Writing Excuses 7.13: Man Vs. Nature

It’s a “Howard is clueless” episode! One of us, we won’t name any names, didn’t take enough English classes to know the basic conflict archetypes — Man vs. Man, Man vs. Self, and Man vs. Nature. In this episode we focus on that third one.

One example of Man vs. Nature is Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey. Another is Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In both of these cases, while Man vs  Nature is the main plot, Man vs. Man sub-plots keep the story moving.

We talk about the strengths of this type of story, some of the pitfalls to avoid, lots of examples of the archetype, and then we focus on what you can do to tell this sort of story well.

New Word of the Week: “Stereotropical” – a mashup of “stereotypical” and “trope.” Use it when your meaning can’t possibly be confused with “tropical islands in stereo.”


“Jack Black stranded alone on an alien planet.” Your challenge? Make us like the main character and want him to live…

Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey, narrated by Dick Hill

46 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.13: Man Vs. Nature”

  1. In one of my fantasy novels, I weight Man vs Man evenly with Man vs self, although Man vs Nature still plays a pivotal role – though that decision wasn’t originally conscious. Do you find that greater books choose a single archetype, and focus on that, rather than trying to balance more than one? Or do you keep these tools in the back of your mind, and instead allow the plot, characters, and setting to take you on that ride, and make that decision for you? I am a Discovery writer, (which causes me to rewrite novels several times over), and often times, my characters and setting throw my original ideas out the window.

  2. I always feel like I am somehow cheating when I listen to this on Sunday night instead of on Monday…
    Great ‘cast!

  3. Yay: First post!
    Yay again: Dan mentioned my username’s world!

    Good cast, guys.

    Most things fit into Man vs Man, Man vs Self, and Man vs Nature, but there are a few that don’t (at least not exactly). Anyone want to go non-genera here?
    –Try Man vs Demon: no need to explain why your antagonist is so evil. Instead, you have to explain why it isn’t evil enough!
    –Man vs Nature & Man: there was a game where the theme was conquer nature so you can kill the only other sentient being in existence…
    And so on.

    Any comments?

  4. Man vs Demon is the same as Man vs Alien — it fits under Man vs Man. Basically, if the antagonist is an intelligent actor outside of self, it’s Man vs Man.

    The distinction you draw is a good one, even if it’s not quite worthy of being its own archetype.

    That second one, Man vs Nature & Man: same problem. If the opposing actor is intelligent, it’s just Man vs Man.

  5. If you strip a person and drop him anywhere in the world, he’ll be dead in ten minutes and arrested within eight.

  6. I’d love to hear a series of podcasts where you highlight must-reads for authors studying genres. For example:

    Reading List: Epic Fantasy
    Reading List: Heroic Fantasy
    Reading List: Military Science Fiction
    Read List: Young Adult Fantasy


  7. Jack London is a great example of Man v. Nature.

    BTW, Morgan Llywelyn did the “travel to a new world with new fauna” brilliantly. Forgot the name of the book though… I think it was The Elementals? She has some rich language… and plausible scenarios.

    Anyway, if you do that sort of thing, remember top things to eat: Meat, more meat, fish, more fish and seaweed. (only one species of seaweed is poisonous, but it isn’t fatal.) I love my anthropology for this sort of situation. ’cause it’s been shown that humans most likely traveled by following herds and also by traveling coastlines. It’s likely dogs were used to test plants… (small bites.) Any new plant would be dangerous, so I have a theory there was a lackey that nibbled and they saw if he was OK after the dogs. (Or the anthropology joke goes: Someone died.) And fresh running water upstream is your friend. (Downstream is disease.)

    If the fish have mercury–then meat cooked is your best bet.

    And Jack Black on an alien planet with just his guitar might be a funny movie. Convert the aliens to the ways of rock and roll. “Sing to the fishes and the deep blue sea…”

  8. Some weeks you guys really ought to call this “reading excuses.” Great podcast, and fantastic reading list!

  9. @Rachel

    Yeah, I thought it was required by law to mention “To Build a Fire” whenever discussing Man vs Nature.

  10. Why did you delet my Comment , just so Howard could say the same as I did? That just shows a weak character! For the future just say point and say that the other person is right and do not delete their work and say it is yours, what kind of person are you? You will probably delet this comment too, but I hope you read it and think about yourself as a human beeing. Do you think it is wise to do this? I am not going to insult you now, but I really would love too, I am just mad now. That is just not right, to do so.

