As I've mentioned in other posts, in storytelling, there are five kinds of conflicts:
Man vs. Man
Man vs. Self
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. God
(Okay, some sources say there are six, and include Man vs. Machine, but I usually don't see that on in the list)
Often when I hear these types of conflict brought up, I hear people say that Man vs. God isn't really used in storytelling anymore, and they kind of shrug their shoulder about it.
I believe that in reality, it's used more often than we realize and can be used in a story to good effect in several ways. Usually when I hear this conflict talked about, it's in reference to God as an actual person or in reference to Fate.
I'll admit that to begin with neither of these conflicts attracted me. A person going against God seems pretty similar to a Man vs. Man conflict--except one is more powerful, and in my mind, with my concept of God, God always won and so it was stupid to challenge him like that to begin with.
As for the concept of Fate . . . I feel like once you've read or seen one story that deals with Fate, you've read or seen them all. The protagonist is destined for a specific fate. He tries to do everything he can to change it, but it ends up happening anyway, or maybe it ends up happening as a literal consequence of him trying to evade it to begin with.
So for a while, I kind of shrugged my shoulder at a conflict against God too. It seemed kind of silly to me, and "outdated" like everyone said.
Somewhere along the journey I realized this conflict was so much more than that, and can be incorporated in so many different ways, of many (if not all) different belief systems.
Broadening Your Concept of God
Because I'm Christian, I have a Christian view of God. (Okay, some may debate that, since I'm a Mormon, but here is what it means to me.) To me, God is all-knowing, loving, and good. My personal concept of God isn't going to change. But not all concepts of God mean that. Go over to North Korea, and Kim II Sung is God, and Kim Jong II is the son of God. When I watched a documentary on North Korea I was flabbergasted at how blind people were to the fact that the reason they have such horrid living conditions is because of their leader. Instead, they prayed thanks to their leader when they got a medical issue fixed--that they wouldn't have had to begin with if they had decent nutrition and health care. Frankly, I'd be plenty understanding if someone was in conflict with North Korea's "God."
And of course, in ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was a god. So, as you can see, there are different concepts of God. Not all "gods" are good or all-knowing. Would you be comfortable with a Man vs. God conflict in a story where the concept of "God" is centered on an evil entity?
Not all gods are seen as the Absolute or all-knowing. Sometimes the concept of God is simply a supernatural entity that is more powerful than us, that is somehow our superior or ruler. Not every "God" is the embodiment of goodness and love.
In Mistborn, the main antagonist is an evil god. Naturally, nearly all the characters are atheist--they don't want to believe or worship a wicked entity. They want to destroy him. Some religious people might freeze up at the idea of reading a book where most the characters are atheist, but in a world where the only god they know is an evil ruler--well, let's just say if you were in similar circumstances, you might be atheist too (or maybe you are already atheist, if so, I'm just trying to get my point across).
There will be some people who think it is wrong to make any concept associated with the status or term "God" wrong or evil, but let's not forget, that at least for us Mormons, in the Pearl of Great Price, Satan outright proclaimed to be God and demanded that Moses bow down and worship him.
Is using an evil "God" in a story so different than this? What if people believed Satan was God? (To be honest, some people do.) Would you view their "God" as evil?
You may even believe that the concept of God is evil and destructive to humankind and our society. In order to believe this, you must have a somewhat different concept or definition of God than I do--even if we are both thinking of the Christian God--and whether or not you even believe in God. Your concept of what "God" means and is, is different than mine. Whatever the case, I think most all of us are united in fighting for right over wrong, what's good over what's bad, even if we have different perspectives. In this way, the religious aren't so different than those who believe no religion. Most of us are trying to promote or make way for what we believe to be good and thwart what we believe to be wrong.
The concept of God can be different than any of this we've talked about. Sometimes in some stories, God isn't a personage at all. Some gods aren't intelligent. Some are neither good nor bad, but just part of the law of the universe.
So when writing or reading, don't forget that your concept of God isn't necessarily the only concept societies have ever had. And just because someone thinks differently than you, doesn't mean they are attacking your beliefs.
