Character/Man vs. Nature: Exploring the Wildest Story Conflict

Abi Wurdeman
February 12, 2024

The number of through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail increased by more than 300% in the years following the release of Wild

The state of Alaska had to relocate the Into the Wild bus to a museum because it drew too many inexperienced hikers on a foolhardy pilgrimage to visit the place where Chris McCandless lived out his final days.

And can you watch Moana sing “How Far I’ll Go” as she keeps gravitating back to the open ocean without wanting to immediately venture out into the wide world to chase down your own purpose? Because I can’t.

Person vs. nature stories burrow into our souls and even spur us into action for a reason. They touch on the deepest questions about what it means to be alive, to be a part of something huge and unfathomable, to be our most authentic selves.

And in this article, we’re going to talk about all of it. You’ll learn what “man vs. nature” actually means, the themes it explores, and how to write this type of story yourself. You’ll also get a ton of examples to clarify the many ways this conflict can appear across genres.

So let’s venture boldly into the unknown.

What is the Man vs. Nature Conflict?

A backpacker carrying trekking poles walks over white sand dunes in a desert.

Every story needs a conflict. Novels typically have several conflicts: the main conflict that revolves around the protagonist and then a bunch of little skirmishes that occur within subplots and even single scenes.

There are internal conflicts—which are the battles characters wage within themselves—and external conflicts, which occur between the character and a force outside themselves.

There are several types of external conflict, one of which is most commonly known as man vs. nature. Clashes of this sort are between a character and natural elements. Your character might come up against a natural disaster, wild animal, virus, or any other nightmare nature can produce.

Now, just to be clear, this type of conflict doesn’t only apply to male characters. “Man vs. nature” is just an old-timey, exclusionary term that some folks still use. You’ll see me use it a few times in this article because if you Google it, I want to make sure the search engine robots know they can send you here.

You might prefer the term “person vs. nature.” My top choice is “character vs. nature,” because as long as we’re being inclusive, we might as well show the hobbits and elves that they belong, too. 

Now that we’ve finished that bit of housekeeping, let’s talk about why this conflict is so popular and compelling.

Common Themes in Character vs. Nature Stories

A sillouette of a person standing in the eye-shaped opening of an icy cave.

If you’re not already familiar, a theme is the underlying message of a story. You know, stuff like “love conquers all” and “money is power.”

Conflict plays a massive role in driving home your story’s central theme. After all, it’s through the protagonist’s actions and the obstacles they face that the author asks and answers questions about a universal topic.

“Does love conquer all? I don’t know. Let’s pair up these two lovers from feuding families and find out!”

Character vs. nature conflicts are so compelling because they invite us to explore what it means to be human, vulnerable, and alive. In these types of stories, you often see themes that revolve around concepts such as:

Survival and resilience - What does it really mean to adapt? Are humans stronger than we assume? More vulnerable? What about nature? To what extent do these two forces depend on one another for their survival?

Limitations and boundaries - What are the consequences of interfering with nature? What might we learn about ourselves when faced with a terrifying natural force? What are the limits of human capability? What are the limits of nature?

Awe - What’s our purpose in this vast universe? How much do our brief lives and daily worries matter in the grand scheme of things? What does it even mean to “matter”? 

Harmony - To what extent are we part of the natural world? What sets us apart from it? Can human beings truly live in harmony with nature? What are the consequences of viewing ourselves as separate from it?

Exploration - What are the benefits and costs of exploration? How does a deeper understanding of nature influence the way we see ourselves? Is it true that anything is possible? 

Use in Genres

Brightly lit butterflies and mushrooms on a log in a fantasy setting.

The phrase “character vs. nature” might get you thinking immediately about adventure novels. But the truth is, this conflict arises time and again in every genre

It might be the story’s major conflict—like when a stranded protagonist must survive on an island after a plane crash. Or it could be a smaller challenge that contributes to a larger conflict. For example, the feuding love interests in an enemies-to-lovers plot might have to work together to stay alive when they’re stranded in a blizzard.

In a mystery, nature might hinder the investigation, highlighting the detective’s powerlessness in a world full of predators. In middle grade novels, a character vs. nature conflict might give fictional children an opportunity to explore, face fears, and grow.

