In multiplayer online roleplaying games, designers and players often make a distinction between two modes of interaction:
- Player vs. Environment, or PvE. In this mode, a player must overcome challenges posed by the environment in order to progress. This can mean “static” obstacles such as terrain, weather, hunger and thirst, etc., but is more often used to describe encounters with computer-controlled entities, such as monsters and NPCs (non-player characters). Players choose to team up with each other or go alone, and get enjoyment by exploring the world, collecting items, defeating particularly difficult monsters, etc.
- Player vs. Player, or PvP. Players in this mode (usually) face the same challenges present in PvE mode, but with the additional caveat that other players in the game may be hostile, and they must be prepared to defend themselves from attack (or perhaps to initiate attacks, if the mood strikes them). Even if there are few or no secondary rewards to be gained from such an attack, some players will invariably choose this mode of play and spend lots of time and effort on the “meta game” of figuring out the best way of ambushing others, leveling up their fighting techniques, etc.
It so happens that in fiction writing, we can make a similar distinction between two types of conflict, sometimes called “man vs nature” and “man vs man.” It should be easy to guess what these terms mean: in man vs man, two or more characters are in conflict with each other. Each of them have their own goals or values, and when brought into contact with one another they will clash until their issues are somehow resolved (note: the “clash” here is usually figurative; wars of words or wills are often more interesting than physical battles). In man vs nature, a character (or group of characters) struggle against something in their environment: pits full of spikes, the vacuum of space, man-eating sharks—pretty much anything without a brain.
(Side note: for brevity’s sake, I’ve chosen to ignore some of the other well-known methods of categorizing conflict in fiction, as well as the notion of “internal conflict” which is important in its own right. Sorry.)
When it comes to games, the general consensus in the industry today is that neither PvE nor PvP are inherently “better.” While many players prefer PvP because of the visceral excitement of competing against another living, thinking human being, and for the endless variations on gameplay that results, others are turned off by the increased challenge or by a sense of unfairness. After all, most people play games to win, and being constantly ambushed by other players of much higher skill means the challenge curve can be too steep for many to bear.
But this rule doesn’t hold for fiction. When it comes to writing, PvP beats PvE, hands down.
Now, that’s not to say that you need two characters in conflict to make a story work. If I came up with a great character, well rounded and likable, and gave him an immense challenge like climbing Mt. Everest, that could be the kernel of a great story. I could even have my character change his values or outlook on life by the end, thanks to the agony or triumph he experienced. But, while this premise alone might suffice to make a good short story, trying to stretch it out into a novel would get awfully boring. Imagine it: chapter after chapter of the same thing—man climbs mountain, man gets stuck in crevasse, man escapes, gets caught in avalanche, escapes again, slips on rocks, and on and on. Each situation is slightly different, but a mountain is a mountain; it doesn’t think or react to what’s going on. The same notion applies to fantasy sagas where the characters move from one encounter to the next: first they cross the Tok’kinn lava flows, then do battle with the honey badgers of Tadwill pass, then face off against the flying echidnas of Pullm’n, and so on. Yes, each of these situations may seem very different, but as one occurs after another, A to B to C, at a certain point they will all start to blend together. Can a book structured this way succeed? On some level, yes, if there are enough other good attributes to engage the reader: imaginative scenes, great writing, etc. But it’s never going to be as good as it could have been if there were more character vs. character conflict involved.
When it comes to entertaining a player, video game designers in PvE mode have a lot of tools at their disposal: they can create fully-interactive 3D worlds, sounds and music, and entice the players with “loot” given out at predefined intervals, like a casino. But as writers, all we have is words and the reader’s imagination; we just don’t have the luxury of slacking off. The conflict has to be as engaging as it can be all the way through, and having characters face off with each other—strategizing, manipulating, coercing, and above all reacting emotionally—is a great way to make that happen. And the best part is, no matter how formidable a foe your reader encounters in their role as the protagonist, you can always arrange a way for them to win in the end, and thus leave them feeling satisfied (at least, if that’s what you want to do).
Now, that’s not to say that man vs. nature doesn’t have it’s place, or even that it isn’t a requirement in some forms of speculative fiction; who could argue that Return of the King would have been improved by having Frodo and Sam bring the ring to Mt. Doom though a beautiful grassy meadow? But next time you’re plotting, try considering the sources of your conflict and how you could combine them together.
For example, lets say your characters need to cross over a forbidding mountain range to reach the next part of the story. It wouldn’t do to just say “the party arrived on the Eastern plain several weeks later”—this is supposed to be a perilous journey! We need a scene to illustrate that crossing the mountains is dangerous; maybe our characters have to cross a slippery ice bridge, which then gives way and…you get the idea.
But what will get accomplished when our heroes escape this predicament? We’ve dropped the reader into this scene, made them do the work of imagining it, but afterwards the party will emerge from the mountains much the same as they would have otherwise. Sure, the experience may have changed them in some way, but they’re going to face other dangerous situations throughout the book; we can’t just have them change the same way over and over and expect to hold the reader’s interest.
How about, instead of an accident on the bridge, an antagonist has followed our crew and has rigged it to fall? Or better yet, what if the trap is set by another member of the party, who the protagonist thought was their friend (or maybe they really are their friend, and something even weirder is going on…). What if the near-death experience on the bridge sets off some deep grudges within the party left over from some previous incident, and the people who need to work together to solve the world’s problems are torn apart by internal strife (OK, that’s not the most original plot ever, but you could find a way to put a fresh spin on it)? Would these interpersonal conflicts have the potential to affect each character’s personal narrative arc in different, interesting ways?
In any case, you get the idea: if the book you’re developing is mostly PvE, add some PvP to the mix. Conflict can and must be multifaceted. You can use it in different ways, to advance the plot, engage the reader, and to flesh out the setting. Add some colorful, deep characters, and you’ve got a recipe for a great story.