So, with many of the versions of God I've talked about in this heading, you're looking at something that might be similar to a Man vs. Man conflict--it's just that one of the people is far more superior, powerful, or respected than an ordinary human being. But there are different Man vs. God conflicts.
God as a Power or Law in the Universe
As I mentioned, a concept of God might not be a personage at all, but a power or law of the universe--Fate is the famous example of this. But you can play with it in other ways too, like in magic systems. If it's strictly, irrevocably, clearly impossible to do something in your magic system, because it's seen as a universal law (example: Alchemy requires you give up something of equal value to get something else), and your character is fighting against that, it's not so different than fighting against Fate. Your character is in conflict against an irrevocable law of the universe. It might be considered God.
I don't see this one used very much, but I think it's important to include. Not everyone sees God as a person. In this scenario, the conflict may sound in some ways similar to a Man vs. Nature conflict.
A Personal Struggle with God
This is one that I feel like no one really explained to me. I would sit and look at the different conflicts and how to try to incorporate all of them in a story, and get to Man vs. God and think, "Yeah, this one doesn't work in today's stories." Thankfully I eventually realized pretty much all of us struggle with God in some way--even the most devout religious leaders. Even atheists.
A personal conflict with God doesn't necessarily mean that the character actually wants to defeat God, like the other conflicts I've talked about. It can mean that, but I think most of the time it doesn't. Here are some examples of personal conflicts with God.
- A character being attracted to and regularly repeating what her God considers a sin. The conflict comes from knowing what God wants her to do, knowing what's right, but struggling or even outright choosing to commit the sin anyway. Either out of weakness or just about any other reason.
- Being upset with something God has done to you. For example a mother is angry that God let her daughter die.
- Personally disagreeing (privately or publicly) with something God said. A common example today would be a Christian disagreeing with the idea that homosexuality is a sin.
- A shaken faith as to whether God even exists.
- A character feels that God wants him to do something that he doesn't want to do. For example, maybe God prompts him to be the leader of the country, and he doesn't want to be.
For some of the examples I mentioned above, again, the character's goal or the resolution of the conflict might not be to actually defeat God or win what they want, but to find peace or closure with God. For the resolution, the character must either find peace with God (maybe through understanding) or reject God (or at least that aspect of God).
All of these personal conflicts can be rendered in every way, from very strong and obvious and central to a story, to being very soft, suggestive, and implied in a story. They can run through the whole story, or be touched on in a single sentence. There is a whole spectrum of degrees and treatments. It's important to know what kind of story you are telling to gauge how to handle this particular conflict, if at all.
It's important to note that even the very religious and devoted saints have conflicts with God--even if it's only present internally. One of the phases of grieving, for example, often includes feeling anger toward God. Even the most religious are at odds with God's laws, somewhere. After all, we all have temptations--even if we chose not to commit that sin, we have that tension and conflict present in the moment. (It's also good to keep in mind that people don't actually like reading about someone who is perfect.)
The Conflict of God in a Society
Similar to and yet different from my first section, is a conflict of God that heavily includes a society. Maybe your character is trying to fight a concept of God that a society holds. North Korea believes their dictator is a God, but your character is trying to convince them he's not. Or maybe your character is trying to convince a devoted, God-fearing society that a church is false; she knows it's a facade for the leaders to gain power by way of loyal followers or to keep power by keeping others in ignorance. The truth is, every religion has something questionable in its history somewhere. To pretend the history of even Christianity has been perfectly clean is to choose to be blind.
