The “man vs man” motif in literature is a type of central conflict in which two or more characters have opposing goals, views, beliefs, or values that pose an obstacle to the other character/s.
This type of storyline is often portrayed as a clash of interests, personalities, or opinions due to differences in social status, cultural backgrounds, or personal philosophies/ideologies.
The central focus of the story revolves around this tension created by arguments, confrontations, and fights, but often concludes with some resolution that resolves tensions. This resolution may be through the characters working through misunderstandings from both sides to efficiently resolve tensions, the protagonist accepting their shortcomings, or (often) the triumph of one character over another in an epic duel.
Man vs Man Conflict in Literature (Explained)
There are several common themes that appear in the “man vs man” motif, which recur in classic books and films throughout the ages.
Use the following themes as stimuli for thinking about your own man vs man narrative.
- Power struggles – In many instances, conflicts arise due to issues of power. For example, one person or group desires control over another, leading the other to fight back against injustice.
- Oppressive authority figures – Often, this is where the man vs man conflict overlaps with man vs society. Here, characters facing oppression from authority figures (such as an authoritarian regime) undertake resistance to achieve liberty.
- Revenge – A protagonist feels as if they have been personally wronged by another character and vows revenge, setting up a complication that needs to be resolved when the two finally come face-to-face.
- Love triangles – Two characters find themselves in love with the same person, leading to an unwanted rivalry driven by jealousy of one another and the desire to win the heart of the person they both love.
Man vs Man Conflict Examples
1. “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling
In the “Harry Potter” series, Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort represent a classic man vs man conflict.
Harry is the protagonist, who demonstrates courage and selflessness in his stand for justice against Voldemort’s violent tyranny that seeks to expand power by eliminating threats and by manipulating his followers.
This results in several epic confrontations between the two with varying outcomes across the seven books.
2. “Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin
This epic fantasy series is rife with interpersonal conflicts and power struggles.
The primary man vs. man conflict exists between the noble houses of Westeros, particularly the Starks and Lannisters.
Ned Stark’s investigation into the death of his predecessor as Hand of the King, and his resulting discovery of the illegitimacy of Queen Cersei Lannister’s children, ignites a war between the Starks and Lannisters.
This conflict extends across the entire series, with betrayals, battles, and shifts of power.
3. “The Dark Knight” by Christopher Nolan
In this film, the conflict between Batman (Bruce Wayne) and the Joker is the central focus.
The Joker is a chaotic and destructive force who wishes to undermine the social order in Gotham City and prove that anyone can fall into madness under the right circumstances.
Batman, conversely, is a force for order and justice.
He is driven by his personal code to protect Gotham, even as the Joker pushes him to his moral limits.
This culminates in a tense psychological battle between the two characters, illustrating the thematic conflict between order and chaos.
4. “The Lord of the Rings” series by J.R.R. Tolkien
The series revolves around the powerful One Ring, which must be destroyed to save Middle-Earth from the Dark Lord Sauron.
The central man vs. man conflict arises between Frodo Baggins, the Ring-bearer tasked with the Ring’s destruction, and Gollum, a creature corrupted by the Ring’s power.
Gollum, once a hobbit like Frodo, covets the Ring obsessively, calling it his “Precious”.
He alternates between guiding and betraying Frodo, demonstrating the corrupting influence of the Ring and the inner struggle faced by Frodo.
5. “Star Wars” (film series)
The primary conflict in the original Star Wars trilogy is between Luke Skywalker, a young Jedi knight, and Darth Vader, his father-turned-Sith lord.
The narrative unfolds as Luke learns of his Jedi heritage, his father’s fall from grace, and his own potential to either follow in Vader’s footsteps or to redeem him.
Their conflict embodies the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force, a central theme of the Star Wars saga.
6. “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens
Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, two men who bear a striking resemblance to one another, both love Lucie Manette.
While Darnay, a French aristocrat, is kind and virtuous, Carton is a disreputable English lawyer who believes he has wasted his life.
Despite Carton’s deep love for Lucie, he understands that Darnay is the better man for her.
The conflict between them culminates when Carton selflessly takes Darnay’s place at the guillotine during the French Revolution, thus demonstrating his unrequited love for Lucie.
7. “Othello” by William Shakespeare
In this tragic play, Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army, is deceived by his ensign, Iago.
Iago is resentful because Othello promoted another soldier, Cassio, over him. Iago plots to convince Othello that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio.
The conflict is not a straightforward battle, but a manipulative game played by Iago to bring about Othello’s downfall. It results in a tragic conclusion, with Othello’s jealousy leading to the death of multiple characters, including Othello himself, at his own hand.
8. “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck
The conflict between George and Curley, the son of the ranch owner where they work, stems from Curley’s mistrust and aggression.
Curley is instantly antagonistic toward Lennie, George’s companion, who is mentally disabled and physically robust. This leads to tensions between Curley and George, who acts as Lennie’s protector.
The conflict escalates when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife, leading to a tragic ending that affects all characters involved.
9. “Dracula” by Bram Stoker
This classic Gothic novel centers around the conflict between the sinister Count Dracula and Professor Abraham Van Helsing.