It even works in fantasy. Your warlock protagonist might be magical as all get-out, but as Doug will tell you, even magic has its limitations. How will your main character face natural forces that they can’t just wizard away?

Not to mention, magic itself can be the antagonist in a character vs. nature conflict because it’s part of your story’s natural world. The same is true for spiritual and supernatural elements. 

Big or small, the man vs. nature conflict stirs up big ideas and even bigger feelings. Our will to survive. Our vulnerability in an unpredictable world. The realization that life is short and fragile, we’re all just animals, and the things we give the most weight to might not matter at all.

Character vs. nature touches on all of it. That’s what makes it such a great conflict for any type of novel.

Famous Examples of Character vs. Nature

Feat wearing tall hiking boots stand on a mossy rock in nature.

As with any career, writers learn best by observing. That is to say, reading and watching. To that end, here are some super popular examples of man vs. nature conflicts:

The Last of Us

The central conflict of The Last of Us is definitely a character vs. nature situation. Fungus has evolved to the point where it can turn human beings into its zombie puppets, even using said puppets to attack other humans, creating new hosts.

It’s terrifying and now I can’t look at coral cacti without seeing clickers.

I particularly admire the chillingly understated way the person vs. nature conflict is laid out in the very first scene. Less than forty years before the outbreak, a scientist warns of the possibility of fungal zombies, declaring the inevitable outcome: “We lose.”

Life of Pi

In this novel, the young protagonist, Pi, is raised by a zoo owner father who has many philosophies about the relationships and hierarchies between human beings and wild animals. 

When Pi survives a shipwreck only to be stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, he’s forced to truly explore what it takes to survive both the elements and the ferocity of other living beings.


Don’t forget: outer space can be an adversary in character vs. nature conflicts, too!

In this movie, Dr. Ryan Stone finds herself stranded in space, trying to stay alive in an environment that isn’t designed for her survival. The extreme challenges of the situation raise questions about what life is actually worth to her, given the relentless grief she feels over the death of her daughter.

With this backstory, her person vs. nature narrative isn’t just about surviving natural forces but about surviving life itself.

Into the Wild

This is one of the most popular examples of a modern man vs. nature conflict. Into the Wild (book and movie) tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man born into financial privilege and a turbulent home life who ultimately abandoned all material possessions to become an adventurer. 

The harsh conditions he faced in the Alaskan wilderness certainly highlight the classic man vs. nature themes of isolation, perseverance, and limitations. But McCandless’s overall journey into the wild unlocked profound realizations about the value of human connection.

Writing Relationships Between Humans and the Natural World

A person standsat the end of a wet dock, looking across a lake at mountains surrounded by fog.

Thinking you might like to write a character vs. nature conflict into your next novel? The secret is to really nail the relationship between your main character and the natural force standing between them and their goal. 

See, just like with a character vs. character conflict, a character vs. nature story requires a carefully strategized protagonist/antagonist relationship. 

How are each of these opposing forces changed by their conflict? In what ways are they more powerful than one another? What about more vulnerable? 

Let’s look at each half of the character vs. nature conflict and explore how their specific qualities make them formidable antagonists for one another.

The Character

A person sits on a rock with their arm around a dog.

Perspective - How does your character view nature at the beginning of your story? How do they view themselves? 

Given those two perspectives, how do they expect their li’l nature conflict to play out? How are they surprised by what actually happens?

Goals - In some man vs. nature conflicts, the character wants something from the natural world. Maybe they want to colonize Mars or catch a fish. In other stories, they want something else—to reach a destination, perhaps—but they have to go through nature to get it.

And in some narratives, the character’s goal is a reaction to a natural disaster or some other attack from nature.

Whatever the objective may be, a good character vs. nature conflict includes a high-stakes goal that cannot be achieved without going toe-to-toe with a terrifying natural force.

Strengths - What strengths does your character bring to this battle? Are they resourceful? Resilient? Physically powerful? Tech-savvy?

Strengths help you craft those moments in a man vs. nature conflict when it seems like the person has the upper hand. Or at least an equal hand. 