  11. @Jim: I deleted your comment from the approval queue because it looked like you weren’t finished with it. Every so often someone tabs to the submit button and pushes up a half post accidentally. Your post ended mid-word, and didn’t have much punctuation in it. The spam trap flagged it as possible spam, so nobody saw it but you and (after I’d already written my own response) me.

    Rest assured, I’m not trying to steal your work.

  12. (Oh, and your two “weak character, not going to insult you” posts were ALSO in the spam-trap. I approved one of them, since they were basically identical.)

  13. @Sean
    In most cases, yes. But if it’s just about a girl who wants to have a zombie boyfriend and there’s no apocalypse involved, then it’s Man vs. Man. And if it’s about a half-zombie who is fighting himself against his brainitarian instincts, it’s Man vs. Self.

  14. There’s a lot of Man vs. Man in zombie fiction, which is true of a lot of things that are Man vs. Nature at the highest level. So, yeah. Man vs. Nature. :-)

  15. With recent news and all, I’m wondering where Man vs Society lives. For example, a story that explores concepts like racism, government oppression, or “the Internet” where there is not a differentiated antagonist like in Man vs. Man but instead “the system.” It feels like a Man vs. Nature type plot with “the mountain” replaced with “the system.” Thoughts?

  16. Caveat: I’m not the expert here.

    Important note: It’s more important to write what you want to write than to worry about archetype.

    With that out of the way, John, here are my thoughts:

    1) How is Man vs Society expressed? Is society a conscious player? Even if there are no named human antagonists, the “entities” of racism, oppression, or “the System” have to be expressed in some way. If people are the vehicles of expression (jack-booted thugs being oppressive, store clerks being racist, etc) then it’s difficult to differentiate from Man vs. Man.

    2) Then again, is it Man vs. Nature if a pack of wolves is behaving intelligently and hunting our protagonist? (Answer: by definition, yes) It may feel very much like Man vs. Man, especially if our protagonist recognizes one or more of the wolves from chase to chase. How is this different from Man vs. Man in an alien invasion story where the protagonist can’t speak to the aliens?

    3) How is conquest achieved? in Man vs. Nature it’s usually through survival, right? (I’m asking. I’m not that smart, remember?) In Man vs. Society I’d think your happiest ending would come through a change in society, and I doubt readers are going to buy into that sort of change without seeing the protagonist changing the hearts and minds of those in a position to spread the change further.

  17. @John regarding man vs “the system”. I can see it playing out as both a man vs man or a man vs nature story depending on how it’s portrayed. If the system is represented in the story as faceless bureaucracies with nameless clerks and cops then I’d label it man vs nature. If that “system” is represented by “Phil the evil overlord of the City Irrigation and Sanitation Dept who also happens to be the protagonist’s next door neighbor” then that would be a man vs man conflict.

    I’m so glad Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books came up. I always viewed them as great world building examples. Thanks to this podcast, now I can see how they also highlight man vs nature style storytelling. She died late last year (11/21/2011) and I wonder if that was an influence in her name coming up in this podcast. How far ahead are you guys in your recording vs airing?

    Listening to this, reminded me of a story one of my elementary school teachers read to us called, The Island Of The Blue Dolphins. It was mostly the story of a young girl surviving alone on an island after all the rest of her people were taken as slaves by another people. Lots of how to make your own shelter and tools and not starve to death. I wonder if its still as good as I remember it? I might have to reread it.

  18. I love the movie Babe (you know, the one with the pig). The author, Dick King-Smith, wrote another pig book I adore, Pigs Might Fly. I was reading it to my daughter a few months ago and wondering how it could be made into a successful movie. Babe worked largely due to James Cromwell. But Pigs Might Fly doesn’t have a sympathetic human character: instead, it has a fat, boorish pigkeeper.

    The second half of the novel turns into a Man vs. Nature plot, when there’s a huge flood. The pigkeeper manages to become interesting as he does everything he can to save his herd of pigs from the flood and keep them fed. And I couldn’t help but think of Jack Black in the role (months ago!). A lot of it would be played as low comedy, knowing Hollywood, but I actually think it would work. It would be very hard to be as successful as Babe, but it would be an entertaining movie. I’d watch it.

