted system that pits children against each other in a battle to death. A lawyer takes on the defense of a black man in a trial made hopeless by the standards of the era.
These are all examples of this third type of conflict.
When Man clashes with Society, the protagonist has a problem not with specific people, but with the very status-quo. The protagonist is often oppressed, wronged, or put at a disadvantage by the status-quo. Then, following some inciting event, the protagonist makes a bid to change or end the status-quo.
The struggle may be legal, social, political, or even physical, or any combination of these.
The obstacles in the protagonist’s path come from whatever is bad or wrong about the status-quo, and demonstrate everything the protagonist hates about the system.
As for antagonists, they are often ordinary members of society who are only doing their job. Sometimes, the system may be personified by a single nemesis or organization, whose destruction would mean the end of the status-quo. The protagonist may or may not achieve this goal.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
A Future of Nightmares
George Orwell’s 1984 might be the patriarch of all Man versus Society tales. It is ruthless and relentless, and has withstood the test of time for a reason.
The protagonist isn’t much of a classic hero. He’s weak, sickly, and morally ambiguous. Winston Smith is a news editor working within a system he loathes, but soon finds himself on his own as he slowly, dreadfully wakes to the dystopic reality of the world he lives in.
INGSOC is the textbook example of the all-powerful government party which controls all areas of human life. From news to social behavior, INGSOC demands total commitment to their way of existence, which excludes pleasure, education, and even sexual partners.
Winston begins to rebel in subtle ways, but of course INGSOC takes notice. INGSOC’s omnipotent control over its domain is flawless. Orwell left no chink in their armor, but rather crafted his tale to give Winston the cruel illusion of hope and a hint that he’d found a weakness in INGSOC’s schemes.
Winston learns his mistake the hard way, but even against the threat of total erasure from history, he still resists. He starts out as a nobody, but he dies a hero, fighting for the future.
When Society is Wrong
The modern classic, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, stars a repressed insomniac whose personality is such a blank slate he is never even named. Some critics simply call him “Joe”, as we will do here.
Joe works as an assessor for an automobile manufacturer, crisscrossing America but never making friends, investing his income in designer furnishings for a condo he never stays at. His inciting event—the shakes him out of his slumber—is the massive explosion of his condo.
Following this event, Joe begins to question his notions of living life according to what he perceives to be society’s standards. Then comes the facilitating character of Tyler Durden, a soap salesman. Durden offers to let Joe stay with him if Joe punches him as hard as possible. Joe’s willingness to comply and to fulfill Durden’s bizarre needs is the pivot on which the story turns:
If you've never been in a fight, you wonder. About getting hurt, about what you're capable of doing against another man. I was the first guy Tyler ever felt safe enough to ask, and we were both drunk in a bar where no one would care so Tyler said, "I want you to do me a favor. I want you to hit me as hard as you can."
I didn't want to, but Tyler explained it all, about not wanting to die without any scars, about being tired of watching only professionals fight, and wanting to know more about himself.
At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.
Durden is critical of consumerism, manliness, existence even. He’s an anarchist, a rebellious prankster who takes on odd jobs just so he can sabotage them. But he’s also undergoing a voyage of self-discovery, dragging Joe along for the ride.
But the reader senses a plot twist is coming, through subtle foreshadowing. Your own characters should always retain a sense of mystery, of withholding information from the reader. Even Joe, the narrator, is kept in the dark much of the time.
Soon, Durden develops his concept for illegal underground “fight clubs” staged in the basements of bars. Every participant is a volunteer; no one forces anyone to do anything. Society is being sucked into the world of Joe and Durden.
However, as Fight Club morphs into the apocalyptic “Project Mayhem,” intent on blowing up banks to instigate social chaos—the ultimate move against society—Joe realizes that in order to defeat society, he would have to destroy it. That far he is not willing to go, and so he sacrifices himself to fend off the deadly plan.
When your protagonist faces society, the odds appear overwhelming. Sometimes they truly are; other times, your hero will find a way to win. You can make the adversary as humble as a neighborhood’s rejection, or as epic as a dystopian world’s wrath. Don’t be afraid to put your protagonist through a trial by fire—changing Society itself is no easy job!