The man vs self motif in plotlines refers to a struggle within a protagonist’s own mind that needs to be overcome in order to reach a point of resolution in the plot.
Man vs self is one of six types of conflict in literature and film. Generally, these types of conflict are placed into two categories: inner and external conflicts. Of those, man vs self is the main type of inner conflict.
An example of man vs self is evident in the Shakespearean play Hamlet, where the namesake character is gripped with procrastination and indecision as he grapples over the morality of avenging his father.
Man vs Self: When and Why
At its core, the man vs self conflict explores the central psychological challenges faced by humans.
It gives authors an opportunity to examine the human condition and humanize the protagonists.
However, the major weakness of this motif is that inner conflict often fails to draw a plot forward.
To achieve this, authors will often use external conflicts – like man vs nature or man vs society – to set up plotlines where external events can be used to either mirror the protagonist’s inner conflict or provide stimuli that help the protagonist grapple with their inner thoughts.
Common challenges faced in the man vs self motif include:
- Fear of failure: In this challenge, the main character is seen as flawed because of their indecision and fright. They may eventually gather up the courage to become the hero, or may equally have to learn to live with their shortcomings for the remainder of their life.
- Overcoming guilt / self-forgiveness: A great example here is Crime and Punishment, where the main character spends the entire novel grappling with his guilt for his crime of murder, which he gets away with, but the guilt forces him into making a confession anyway.
- Quest for identity: This is often seen in coming-of-age stories or mid-life-crisis narratives. For example, in Eat Pray Love, the main character travels across the world seeking adventure, and in the process, comes to know herself.
- Conflict between desires and duties: A classic example of this is in The Lion King, where prince Simba flees Pride Rock, choosing the carefree life embodied by the motto Hakuna Matata (‘no worries’). But deep down, he knows he must return to Pride Rock, avenge his father, and take his rightful spot as leader of the pride.
- Internal struggle between good and evil: This classic hero tale tends to explore how everyone has the capacity for good and evil deep down inside of them. The main character, feeling the draw toward evil, must overcome their own ego to accept the peaceful path.
Man vs Self Examples
Below are some real-life examples of this motif in film and literature. Below this section, I will also propose some hypothetical ideas that you can build upon for your own work.
- “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare: Hamlet wrestles with the moral integrity of avenging his father’s murder. His indecision and procrastination are central to the conflict in the story. In the end, this indecision is Hamlet’s fatal flaw, which causes his downfall.
- “Fight Club” (film): The unnamed narrator struggles against his alter ego, Tyler Durden, in a conflict that represents his struggle against his own dissatisfaction with his life and identity. Here, the man vs self narrative works at the level of identity confusion.
- “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger: Holden Caulfield’s struggles with his identity, his depression, and his anxieties about growing up form the core of the novel’s conflict. Here, we see a common motif: the quest for identity, especially among young adults trying to find their way in the world.
- “A Beautiful Mind” (film): John Nash struggles with his own mind, battling against schizophrenia while attempting to maintain his relationships and career in mathematics. Here, the thing drawing the plot forward is literally the main character’s unique mind.
- “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Raskolnikov’s internal conflict centers on his guilt after committing a murder, as he struggles with the ramifications of his actions. The book ends with him walking into the police station to confess his crime, knowing that he cannot live anymore with his secret.
- “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde: Dorian Gray battles with his own conscience and vanity after making a deal that allows him to remain forever young while a portrait of him ages and displays the marks of his sins. Eventually, he destroys the picture, which breaks the spell, and the police find a withering old man dead on the floor.
- “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll’s struggles with his darker side, embodied in Mr. Hyde, representing an internal conflict between his desire for respectability and his immoral urges. Here, we see a common motif where the author creates two alter-egos that match up against one another to demonstrate inner conflict.
- “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare: Macbeth struggles with his ambition and guilt after murdering King Duncan to take the throne. This play follows Macbeth’s descent into tyranny due to his ambition to hold power, causing resistance and his eventual downfall.
- “Star Wars”: While Star Wars contains many different types of conflict, one inner conflict is that between good and evil. Whereas Anikin gives in to evil, or ‘the dark side’ to amass power, his son Luke takes the good path despite being lured toward evil by his father. His decision to choose goodness over power restores balance to the galaxy.
- “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man follows an unnamed protagonist who feels he lacks an identity in a world that undervalues him – barely seeing him as human – because of his race. This conflict drives the entire narrative of the novel.
Suggested Hypothetical Plots
- “Rift Within”: A world-renowned neurosurgeon struggles with alcoholism, jeopardizing his career and his family life. He must confront his inner demons and fight for his sobriety while trying to retain his position at the top of his field.
- “After Eden”: An esteemed environmental scientist discovers a flaw in a model predicting climate change that could discredit years of his work. He is torn between his ego and the truth as he grapples with the prospect of admitting his mistakes.
- “Echoes of Time”: A historian specializing in the WWII era discovers he has a personal connection to a notorious war criminal. He battles with his identity, torn between his professional duty to tell the truth and his personal revulsion for his ancestor’s actions.
- “The Imaginary Friend”: A successful children’s author’s imaginary friend from childhood reappears as she’s writing her next book. As she grapples with her mental health, she must decide whether to embrace her creativity at the expense of her sanity.
- “Price of Freedom”: A former spy living in hiding is haunted by guilt over the lives he took in service to his country. Struggling to reconcile with his past, he embarks on a journey to make amends and find inner peace.
- “The Inner Canvas”: An introverted painter who has built his reputation on landscapes starts to produce darker, more introspective pieces that reflect his growing depression. He must decide whether to confront his inner turmoil or continue to hide behind his popular but impersonal works.
- “Invisible Strings”: A puppeteer who controls the world’s politicians using advanced technology begins to question the morality of his actions. He finds himself in a struggle of conscience, deciding whether to maintain global stability or relinquish control and restore true democracy.
- “Mind Game”: A gifted AI programmer battling schizophrenia begins to lose track of what’s real and what’s not as her latest creation starts to evolve beyond her control. As her mental state deteriorates, she must grapple with her mind to regain control of both herself and her creation.
Other Types of Conflict in Literature
There are six main types of conflict in film and literature, generally split into internal conflict motifs and external conflict motifs.
- Man vs Self (internal): As this article has explored, man vs self involves the inner turmoil of a character whose key challenge is to overcome their inner turmoil, such as fear, loneliness, anxiety, self-doubt, and so on.
- Man vs Destiny (internal): Man vs destiny is often also considered an internal conflict because it generally involves the protagonist grappling with two paths: one that denies their destiny, and one that fulfills it. Often, we find that the destiny is inevitable, no matter which path they take.
- Man vs Society (external): Man vs society involves the classic tale of an individual or group standing up against the establishment. It may be a fight against social norms, an authoritarian dystopian government, and so on. An example is The Hunger Games where Katniss fights against The Capitol.
- Man vs Nature (external): Man vs nature involves the protagonist fighting against the power of nature, such as due to natural disasters or being stuck in an inhospitable environment. An example is Castaway where Tom Hanks is stuck on a deserted island.
- Man vs Technology (external): Man vs technology involves the protagonist in conflict with technology, such as an AI robot. A good example is Terminator where a robot from the future comes back in time to kill the protagonist.
- Man vs Man (external): In this conflict, a protagonist and antagonist go up against each other. An example is in romance novels where two characters are vying for the love of the same person, so the two are matched-up to see who will eventually prevail.
Note that many of these conflicts occur in the same storylines. Authors often bring together multiple layers of conflicts to draw the plot forward and play off one another.
The man vs self conflict is one of the most common – and profound – types of conflict in literature and film. Indeed, many other conflicts (e.g. man vs nature) are often set up as analogies and metaphors for the protagonist’s inner turmoil. When creating a plot containing this type of conflict, consider the inner challenge the character must face, how it will be resolved, and what other elements of plot will be utilized that can help pull this inner conflict forward.
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]