All good stories involve conflict. This drives the plot forward by giving characters challenges to overcome and goals to strive for. And resolving the conflict in a story is key to writing a satisfying ending. But how can an author add conflict to a story? And what forms can conflict take?
In this post, we’ll outline six common types of conflict in literature:
Character vs. character, in which two (or more) characters are in conflict.
Character vs. self, in which a character faces an internal struggle.
Character vs. nature, in which the conflict is rooted in a natural phenomenon.
Character vs. society, in which conflict comes from an unjust social climate.
Character vs. technology, in which the conflict is rooted in science.
Character vs. supernatural, in which a character faces supernatural forces.
To find out more about each of these types of conflict, read on.
1. Character vs. Character
Possibly the most common of all types of conflict found in literature is to have two (or more) characters opposed to one another. This typically occurs between a story’s protagonist and antagonist, though this is not always the case.
A writer can express conflict between characters with opposing goals in many ways, from a basic physical fight to complex emotional and political scheming. The key factor in all cases, though, is that the characters should be working toward opposing or conflicting goals, giving the protagonist a challenge to overcome.
For a nice clear example of this, we can look to Star Wars. The conflict that drives the story is between Luke Skywalker (the protagonist) and the rebels on one side, and Darth Vader (the antagonist) and the empire on the other.
2. Character vs. Self
Another common type of literary conflict involves a character’s internal struggle, usually regarding their emotions, personal shortcomings, or a moral dilemma.
This kind of conflict is great for developing a complex protagonist because they will need to develop and change over the course of the story to overcome their struggles. Returning to Luke Skywalker, for instance, we see how his character arc involves a struggle to gain control over his Jedi powers.
Internal conflict can be more complicated than this, though. A famous example of this is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the title character faces many internal struggles. Prince Hamlet vows to avenge his father by killing his uncle Claudius, for instance, but his sense of duty to his father conflicts with his moral sense of right and wrong, so he struggles with self-doubt and decision making.
3. Character vs. Nature
A slightly different type of conflict involves placing a character in opposition to the natural world. This often involves a struggle for survival against hostile wildlife, natural disasters, dangerous weather, or a post-apocalyptic landscape.
In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for instance, the conflict that drives the plot and character development is largely one of man against nature. The protagonist, Santiago, must struggle against both the sea and the giant marlin he is trying to catch, and he barely survives the process.
4. Character vs. Society
Another way of adding conflict to a story is to have characters struggle against society. This might be a society that is notably unjust, prejudiced, or oppressive. Or it could simply be a struggle to break away from social norms.
Characters in this type of story are typically motivated to challenge their society based on their morals or their desire for happiness, freedom, justice, or love.
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Possibly the most famous example of a story rooted in this kind of conflict is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this novel, Atticus Finch, a lawyer, takes on the case of a Black man who is wrongly accused of a crime, sticking true to his principles regardless of how those around him judge or criticize his actions.
5. Character vs. Technology
Some stories focus on characters coming into conflict with technology that has become too powerful or that is being used irresponsibly. This is often speculative (e.g., a science fiction story that focuses on the challenges of space travel), but it can also be about a conflict based on current technology.
Stories based on a technological conflict often use this to explore what it means to be human and what sets humans apart from technology and machines. In Frankenstein, for example, Mary Shelley drew on real-life scientific theories to tell a story about the potential risks and costs of technological progress.
6. Character vs. Supernatural
In this type of conflict, a character faces a force that science or logic can’t explain. This might be a supernatural entity of some kind, such as a ghost, monster, alien, etc. Or it may be something more abstract, such as fighting against fate itself.
Supernatural sources of conflict can create an uneven playing field, setting ordinary characters against a force they cannot understand to build tension or threat. But you can also have supernatural powers on both sides of a conflict.
Horror novels are a very good example of how supernatural conflict can work. In Stephen King’s It, for example, the protagonists are haunted by a supernatural being that preys on their fears. The story, therefore, hinges on the characters first trying to survive this threat, then eventually learning how to overcome it.
How to Use Conflict in a Story
All stories need at least one source of conflict, but most will include several.
To take Star Wars as an example again, we have character conflict (Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader), internal conflict (Luke’s struggle to learn Jedi powers), and social conflict (the rebellion against an evil empire).
These all contribute to the story and characterization in different ways. Likewise, even if you have a single source of conflict driving the main plot in a story, you can include other types of conflict via subplots (or secondary characters).
When writing a story, then, make sure to think about the plot, subplots, and characterization in terms of conflict, including:
What types of conflict are most fitting for the themes of the story.
How the conflict will drive the story forward by giving characters challenges to overcome (or by otherwise frustrating their progress).
How different forms of conflict might be used in subplots.
Whether character arcs are also rooted in conflict (internal or external).
Whether and how the conflicts at the heart of your story are overcome.
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