  19. A big YES to “Island of the Blue Dolphins” – one of my childhood faves, and one I made sure to buy as an adult. There was even a decent movie made of it, as I recall. (Darn, now I have to go spend money on Amazon to find it.)

    Another that starts out as Man vs. Nature is Terry Pratchett’s “Nation” – though it adds Man vs. Man and Man vs. Self as it goes, but that’s not unsual for Man vs. Nature stories, if it’s a natural disaster that affects a lot of people. Most Man v. Nature stories will have Man vs. Self aspect in there, at the very least.

  20. Great discussion. Anyone seen the recent movie The Grey starring Liam Neeson? Although a large portion of the film appears to be Man vs Nature, I think the central conflict is Man vs Self. Anyway, I thought I’d recommend it.

    Once again, I’m hearing audio problems. This week it’s Howard’s audiotrack.

  21. I have never really felt that the three man vs archetypes are truly different types of conflict. They are three categories that cause conflict, but give no input into what the conflict actually is. A man who loses a child and spends the rest of his life fighting against whatever force took the child away from him could have the same plot and (very nearly) themes, whether the force was another person, himself, or nature. The child example may lend itself to being classified as man vs man, but my point is that different affects of conflict do not have as much classification as the things that cause conflict.

  22. Making Jack Black likable? You guys sure don’t give out assignments that are easy… or that can even be considered theoretically possible, in this case.

  23. @John Miller:

    Classic Man v. Society stories: 1984, Animal Farm (if taken on the larger scale), Has to be said: Solent Green (It’s PEEEEOOOPPPLLLLLEEEE!), Planet of the Apes, Fahrenheit 451, Pod People, The Fugitive. And though, I personally don’t like it, Atlas Shrugged, etc. Anyway, popular in Sci-fi, Literary, a little in Fantasy–though not as much. Sometimes in Mystery and Suspense, though it has to be mixed up away from the lone fugitive…

    Most of the time in the market, this is popular when people are optimistic about social change and wish for the society, as a whole, to move towards an ideal. (i.e. not after large disasters.) So it is popular when society is asking, “Where should we put our future?” or the ominous “This could be our future.”

    It works because you have an underdog you know has impossible odds, but despite that, is trying to make a change, often through peaceful means. The lone character, therefore, has to be really likable–not Mary Sue, but likable on the relate-able side–the average joe. The average joe works better than the rich millionaire because it allows the reader to say, “Ah, that could be me–yes, I would fight for that change.” That’s why we like people such as Martin Luther King over someone like Malcolm X. Martin Luther King’s message of non-violence to make change seems *harder* to the average person.

    This also further usually breaks down into utopian and dystopian (or fake Utopian). There are exceptions, but since we are talking about society, then the setting is important. And because of that, these stories can risk too moralistic or heavy-handed with the preaching–which means to remember to look back at your fundamentals again–character setting and conflict, rather than what you want to say, explore questions you aren’t sure of given the situation, and the story gets better.

    Yeah, I know… it is really not popular in the writing community to break down story types this way. ^^;; But I don’t think art has to be an all mysterious thing where you go, “Read a book, then you’ll understand.” or “Have a friend help you.” I believe in techniques… like my art classes taught me. You don’t have to use them, but they are there if you do and there are different ways to get to the same solution.

    Anyway, hope that helps–the list should have a variety of genres and if you haven’t watched some of those classic movies–you should. Movies are a source of stories too.

  24. Mary, I loved what you said about using plot to highlight character. I’ve been slowly realizing this, but you worded it just perfectly! Thank you all for this podcast. It was awesomely helpful.

    Two questions unrelated to this episode: Do you have a list of all your Audible recommendations somewhere? If you don’t, do you want me to write one up for you?

  25. Sariah – I’ve been working on a full bibliography of the books mentioned on WE. It doesn’t have the Audible recommendations separated or highlighted in any way, but it probably wouldn’t be too much work to break those out, somehow. Do you want the link?

  26. Sariah- If you go to the archive, the audible recommendation is listed right underneath the episode title next to the writing prompt.

  27. I’ve just finished a great fantasy with Man Vs. Nature. “The Thirteenth Child,” by Patricia C. Wrede, is a kind of fantasy-western setting where settlers are having a hard time because of the dangerous non-magical (mammoths, saber cats) and magical (steam dragons, swarming weasels) critters out west. In the second book, the MC pretty much becomes a naturalist, trying to catalog/understand what’s going on. Lots of fun. :)

  28. One of the best villains is the one in G Senjou no Maou. The way it intertwines between the story of the main character and the central plot device, is as close to perfect as I could imagine.

