Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Conflict: Man vs. the Supernatural

I'm tempted to cancel today due to lack of interest or unforeseen circumstances. I had a very late night last night from going out for dessert with my ballet class -- after staying after ballet to take the jazz class. As a result, I'm tired and bleary-eyed and rather sore (my knees are really mad at me). And then when I got up this morning and went to wash my face, the handle of the bathroom sink faucet broke off in my hand. The plastic had just disintegrated. For the moment, I can still make it work, but it looks like I'll have to get a new faucet and then find a plumber to install it -- which will probably require clearing out the cabinet under the sink. I didn't need this. At least I don't have choir tonight, so I can relax this evening.

I've been talking about some of the forms of conflict in fiction. One of the kinds of conflict is man vs. god, and the reason I want to dig into this one is something one of my English teachers said when teaching this concept. She dismissed the "man vs. god" conflict as something you don't see anymore, that only happened in ancient mythology where the heroes interacted with gods. In the Judeo-Christian mindset, any conflict between man and God looks more like man vs. self because it mostly comes down to an internal struggle, since God doesn't usually fight back when man is angry at Him.

But as a fantasy reader, I thought she was wrong. The gods in mythology behaved a lot like people with superpowers. They had very human motivations like greed, lust and jealousy. But they were different from human characters in that they could do super-human things like change themselves or others into other things, fly, zap people, grant magical gifts, dematerialize and materialize, etc. And that sounded to me a lot like the characters in fantasy novels I read. They may not be called gods (though in some books they are), but they have a lot of the characteristics of the gods in Greek or Norse mythology.

I knew better than to argue with the teacher, but I mentally created my own category of man vs. the supernatural. There's a lot of overlap with man vs. man, since the supernatural characters do still have human motivations, if perhaps on a grander scale. There's just an added element because of that grander scale and because the supernatural character is a lot more difficult to fight. The supernatural abilities may make the character nearly impossible to defeat in a direct fight and may raise the risk level for the hero. I don't think all paranormal characters would fall into this category, though. Most vampires seem to me to fit more into man vs. man because although they have extra strength and are difficult to kill, they can't really do much more to ordinary humans than humans can do and it doesn't take special abilities or qualities to kill them. The supernatural element isn't really part of the conflict. I think that for a conflict to fall into the "man vs. supernatural" category, that supernatural element should be a part of the conflict, not just a complication.

One example that I think fits this is Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. This isn't just a wizard vs. wizard fight. Voldemort has used his powers to break off bits of his soul and implant them in objects, so he can't be completely killed until all of these are destroyed. That means that his physical body can be killed, but he can put himself into another body or create a new body. That's on top of the magical powers, ability to fly and ability to control or influence other people. The heart of the conflict between him and Harry is his desire to use his magical powers to take over the world and subjugate everyone who's non-magical, half-breed or not human. Sounds pretty god-like to me. Meanwhile, I think Harry could still be classified as a "man" rather than as a god because while he has magical powers, that's pretty much just a baseline in his world, and it's his human qualities he uses to fight Voldemort, not his magical powers. The central conflict in the Lord of the Rings is similar -- Sauron has given up his humanity for power, he has a great deal of control over others and has near omniscience, and he's trying to take over the world using his powers. Up against him is the very "human" Frodo, who doesn't really have anything going for him other than tenacity, the ability to mostly resist temptation and the loyalty of his friends.

Now that I think about it, I can't come up with an example of a fantasy story that I think falls into the "man vs. the supernatural" category where the hero doesn't prevail because of his human qualities rather than any magical powers (though that could just reflect my personal reading taste). It seems like the more powerful and non-human a villain becomes, so that he becomes invulnerable to magical attack, the more vulnerable he is to simple human things, so the hero's weakness becomes a great power. In fact, there's a lovely scene in A Wrinkle in Time that I used to read in prose interpretation competitions in high school that's exactly about that, quoting from First Corinthians: "For God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." This dynamic makes it possible to create a really powerful villain who's nearly impossible to defeat who can still lose.

No comments: