A character vs society conflict sounds a bit of a mouthful, but it’s not really. It’s basically when one or more people in the story rebel against the expected behaviours or laws of society, a particular community mindset, or even a tyrannical government.
These stories could feature a lawyer being criticised for representing a murderer or taking on an issue deemed contentious, a Big Brother style authority that seeks to control and manipulate, or the forbidden love between two members of opposing families or kingdoms.
Character vs society stories are often very captivating and really resonate with readers because of their engaging and thought-provoking narratives. They might challenge the reader to look at their complicity in similar situations or how they might act if faced with the same world of the story. In this way, readers can all be inspired to change their thoughts, values or views and thus change the world.
That sounds exciting, so let’s take a deep dive to find out more.
Definition of the character vs society conflict
Conflict is really important in a story. It builds drama and keeps the reader engaged throughout the plot with the details of some kind of clash, debate, or internal struggle the main protagonist engages in.
In a plot with a character vs society conflict, the conflict occurs when one or more of the characters’ beliefs or actions clash with the laws of society, a community, government, cultural tradition, or something similar. Racism, oppression of women, class differences, social change, a kind of injustice or abuse of power are all common themes in these stories.
Often the main character(s) is altruistic or idealistic and wants to correct a wrong. These strong convictions are often what create the conflict.
Examples of this conflict in classic and contemporary literature
There are some wonderful examples of character vs society conflict in literature, and they are not just limited to dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984, which is oft-cited example. Here are a few others.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
This 1960 American classic picks up themes of racism and abuse of power when a Black man is wrongly accused of raping a White girl in a town in Alabama. The character vs society conflict occurs when lawyer Atticus Finch agrees to represent him, and is strongly criticised for doing so within the racist culture of the time.
Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)
The forbidden love of a young couple from two warring families provides the classic character vs society conflict in this famous tale. The couple struggle to understand why their families are enemies and if their love can ever be accepted. The fateful consequences of their actions are well known to all.
Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
This dystopian classic takes place in the future where books are banned and firemen burn down any that are found, along with the homes they are found in. Montag is one of these firemen who never questions this practice until his neighbour Clarisse introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and he begins to question everything.
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
A young adult dystopian novel set in a post-apocalyptic part of North America, where an advanced metropolis controls the rest of the nation. In this world, the annual Hunger Games takes place each year in which a boy and girl from each of the districts is chosen to take part in a televised battle to the death.
How do the character’s beliefs, values, and actions clash with societal norms and expectations?
It’s always important to provide your reader with a reason that your character is driven by the values they have that create the conflict. Perhaps their backstory, experiences, or circumstances have formed their beliefs and drive their actions. There must be a clear understanding of why they are willing to put it on the line in the way they do.
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Consequences and outcomes in character vs society conflict
Increasing the stakes is important in any story, but particularly in these kinds of stories. Testing the character’s commitment to the course they have chosen will engage readers and keep them interested. Will the protagonist flinch? Will they succumb to the forces around them, or the pressure exerted to get them to toe the line? The consequences of failing to do so should form part of that tension. Is death, banishment, loss of a job or even love on the cards should they fail? Is there any good outcome in the path the character has taken? These are all excellent ways a writer can delve further into the issues at play.
Different authors and genres in character vs society conflict
Almost every genre can use character vs society conflict in their stories, from young adult to romance or science fiction. While each is an individual story with particular circumstances, the approach by authors is fairly similar. Here is a rough guide:
Decide what the conflict will be: What “norms” is the character going to violate?
Add some common themes: The oppression of women, racism, abuse of power, need for acceptance, social change, power of knowledge, traditional vs modern and class differences are all common themes that can be explored to advance this conflict.
What are the character’s values: What drives the protagonist and makes them choose this course of conflict?
Develop the conflict: As the plot progresses, so should the stakes that will test the character’s commitment to their cause.
Layer on the conflict: There are other conflicts against the self, character, nature, the supernatural, and technology that can be combined with that versus society. Layering in additional areas of conflict can continue to up the stakes.
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Character development and plot progression
The protagonist and their individual beliefs are central to the story. These unique values must be things that the reader can connect with so the character is relatable and believable, even if it is what puts them in conflict with society. It might be a sense of injustice, desire for the truth, need to effect a change in a particular situation, or simply to find love. Even if the individual circumstances differ from what a reader has experienced, these universal themes do not,
As the protagonist deals with the conflict and the stakes rise, not only will the plot progress, but they will likely undergo some change or growth. This could be a better understanding of their world, or even a change in their core values or beliefs. This will give them a solid character arc to round out who they are but also make them believable and dynamic.