How you ultimately address or handle such discrepancies in you work should likely reflect how you address or handle them, while still sincerely acknowledging other viewpoints. Too often I see these discrepancies lead to a sarcastic or cynical or anti-religious outcome. And while that happens in life, many religious people eventually find personal peace or ways of dealing with such discrepancies without abandoning their faith. And contrary to some popular beliefs, it's not because they choose to be blind or that they are unintelligent and ignorant. I'm getting so tired of seeing it rendered that way. Let's not over-generalize and be stupid. Smart and intelligent people are religious just as smart and intelligent people are atheists or agnostic or non-religious. On the flip side, I get tired of fiction that portrays religion as completely sound with no characters ever having doubts or facing uncomfortable truths or the true complexities of life--religious fiction that seems to over-simplify and sugar-coat life and people, while sometimes demonizing characters who believe differently, often portraying them as simple-minded or spiritually ignorant or "examples" to others.
It's not that either of these outcomes never happen or that these stories shouldn't exist--it's that the world needs more stories that deal with religion and spirituality and God in realistic and complex ways, or at least gives a nod to them. Too many stories completely axe the presence of religion and the belief in God when I feel like more should at least acknowledge them. Of course, not every book needs these ideas in it, not every book is about these things and including them in some stories would feel totally out of place. But there are too few books that do include them, and too many that ignore or overlook or dodge them when it would naturally come into play in a plot or a character's mind.
With God and society, remember that just because your character is in conflict with a God in society or a wicked church doesn't necessarily mean you don't believe there is a God or true church. If you are worried about it, often the easiest and best option is to include a religious or theist main character to balance it out. In Mistborn, Sazed is one of the only characters who does believe in God. The trilogy does an excellent (and realistic) job of including and exploring Sazed's thoughts and feelings and worries of religious discrepancies and life's complexities without turning him cynical or blind or sugar-coating things. He's intelligent and experiences hardships and even has his own faith-related arc, but he isn't used as an "example" and never treats his atheist companions poorly or with superiority. Brandon Sanderson isn't an author who dodges difficult questions when they would naturally come up and renders the ramifications realistically.
When dealing with religions, concepts, and belief systems you don't necessarily believe in, theme and tone can also go a long way to carry the message you do believe. This is another reason why we shouldn't be afraid to respectfully include characters and viewpoints who believe differently than we do when it serves to better the story. Similar to writing with the big and heavy topics (rape, murder, etc.), the trick isn't necessarily to turn a blind eye to it, but to turn the right eye to it. You could definitely write a story all about a good church and use tone and theme to carry the idea that there is no true church, just as you could write a story where all the characters are atheists and use tone and theme to project the idea that there is a God. It's all about how you handle the content. But whatever you choose, be wise.
God through Nature
Maybe you're seeing a pattern here, but I'm going through how the conflict of God works with the other conflicts as well. Gods have often been associated with having power over nature. Maybe it's a flood that washes people away, or a whale that eats you. Conflicts like these are often the result of a person or society going against God (becoming wicked), but that's not always the case. It could be God interfering in your character's affairs, or simply God doing His thing (it's time for it to rain over here). Maybe your character forgot to burn an offering to her God before setting sail and now finds herself in a storm--and she has to figure out how to appease her God quick (can she figure out how to burn an offering while on a ship in a storm?) Stuff like this can be fun to play with. For example, what if your character had a whole slew of gods she had to regularly show respect to? What would happen if she missed a ritual? What if one god needs her to do something that contradicts what another god wants? What if that god got her to do something that unknowingly weakened or harmed another god, and she was caught up in the affairs? What if a god is relying on her to get or do something?
Conflicts with God through nature can be a whole worldbuilding part of your book, or they may be as simple as one character saying, "There's a hurricane coming our way--what'd you do to anger the gods?"
Again, not every story needs a conflict with God. Honestly, it doesn't belong in some stories. But I do think we need more stories that do include them on some level. In the literary world, there is a continuing push to include characters of different ethnicities--great! But stories that even nod to religion seem to be few. I realize there are real reasons for this, but maybe it would be nice to have at least a few more stories that include these things? And even if you aren't about making a change in the world, consider the depth and power the Man vs. God conflict has in stories like Les Mis. Truly Les Mis wields more power by including it, in addition to all the other conflicts (Les Mis includes all five types).
You might find that a Man vs. God conflict might be exactly what your story needs. Don't be afraid to use it.