Inventing Reality: A Guide to Writing Science Fiction

Man vs. society

Rather than take on another individual, the main character could find himself in conflict with an entire society. When the main character or small group of characters take on the greater culture – who usually are represented by a group of authority figures or “upstanding” citizens – the author is using a man vs. society conflict.

An example of this occurs in the “Star Trek: The Original Series” episode “The Apple”. When Captain Kirk and his landing party beam down to a planet with an ideal climate, they soon discover a machine mind controls the planet and that the natives worship this machine. Kirk sets out to destroy this machine, named Baal, after it attacks the Enterprise. The native aliens try to stop Kirk, however, and are disappointed when our mighty captain succeeds. Through the episode, Kirk and crew find themselves in conflict with the native’s society’s customs and beliefs.

Indeed, such a conflict is good way to show the illogic of a society’s values. The moral of “The Apple” is that intelligent beings need to be free, even if it means suffering (indeed, the planet’s inhabitants now will have to live in a harsh climate, break their backs farming by hand to feed themselves and suffer the psychological loss of faith in a god that provided for and cared for them). Of course, Baal is a false god, so a system in which intelligent beings worship and serve a false god is illogical.

Two problems can arise with man vs. society conflicts, however. First, when readers can focus on a specific individual as the antagonist, relating to and identifying with the main character can be easier. The challenge for the writer is to make the society a living being itself. Otherwise, the main character simply is defending himself against minor characters and obstacles throughout the story. Another problem is that often society is too monolithic for a single character to overcome. The story problem shouldn’t end with the collapse of society but instead the main character escaping it or achieving some success that creates a new hope for the culture’s eventual fall.
You Do It
Create notes about a society that for a character to oppose. What are the society’s prevailing beliefs, laws and mores? Why would this motivate the character to oppose it? In what ways would the society come into conflict with the character? What might the character do to sidestep or challenge these conflicts with society?