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What Is a Character vs. Society Conflict?
A character vs. society conflict is an external conflict that occurs in literature when the protagonist is placed in opposition with society, the government, or a cultural tradition or societal norm of some kind. Characters may be motivated to take action against their society by a need to survive, a moral sense of right and wrong, or a desire for happiness, freedom, justice, or love. A character vs. society conflict can appear in any kind of fiction, from novels and short stories to films and television shows.
Examples of Character vs. Society Conflict in Literature
Many literary works will feature more than one type of conflict. Layering conflicts adds nuance to a story and is a more realistic way to depict human beings, who are inherently flawed and complex. A character facing a man vs. man conflict, for example, will likely also be grappling with a man vs. self-conflict as she examines her own motivations and needs.
Here are some popular works of literature that feature prominent character vs. society conflicts.
- Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird. In this 1960 American classic, small-town lawyer Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in a small Alabama town. Finch faces immense criticism for representing Tom Robinson, even though he makes a strong case for the man’s innocence. Lee’s novel is famous for tackling race issues in America during a contentious time. Finch is known today as a moral hero for withstanding the pressure of a racist society and standing up to defend a wrongly accused man.
- Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid’s Tale. In A Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood imagines a future America as a fundamentalist society called Gilead, in which certain women who have the now-rare ability to have children are deemed “handmaids,” and are allocated to upper-class families as reproductive slaves. All citizens’ rights are suspended, and women, in particular, do not have the right to read, write, or handle money. Atwood’s chilling tale is a good example of a character vs. society conflict. The stakes are high for Offred, the novel’s main character, and others who participate in the resistance. Getting caught would mean banishment, rape, or death; but the characters are driven by the desperation to resist. Many works of speculative fiction, like this one, feature character vs. society conflicts that are inspired by a heightened version of the real world.
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare’s classic, the titular couple is forbidden to marry because they come from two warring families. The thought of their union drives their families to violence. However, their youthful passion brings them together. Romeo and Juliet both struggle with character vs. society conflicts, as each tries to understand why their families are enemies and why they cannot be accepted. Additionally, Shakespeare focuses on the concept of destiny, bringing in the character vs. fate conflict.
How to Use Character vs. Society Conflict in 4 Steps
In a character vs. society conflict, your main character will go against the expected behaviors and mores of his or her community. Follow these steps to develop a multi-layered conflict.
- Determine the expectations your character will violate. What are the particular cultural norms, values, or behavioral expectations that your character will violate?
- Explore your characters values. Why is it that the character chooses to go against the grain? What circumstances, if any, would cause them to give up and fall back into what is expected of them? Even if these scenarios do not pop up in your story, you need to have a full understanding of your character’s willingness to go against social or behavioral expectations.
- Use your character’s conflict to move your plot forward. Escalate the conflict with increasingly high stakes, testing your character’s commitment to the value that you’ve identified, and showing the reader the strain they are under. This kind of tension is what keeps the plot moving forward, and keeps the reader interested in what will happen next.
- Layer on another type of conflict. Depending in your story, you may want to combine the character vs. society conflict with an internal, man versus man conflict. These two pair well together: the character struggling against society will likely also be undergoing internal turmoil, negotiating with himself whether he is up to the task of being a nonconformist. This internal struggle can reveal even more to your reader about your character’s values.
Learn more about character vs. society conflict from Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, in her MasterClass on creative writing.