Every story is about a conflict of some kind, be it against nature, an individual or an internal struggle. I’ve talked about this in the past, and it’s extensively covered in various books, blogs and podcasts so I won’t reiterate that. What I want to explore is the ‘man vs man’ approach in a bit more detail because it’s a fairly encompassing term. It includes bad guys, invading aliens and evil corporations. The Matrix in the eponymous film would count as ‘man’, for example.
But can you have a decent conflict story if the ‘man’ that is the enemy doesn’t have an individual representation to focus on? Agent Smith, if you like, symbolizing the whole entity of the Matrix but able to be punched in the face. It does make it much easier for the reader to be able to focus their dislike on one person, and much easier to demonstrate the bad guy’s downfall if he’s a person rather than something bigger and more nebulous. Star Wars had Darth Vader and the Emperor representing the Empire, Les Mis had Javert representing France, Chocolat had Father Reynaud representing the Church, and so on.
My question is, is it necessary? I’ve been trying to come up with examples where there isn’t this individual representation, and the only one I can think of is Dr. Who and the Cybermen (even the Daleks have Davros, Khan and the Cult of Skarro). And the point with both the Cybermen and the Daleks is that individuality is something to be stamped out.
The reason I’m asking is because the enemy in Corpus – Mercy’s book – is the Temple. I can put an individual face on the Temple if storytelling convention and the readers require it, but I’d actually rather not. There’s conflict enough between the two central characters, even if they end up on the same side, and adding another character just to represent the Temple as the bad guy seems almost like it would weaken that focus. But the fact that I can’t think of any strong examples where not having a face to punch has worked makes me a bit nervous.