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Person Versus Society

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

For me, in many ways, person versus society is the scariest of the conflicts. Gods you are pretty much stuck, if they want to fight you it’s not going to work out. (IMO) Nature is hard to change, it's relentless and you will lose eventually. Everyone dies right? And conflicts with yourself and individual people are somehow more tractable. The scope is finite.

Person with crowbar versus Society

Person versus society is a story about how you don’t fit. Books which land into this group are classics like Lord of the Flies, or To Kill a Mockingbird. More recent stories are items like Divergent.


When you are building the scope of your conflict, remember how being annoyed actually works. It’s usually the small things which add up.

Imagine if you will, that you want to go food shopping tomorrow. You walk to the store. You go in the front door and a clerk greets you and says “Would you like to pledge 1 dollar to cause XYZ…” You say no. you go about your food shop, and you get to check out. The cashier asks, “Would you like to pledge 1 dollar to cause XYZ?” Again, you say no, and go on about your day. There is a light tension that society wants to have you do a thing, but maybe you don’t believe in the cause, maybe you just don’t have the money.

This keeps up for several weeks. Then you find that there is a toll at the front door, which says you must contribute 50 cents, or you are not allowed to shop here. You can’t easily get to another store, this one is closest, so you agree against your better judgement, and you shop. A few months later the cost has gone up to 2$. Then 5$. You try to find yourself another place to shop but you can’t. Everywhere else has already done the same and now you find yourself nested in a society that you do not agree with and can’t afford to fight.

This is a very small thing relative to how twisted society can get and serves as one example of how to show the conflict against the broader whole. Often the individual in the conflict has no recourse available to them. The tension is often built on the helplessness.

Being the minority in the story does not inherently make the character in the right. There are cases where the minority can be wrong as well. But as you consider how to craft person versus society plot think about what you don’t like. Start small and scratch at the itch. Grow the annoyance to show that small thing is just one symptom of a much larger issue that is systemic in the system. You can go down the rabbit hole here. Maybe the protagonist isn’t even right. They might perceive much greater faults that are being perpetrated against them.

How do laws work? How do relationships work? Where are you allowed to go? Who are you allowed to talk to? Who can you date? Where can you work? Specifically in America we tend to have a strong sense of freedom. When someone begins to limit these things, we get upset.

What about a clash of cultures? What if you have a culture that does not value those freedoms, and the character is thrust into it, from a society that used to? Or what if multiple characters are, structuring it as society versus society?

What if you could ask the question how far are people willing to go to fight an unjust society? If lies are ok is theft? If theft is ok, is murder? If murder is ok, is genocide? Person versus society is an excellent opportunity to make people feel helpless. Not just the characters, also the reader will feel helpless along with them. Just like other stories and conflicts we have discussed, the society based conflict does not need to take center stage. It can be used to play up a devious character. It could even be used to give an otherwise evil character an out. They are who and what they are because the society made them that way.

Go make your dystopia, your twisted high school, or your strange family unit. The size of the society doesn’t need to be everyone and the stakes don’t need to be everything. But make sure it’s a place your readers will be intensely annoyed to be thrust into.

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Anna Varlese
Anna Varlese
Jul 19, 2023
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.

But please don't overdo the annoyance. Without progress in resolution, a book that is frustration without overcoming or failing, becomes frustrating enough to stop reading, even for completionists like me.

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