    What I found interesting about the villain is that he had a lot of ambition, a lot of understandable reasons for getting back at people like the Count of Monte Cristo, but he wastes that ambition on evil. Someone just like him, makes different choices. And this comparison between one man that makes good out of bad things and another man that makes evil things out of bad things, is a great way to tell a story. They told it exceedingly well.

    Most villains, even the complicated ones, made in American media have yet to come close. I’m not including every villain, just the most recent, modern ,ones.

    Japanese media often likes converting villains to allies, but G Senjou no Maou doesn’t take that trope. This villain is irredeemable. And this is pounded into the reader by the end of the story.

    I suppose the general description is that this story is about a revenge story. But 3 revenge stories in one. It’s definitely a Man vs Man theme. Or rather Man vs Human Nature, where human nature is just as destructive as mother nature.

  29. Thanks for this podcast, it was exactly what I needed! Really opened my eyes to a couple of stories I’m writing that have a man vs. nature element that I wasn’t really thinking of as such. In high school they gave us “Das Boot” as the prototypical man vs. nature story, and I haven’t ever really been able to see past that example, I guess.

    I’m glad you guys drew so many examples from the Spielberg War of the Worlds. I know that was a terrible movie, but I really enjoyed it, precisely because the antagonist was SO terrifying and SO implacable.

    My mind just wandered of a couple of counterexamples…Portal I and the Hunger Games. In these stories most of the “danger” comes in the form of the environment (fiendish puzzles, pools of acid, swarms of tracker jackers, whatever) but I think they are not man vs. nature because the environment is controlled by a conscious being who is evil and out to get you. Perhaps the definition of man vs. nature is that nature just doesn’t care about the conflict at all; nature is doing what it’s doing, and doesn’t “think” of the protagonist as an opponent or even a victim. There’s no moral victory in conquering nature.

  30. Dragonflight is the book that got me into writing. Sadly, I at first wrote very HEAVILY based on Anne’s world….but that got better after about ten rewrites (and I’m still rewriting) but I still love to go back and read it for the deep interpersonal connection in the face of natural disaster.

  31. I’ve always preferred the terminology man/person vs environment or, better yet, vs setting. Nature, and to a lesser-but-still-significant extent, environment, have very strong connotations connecting them to the wildlife aspect of the concept. Because of this, it gives rise to the fallacy about the man vs society being necessary. Books like 1984 have a great deal of conflict against humanity, but it’s humanity as an omnipresent force – society at large – not against any specific person. (And no, Big Brother is not a person, so it’s not a struggle against him.) And, as you’re saying, it’s not really a fight to overthrow the society in question, it’s a struggle to survive and maintain their individuality. (I really wish we had a better book to draw on, but I’ve never read Farenheit 451 or any of the other ones that actually have semi-believable dystopias – see Asimov’s review of 1984 if you want to know exactly what’s wrong with the book).

    I know it’s semantics, but sometimes semantics are important.

    Also, I seem to recall playing a game not too long ago that fits your writing prompt. It’s called Brutal Legend. And I liked Jack Black’s character in that mainly because the entire game was so ridiculously over the top that it couldn’t not be hilarious, despite its plot actually being pretty dark (though admittedly largely unoriginal).

  32. @Rashkavar

    Asimov’s review of 1984 (pub 1949), was written in 1980. His main “criticism”, if I can dignify it with that word, is that it failed to predict the next 30 years of technological progress, and was a very close allegory of Soviet tyranny, rather than changing things around more. To those who have not read Mr Asimov’s review: don’t bother.

  33. How about the archetype, Man vs Computer — Begins as man vs nature; Ends as man vs self, ultimate chaos, PTSD and insanity. “… shallow draughts [may] intoxicate the brain…” But “drinking largely” cannot sober it again when reality disappears. Ends in blue screen of death.

  34. The genre novel that I remember from this archetype was “Invitation to the Game” where after several rather surreal virtual reality tours of an alien planet, the main characters are shipped there, in a governmental attempt to humanely depopulate earth. The kinda cool part is that when they actually arrive, they still think they’re playing a virtual reality game.

Comments are closed.