Friday, February 24

You Can Fight Mama Nature: What to do When Your Antagonist is Nature Herself

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The last few weeks we've been discussion the four basic types of conflict. (man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. society) Today, let's wrap it up with man vs. nature.

The easiest example of this is a traditional disaster movie like Volcano. Unbeknownst to the sleepy little town of Los Angeles, an active volcano is about to rise in the La Brea Tar Pits. The hero, Mike Roark (played by the always awesome Tommy Lee Jones) is the city's director of city management and it's his job to handle all city-related crises. What starts off as a basic small earthquake turns into a major event that puts the entire city at risk. To save lives, Mike and his thrown-together-by-chance geologist partner, Dr. Amy Barnes, (the also delightful Anne Heche) have to deal with the volcano and the repercussions of its sudden emergence.

What makes this such a great example is that it covers all the elements of a man vs. nature movie.

The man vs. the nature part 

Mike vs. the Volcano. The hero faces off against a problem that isn't a person doing something. (Though in these types of stories, someone often is responsible for triggering the natural disaster inadvertently, like in The Core, or even putting themselves at risk as in The Perfect Storm). Nature is the problem and it doesn't care one whit about what it's going to destroy. It can be a big disaster like a volcano or hurricane, or something smaller and less aggressive, like a boy trying to reach the top of Mount Everest (as in Roland Smith's Peak). The hero is facing off against Mother Nature in some way.

The personal stories part 

If the "bad guy" is large scale, you'll usually get to see several of the lives that will be affected by it. So many disaster stories start with the everyday lives of the characters involved, making you care about them so when things start going horribly wrong, you really feel for them. Even if the story is more personal, a one-on-one tale, you often "meet" other people through memories or flashbacks, because these are the people the hero is trying to save or get back to.

In Volcano, you meet the lead guy of the city works crew who later sacrifices himself to save a subway driver. The ER doc who's married to the rich developer who indirectly plays a key role in the climax. The geologist's scientist partner who's funny and fun and whose story doesn't end well. There's Mike's second in command, who jokes about stealing his job the whole time--until it gets serious and Mike's life is in danger. And for that extra special touch, Mike's teenage daughter just happens to be visiting this week, so he has the added stress of protecting his child.

What makes these stories work so well here is that they intertwine beautifully. Even if at first you don't know why you're following this particular character. Their roles all fit together by the end to help form the solution to dealing with the volcano.

For me, this is one of the most appealing parts of this type of conflict. You meet and grow to love a series of characters, knowing not all of them are going to survive. (They never do). It really keeps the tension high.

The ever escalating stakes part 

Just like a storm, men vs. nature conflicts tend to start out soft and build. It's probably the most obvious example of the traditional goal-problem-disaster structure there is. The hero acts to stop the disaster, it fails, things get worse and he has to try something else. This keeps happening until his back is to the wall, lives are at stake, and he has to do something crazy to win. And then you hit them with a major "oh no" moment.

In Volcano, Mike has a background in handling floods, so he tries flood control measures to dam the flow of lava. It fails. But then Amy realizes the lava is flowing right into neighborhoods and families. So they try collapsing the street to send the lava into the storm canals. It fails. And then they realize the lava is headed right for the over-packed hospital they've been sending victims too all day (and where that nice ER doc happens to work). So Mike tries something wild and saves the day. (I won't give it all away, but let's just say it uses his flood control skills again) But just as he's about to do it, he sees his daughter caught up in the middle of it.

In man vs. nature, things keep getting worse, wearing the hero down and sapping all their physical and emotional strength. In order for them to win, you first need to rob them of as much as possible. (Without getting melodramatic of course)

The "it's always something" part 

Even though there's this horrible event happening, other issues are still going on that illustrate that this isn't just about the hero and the nature. You often get to see examples of how this is also affecting everyone else; usually using those characters you meet in the first and even second acts. Yes, a volcano is raining lava and ash all over LA, but it's also setting fire to people's homes, sending lava down subway tubes, and putting other folks in danger at the same time. In a quieter story, it might be getting colder, or the hero is losing blood or succumbing to an injury.

And the key element...

The survival part 

Surviving the event is always at the center of a man vs. nature story. Survival can be literal, as in a disaster movie, or it can be thematic as in The Old Man and the Sea. The Old Man can simply cut the marlin free and head home, but bringing that fish home and not giving in is the whole point. It's all about the hero digging deep and finding that part they didn't know they had to overcome what's in front of them.

This is what makes these types of conflicts so compelling. It's not about being smarter than the bad guy, or out maneuvering the villain; it's about finding the strength within yourself to overcome the threat/event/situation you find yourself in. It's personal perseverance. It's the ultimate underdog story in a way. The "nature" is going to run its course, but how you handle this is what really matters.

Do you have any man vs. nature stories or conflicts in the works? What are some of your favorites?


  1. As a child, I was fascinated by the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Their family faced all sorts of difficulties from crossing a river to lasting through the long winter.

    In my current WIP I have a huge mountain chain between the heroine and her goal. Crossing it is her physical challenge that also brings out her true feelings and desires.

    Another story that I've sketched out and is next on my list has a river dividing the hero and heroine. Finding ways across so they can meet and remaining undetected by their antagonists is a challenge throughout the story.

  2. I know a lot of people didn't like Volcano, but I did. (If that scene with the firefighter and train doesn't rip your heart out through your throat, you may not actually be human.)

    For myself, I've got a scene dealing with what happens after a huge swatch of land has been clear-cut and burned, with that state being maintained for decades, allowing higher than usual winds to develop without break. The MC has to cross what's supposed to be a dead zone, and no one knows these winds are out there.

  3. Good information! I've always enjoyed man vs. nature novels. Nature is a whole new way of looking at an antagonist. Some day I will try to write a man vs. nature novel. I will keep this blog post handy.

  4. Thank you for posting this thought-provoking article! Around here, the film that comes to mind is "The River," with the water and bad guys sharing protagonist billing.

    I'm patching up a novella now, with the protagonist a figurative one, growth, represented by a wolf that haunts places where characters "disappear."

  5. I love stories like this where it's bigger than people!

  6. The hardest type of story, I think, to write is Man vs. Nature. But they make for compelling stories.

  7. Amelia, I love stories like that. Sounds like some fun nature problems to throw at your protag.

    Josin, I know, it was just a fun movie overall. Oo fun. Unexpected trouble that can't be solved, just endured.

    Haley, thanks!

    Mary, great example (and movie). Oo creepy symbolic wolves. sounds like fun!

    Julie, me too. I think that's why I love disaster movies so much. Here's a horrible situation let's see what these people do?

    Traci, they do indeed.

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