Weaknesses - In these types of conflicts, explore beyond obvious human weaknesses. Yes, your characters have scratchable flesh and are slower than a cheetah and have to maintain a certain body temperature to stay alive.

But are they also foolhardy? Panic-prone? Do they disrespect or underestimate the natural world? If there’s anything we’ve learned from Jurassic Park, it’s that hubris does not serve us in our relationships with nature or science.

Ask yourself what deeper weaknesses might lead your character into conflict with nature and how that battle might force them to grow beyond their shortcomings.

And of course, you also want to take time to think about how your character’s battle with nature might reflect or heighten their internal conflict. 


A city building covered in vines.

Perspective - Depending on the type of story you’re writing, you might personify nature enough to actually give it a perspective. If not, consider this checkpoint more about how the story views nature.

Is it cruel and indifferent towards humanity? Is it resilient, showing us up time and again with its relentless survival? Is it sacred and wise? Are we part of nature and only made weaker by our determination to see ourselves as separate from it?

A good person vs. nature conflict often offers a perspective that directly contradicts the character’s viewpoint.

Goal - Once again, it might sound weird to think of nature as having a goal. But humor me for a minute. Look at what your character wants and ask how nature can respond with its own needs.

Your character wants to eat the deer they shot? Well, so does that cougar over there. Your character would like there to be fewer fungi-fueled zombies? Well, tough cookies, because nature wants more.

In fact, part of what makes the character vs. nature conflict so compelling is that it pits human beings with all their complicated notions of purpose and identity against the most basic, single-minded goal possible: just live. That’s nature’s whole goal. Stay alive.

Strengths - Nature’s good at most things. Knocking things around. Shaking stuff up. Biting, stinging, kicking, flooding, crumbling, you name it. In most of these scenarios, nature will be stronger than your character—strong enough to do some real damage.

But you know what else nature is good at? Sticking with it. And that’s huge in man vs. nature conflicts. That frigid winter will go on for months. That nightmare storm won’t stop just because the ship’s crew has had enough. 

Weaknesses - You might look for weaknesses in specific aspects of nature. The cougar can’t turn a doorknob, for example. 

You might also look at the big picture: nature as a whole is vulnerable to human acts. Land development, mining, harvesting, pollution—so many human choices can permanently alter ecosystems.

One major question we’re seeing more and more in character vs. nature storylines is “Whose power will win out in the end?” Is humanity destroying the earth? Or will nature adapt as we destroy ourselves?

Fun questions, right? 

10 Character vs. Nature Writing Prompts

A person sits at a desk in front of a computer and writes in a notebook.

Ready to dig into this juicy external conflict yourself?

Here are ten writing prompts you can use to get the wheels turning as you brainstorm your own character vs. nature story:

  1. An Appalachian Trail through-hiker defends a lost child from a bear attack.
  2. A rookie firefighter battles personal demons while trapped in a raging wildfire.
  3. Two camp kids are swept up in a fast current on a canoe trip and lose contact with their group.
  4. A cave biologist’s oxygen supply dwindles while they study a new species in a deep cave.
  5. A wildlife photographer faces a stalking predator while on assignment.
  6. An archaeologist excavating ancient ruins is trapped when a landslide blocks their escape route.
  7. A couple on the brink of divorce must work together to find their way back to their resort after an accident on an ATV jungle tour sends them careening deeper into the wilderness.
  8. After inheriting a secluded cabin in the mountains, a grieving widow seeks solace in nature only to discover that the retreat is haunted by vengeful spirits seeking revenge for past wrongs,
  9. An arborist studying canopy ecology encounters hidden danger while climbing an ancient tree.
  10. A dryad queen has been stolen from her home and must find her way back, journeying over unfamiliar and inhospitable landscapes.

Face the Elements With Dabble

I have just one more suggestion as you set out to write your own character vs. nature conflict.

Let Dabble help.

You can find tons of great (free!) articles on conflict, setting, and character in DabbleU. You can download this free ebook, which guides you through the entire novel writing process, so you can make sure your story’s central conflict is airtight from beginning to end.

And you can try Dabble—the ultimate tool for planning, plotting, drafting, and revising—absolutely free for 14 days, no credit card required. All you have to do is click this link and get started on your next grand adventure.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.