Dracula is a vampire who seeks to spread his undead condition, while Van Helsing is a knowledgeable antagonist, aware of Dracula’s nature and the methods to combat him.
The conflict escalates as Dracula targets the loved ones of Van Helsing’s allies, and Van Helsing leads the charge to stop the Count, culminating in a desperate race against time to save Mina Harker’s soul and eliminate Dracula.
10. “Gone Girl” (film)
The conflict in this film is primarily psychological between married couple Nick Dunne and his wife, Amy.
When Amy mysteriously disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect. However, it’s revealed through a series of twists that Amy has staged her own disappearance to punish Nick for his infidelity and perceived wrongs.
The rest of the film involves Nick trying to prove his innocence and uncover the truth about his manipulative and vengeful wife.
11. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The novel centers around Jay Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy Buchanan, the wife of Tom Buchanan.
Gatsby, a self-made millionaire, hosts lavish parties with the hope that Daisy would attend. He seeks to win her back and relive their past romance, creating a conflict with Tom, who represents old money and the established social order.
This love triangle leads to tension and tragedy, exposing the hollowness of the American Dream.
Thus, here, we see the man vs man motif helps to compel forward a story with a deeper message about the downsides of the American mentality toward status, power, money, and freedom.
12. “No Country for Old Men” (film)
This film features a conflict between Llewelyn Moss, a welder and Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad and a suitcase full of money, and Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic hitman hired to recover the money.
This sets off a deadly cat-and-mouse game between the two throughout rural Texas.
The conflict is further complicated by the involvement of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who seeks to protect Moss and apprehend Chigurh.
Interestingly, in this film, the man vs man conflict has the complication of a third character – the Sheriff – to turn it into something like a ‘man vs man vs man’ conflict! (This isn’t too uncommon – e.g. Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet sets up another sub-plot about loyalty and tribalism).
13. “Animal Farm” by George Orwell
This allegorical novel presents a conflict between two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, who lead a revolution against their human farmer.
After their successful rebellion, they attempt to establish an egalitarian society. However, they disagree on their ideals and methods.
Napoleon, who represents Stalin, uses ruthless tactics to seize power, eventually ousting Snowball, who represents Trotsky.
This conflict highlights the corruption of socialist ideals in the Soviet Union.
14. “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
Initially, the central conflict in this novel is between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.
In this plot, Elizabeth overhears Darcy making a dismissive comment about her at a dance, leading her to form a negative impression of him. This impression is reinforced by misinformation given to her by the charming George Wickham, who has his own grudge against Darcy.
Darcy initially looks down on Elizabeth due to her lower social status but soon admires her for her wit and vivacity.
The conflict evolves from initial misunderstanding and prejudice to mutual admiration and love. It’s a romantic conflict that underscores the novel’s exploration of pride, prejudice, and social norms in early 19th century England.
15. “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas
This novel focuses on the conflict between Edmond Dantès, a young and successful merchant sailor, and the three men who falsely accused him of being a Bonapartist conspirator—Ferdinand Mondego, Danglars, and Villefort.
Envious of Dantès’s success and relationships, they plot to have him imprisoned in the infamous Château d’If without trial.
After fourteen years in prison, Dantès escapes with the help of a fellow prisoner, acquires a vast fortune, and reinvents himself as the Count of Monte Cristo.
The rest of the novel sees Dantès meticulously plotting and executing his revenge on those who betrayed him.
This conflict is a narrative of justice and vengeance, underscored by the themes of loyalty, betrayal, and the human capacity for endurance and transformation.
Other Types of Conflict in Literature
The others are briefly presented below. Click the links to access my full articles on each type of conflict:
- Man vs Man: This involves a conflict between two or more characters with opposing desires, interests, beliefs or values, as explained throughout this article.
- Man vs Nature: This type of conflict concerns situations where the protagonist is fighting against natural elements – such as animals, weather conditions like storms, or even inhospitable landscapes. The protagonist in “The Revenant,” for instance had to face extreme winter conditions and dangers from wild animals.
- Man vs Society: In this motif, the character’s challenges revolve around societal norms and conventions such as class hierarchies, discrimination, authoritarianism, etc.
- Man vs Technology: In this type of conflict, the protagonist is pitted against technology that threatens themselves or society. The main character of “The Terminator”, for example, battles against a powerful machine sent back in time to kill him by the artificial intelligence system Skynet.
- Man vs Self: This conflict deals with the protagonist’s internal struggles and doubts concerning decisions about their character and life. It is often a psychological battle resulting in challenging crises-of-conscience that requires introspection and self-reflection.
- Man vs Destiny: This type of conflict pertains to when characters are seemingly predestined for a particular fate reaching beyond their control.
The man vs man conflict is one of the most common in all of film and literature, and indeed, is prevalent in the individual hero-worshiping nature of many contemporary American films (especially superhero films). However, this conflict often acts as a vehicle for deeper themes and commentary about the human condition and society. The events that transpire in man vs man conflicts can help authors to demonstrate the depth of the characters, their motivations, and their fatal flaws.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]