Every story is about conflict and that conflict comes from a villain. It’s easy to see that the villain might be a person such as the evil villain in every James Bond movie. However, villains come in three varieties:
- Man vs. man
- Man vs. nature
- Man vs. self
Man vs. man is the simplest conflict to understand because it pits a hero against a villain. In bad movies, that’s all you get: a saintly hero and a dastardly villain whose sole purpose in life is to do evil. Such melodramas might work for bad action films like any bad karate movie or “Die Hard” sequel, but it won’t work if you want to create a great story. That’s because you need more conflict than just a single villain blocking your hero’s path. That’s because one villain can’t constantly get in the way of the hero or else it becomes monotonous.
Rather than keep the villain constantly fighting the hero, it’s more realistic to make the hero constantly fight a variety of people who serve as substitute villains. Sometimes these henchmen work for the villain, such as the army of assassins working for the villain in a James Bond movie, who James Bond effortlessly mows down and avoids. In “Die Hard,” all the terrorists work for the main villain so rather than have the main villain constantly attack the hero, these henchmen do the dirty work instead.
Sometimes there might be unrelated people who try to stop the hero. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s first villain is the ex-boyfriend who dumps the hero instead of proposing. Then another person who opposes the hero is the ex-boyfriend’s new fiancé. Finally, the hero runs into a law professor who just wants to have sex with her. All three of these villains have their own reasons for opposing the hero but none of them actively coordinate with each other to oppose the hero, unlike the multiple henchmen under control of the villain in “Die Hard.”
Man vs. man is always interesting, but there’s also man vs. nature. That’s where the setting of the story works against the hero. In “Titanic,” the hero wants to avoid marrying a man she doesn’t love. She feels trapped into marrying him, so to emphasize her feeling of helplessness even more, she stuck on an ocean liner with him where she cannot escape.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero is on her way to a beauty pageant when the family’s bus nearly breaks down. Then the grandfather dies and his body gets stuck in a hospital that won’t let the family leave. Every setting works against the hero. Many screenwriters often ignore setting as a villain but if you include a setting that opposes the hero, it just makes the story stronger as a result because now the hero must overcome the setting as well.
Man vs. self is actually the most interesting and crucial conflict. The real villain is never another person. Instead, the real villain is always the hero himself (or herself). The hero must overcome doubt and fear. When the hero can overcome his or her own doubts and fears, then he or she can easily defeat another person.
When thinking about your story, always think of ways to increase conflict through other people (Man vs. man), setting (Man vs. nature), or within (Man vs. self). With three types of conflict constantly blocking the hero, your story will feel more vivid and challenging that will hold any audience’s attention.