Saturday, September 18, 2010

YA Work and the Big Bad

One of the basic elements of storytelling is conflict.  Most sources list between four and six main conflict types.

  • Man vs. Self--the identity crisis
  • Man vs. Man--"duke it out" (physically or otherwise)
  • Man vs. Society--the rebellion
  • Man vs. God/Fate--big-time underdog
  • Man vs. Nature--the disaster scenario
  • Man vs. Technology--"Good morning, Dave."

As I look at young adult novels (particularly the sci-fi/fantasy variety I'm so fond of), Man vs. Man is certainly common, as it seems to be across the spectrum of genres.  Harry Potter has Voldemort.  The Mortal Instruments has Valentine.  Twilight has an assortment of "non-vegetarian" vampires.  (What's with everything starting with V?)  Even The Hunger Games, which is more Man vs. Society, personifies society as a whole in a single antagonist, President Snow.

In general, there almost always seems to be a "bad guy."  That probably explains some feedback I got recently, suggesting I introduce a more significant antagonist sooner.  I'm still pondering it.

Does the YA formula require the presence of a Big Bad?  I conceived my story as a combination of Man (or in my case, Girl) vs. Self and vs. Society.  There are a couple of antagonists, but their role (in the first book, at least) is secondary to the main character's struggle with herself and the society she doesn't quite fit into.  Is this type of struggle enough?  I don't know yet.

I like to think that for teens in particular, Character vs. Self is something they can connect with.  After all, they're at that stage where we start to decide who we are--what we want to hold onto from our childhoods and how we want to expand into new things.

It seems to work for the teens I've had test-driving the story so far.  None of them have complained about the balance of internal and external conflict.  Perhaps that's all the answer I need.  Or then again, maybe I should be working to incorporate more external factors without losing the internal struggle.

Anyone have some good examples of YA books (particularly sci-fi or fantasy) with conflict that's less about fighting the embodiment of evil?  I'm sure I've read some, but I'm drawing blanks.  It would be interesting to look at how authors have successfully handled such a thing.


John said...

I find these conflict definitions largely a waste of time. In the end stories are a voyage of discovery, your characters grow as they kick against the universe, sometimes against themselves.

Such conflict might be against friends or the unfairness of the alarm clock. It's seems these lists are for the benefit of list makers and not for writers.


R.C. Lewis said...

You may be right, John. Actually, I never really thought about such things until recently. I vaguely remember discussing it in an English class once upon a time, but it's stayed locked in the filing cabinet except when my students needed help with their own English assignments.

I think I tend to think of stories being about "problems" more than "conflict." A problem presents itself, and the characters have to either solve it or find a way around it. Maybe it's semantics, but that's how my brain works.

Ted Cross said...

I have this problem with my book, where people think I am not bringing the antagonists into the picture soon enough. The problem is that I never saw the physical antagonists as being a part of the main story. To me the main story is the primary character's personal struggle between wanting to protect his sons versus needing to allow them to experience life.

AJ Leahy said...

I think the problem with Man vs. Self is that sometimes it's not obvious that he's the antagonist of his own story. For teenagers in particular, its the reaction to outside influences/encounters that create a side plot of Man vs. Self.

To put it another way, if your story is only Man vs. Self, the story could be written with him sitting in a chair the whole time... and that's not very interesting at all.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good questions. I think the line blurs often in books. Through the struggle against nature, society, others... there's always growth of self - or there should be in my opinion. :)

Watching characters grow is the best part of the journey!

TK Richardson said...

Jemi, took the words right out of my mouth. And I agree with John's comments, too.

Loved this post! :)

Jean said...

Recently someone introduced me to the idea of contagonist. This is someone in the book who isn't an antagonist, as they want the mc to get to their goal... but they either slow them down or think the mc should use a different method. I like to think of it as trying to get to work with a car pool buddy. They want to get to work too, but want you take a different route or to stop along the way to get coffee, etc. Maybe you could have some fun with a contagonist as well?

R.C. Lewis said...

Interesting concept, Jean. Half the time, I think my MC is her own contagonist. (I guess that's kind of Self vs. Self in that case.)

Glen said...

Conflict is in the eye of the beholder. I think our traditional definitions are simply a way to look at what has been written rather than a way of writing. All MC conflicts are going to be Man vs. Self, otherwise the character wouldn't have a problem or a purpose. Characters react because of conflict and act with a purpose (conflict or not).

And the other guy in the backseat who wants to stop for coffee would be the discontagonist? I think there is some room in the conversation for creative affixing.