Conflict and You! A Primer

We keep talking about how conflict is what makes a story interesting.

That’s not completely true, I think. If you have a character people genuinely like (or dislike, for that matter) people will watch that character in action. But oftentimes as we watch the character, it’s because the character is DOING SOMETHING, usually something that they could fail at. Well, if they could fail at it, that creates tension: Will she or won’t she? And, my friends, is a type of conflict.

So: WTF is conflict?

Oh, man, don’t get me started. Okay, ready? This is an actual definition of conflict written by an expert in the field:

“Expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards and interference from the other party in achieving their goals.”

Man, I don’t want to spend a year unpacking that mess, but some of it is important. The parties have to be interdependent or one could just walk away. Their goals are typically incompatible because they both want the same thing, at least narratively, and only one of them can have it.

From the standpoint of story it doesn’t matter but in the real world it’s important to realize that conflict is a perception: people are in conflict if they THINK they are in conflict, even if they really aren’t. Characters typically don’t do that, and I’ll tell you why: if the audience knows the characters aren’t really in conflict the characters look stupid, and if the audience doesn’t know until it’s revealed at the end the audience feels cheated. (And if the audience never learns that the conflict was false, then for them it wasn’t false. Duh.)

So where does conflict come from?

If you hang out with writers on the Internet…and I do…birds of a feather, eh wot?…They’ll be glad to tell you that conflict comes from three sources:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Self

Of course, the term “Man” is sexist, and should include protagonists and antagonists of all genders and species. I mean, how many times does Ryuko Matoi fight Nui Harimi? Not only is that Woman vs. Woman, but given their extra-terrestrial origins…meh. You figure it out.

Ryuko and Nui

Ryuko Matoi (left) and Nui Harime: “Man vs. Man Conflict” Wait, that’s not how it’s supposed to work, ladies!

But those are the basic sets of “interdependent parties.”

Sometimes, particularly when you’re talking about Man vs. Nature, the interdependence is only partial. Mount Everest doesn’t give a rat’s ass if you are trying to climb it; it’s going to just keep sitting there like it always has. But to climb Everest YOU need Everest!

In anime Man vs. Nature is something you don’t seem much of. It’s something you see less of generally, because of the asymmetry of the interdependence: if Everest doesn’t care, why should we?

But consider particular stories whose meta-plot is The Quest. I’m thinking specifically of Girls’ Last Tour. Chi and Yuu are fleeing an existential threat that is killing the rest of humanity. But that environment is hostile to them: they have to find food and water, navigate a frozen landscape, maneuver through things they could fall off of or have fall on them, and so on. The environment is a source of tension for them.

Chi and Fuu

Chi (left) and Yuu: “Man” vs. Nature

Ideally there are multiple sources of conflict in an anime series because of the length of the “text,” to use a literary term. They show has to go on for whatever the length of the series is. I mean, you guys know this better than I do: roughly 12 and roughly 24 are typical lengths while all three FLCL’s were only six and Pokemon is like 7,486,702. But twelve episodes is a long time for someone to be saying, “Boy, this mountain is cold;” different sources of conflict allow variety in conflict resolution.

Sometimes the basic conflict is easy to figure out. In Outlaw Star Gene, Jim, and Melfina need to find the galactic leylines, and so do the MacDougalls. Poof. Man vs. Man (or People vs. Jerks, if you prefer).

Sometimes the basic conflict is disguised or hidden. I’ve mentioned how Cowboy Bebop is secretly a Tragedy, that what Spike seeks is his freedom from the gang life but at the end it sucks him back in and kills him. Although he has a human antagonist in Vicious, the conflict is actually Man vs. Self: if Spike decides that he doesn’t have to save the old gang he’s trying to escape, if he throws his own sense of honor aside, then he doesn’t have to fight Vicious.

As always a neat example is Black Lagoon. It LOOKS like Man vs. Man, specifically Rock vs. Revy. But Rock and Revy aren’t really in conflict because they aren’t vying for anything in common. So far as I can figure out Revy has a bug up her butt about Rock for no reason at all (although later in the series it’s because she’s worried about him).

In fact, the basic story is Rebirth, Rock’s development from salaryman to hoodlum. That’s an internal change and suggests a Man vs. Self conflict. But we never really see that, either, except once or twice, as when he is trying to decide whether to visit his parents.

What’s cool about Black Lagoon is that the conflict is really Man vs. Nature. Rock lives in Roanapur, a gang-filled city where he could get his throat cut from just walking around the wrong corner. We THINK of that as Man vs. Man: Sawyer the Cleaner and Shenhua and Roberta are humans, of course, but in Roanapur they are just part of the background noise, part of the environment. If it wasn’t those specific people, it would be someone else. That’s the nature of Roanapur. Roanapur doesn’t give a rat’s ass if Rock is trying to make it; it’s going to just keep rotting there like it always has. But to make it in Roanapur Rock needs Roanapur! Boom! That’s Man vs. Nature.


Sawyer the Cleaner: A Force of Nature

If you have the impression I like the way Rei Hiroe writes, got it in one.

But if you want to see all three sources of conflict in action, give Black Lagoon another run-through.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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