Conflict in Literature

Nicholas Rigg/Stone/Getty Images

What makes a book or movie exciting? What makes you want to keep reading to find out what happens or stay until the end of the movie? Conflict. Yes, conflict. It is a necessary element of any story, driving the narrative forward and compelling the reader to stay up all night reading in hopes of some sort of closure. Most stories are written to have characters, a setting and a plot, but what sets apart a truly great story from the one that might not finish reading is conflict. 

Basically we can define conflict as a struggle between opposing forces - two characters, a character and nature, or even an internal struggle - conflict provides a level of angst into a story that engages the reader and makes him or her invested in finding out what happens. So how do you best create conflict? 

First, you need to understand the different types of conflict, which can essentially be broken down into two categories: internal and external conflict. An internal conflict tends to be one in which the main character struggles with himself, such as a decision he needs to make or a weakness he has to overcome. An external conflict is one in which the character faces a challenge with an external force, like another character, an act of nature, or even society. 

From there, we can break down conflict into seven different examples (though some say there are only four at most). Most stories focus on one particular conflict, but it's also possible that a story can contain more than one. 

The most common kinds of conflict are:

  • Man versus Self (internal)
  • Man versus Nature (external)
  • Man versus Man (external)
  • Man versus Society (external)

A further breakdown would include:

  • Man versus Technology (external)
  • Man versus God or Fate (external)
  • Man versus Supernatural (external)

Man versus Self 

This type of conflict occurs when a character struggles with an internal issue. The conflict can be an identity crisis, mental disorder, moral dilemma, or simply choosing a path in life. Examples of man versus self can be found in the novel, "Requiem for a Dream," which discusses the internal struggles with addition.

Man versus Man

When you have both a protagonist (good guy) and antagonist (bad guy) at odds, you have the man versus man conflict. Which character is which may not always be evident, but in this version of the conflict, there are two people, or groups of people, that have goals or intentions that conflict with each other. The resolution comes when one overcomes the obstacle created by the other. In the book "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," written by Lewis Carroll, our protagonist, Alice, is faced with numerous other characters that she must face off with as part of her journey. 

Man versus Nature

Natural disasters, weather, animals, and even just the earth itself can create this type of conflict for a character. "The Revenant" is a good example of this conflict. Although revenge, a more man versus man type of conflict, is a driving force, the majority of the narrative centers around Hugh Glass’s journey across hundreds of miles after being attack by a bear and enduring extreme conditions. 

Man versus Society

This is the sort of conflict you see in books that have a character at odds against the culture or government in which they live. Books like "The Hunger Games" demonstrate the way a character is presented with the problem of accepting or enduring what is considered a norm of that society but in conflict with the protagonist’s moral values. 

Man versus Technology

When a character is confronted with the consequences of the machines and/or artificial intelligence created by man, you have the man versus technology conflict. This is a common element used in science fiction writing. Isaac Asimov’s "I, Robot" is a classic example of this, with robots and artificial intelligence surpassing the control of man. 

Man versus God or Fate

This type of conflict can be a bit more difficult to differentiate from man versus society or man, but it is usually dependent upon an outside force directing the path of a character. In the Harry Potter series, Harry’s destiny has been foretold by a prophecy. He spends his adolescence struggling to come to terms with the responsibility thrust upon him from infancy. 

Man versus Supernatural

One can describe this as the conflict between a character and some unnatural force or being. "The Last Days of Jack Sparks" demonstrates not only the struggle with an actual supernatural being, but the struggle man has with knowing what to believe about it. 

Combinations of Conflict

Some stories will combine several types of conflict to create an even more intriguing journey. We see examples of woman versus self, woman versus nature, and woman versus other people in the book, "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed. After dealing with tragedy in her life, including the death of her mother and a failed marriage, she embarks on a solo journey to hike more than a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl must deal with her own internal struggles but is also faced with a number of external struggles throughout her journey, ranging from weather, wild animals, and even people she encounters along the way.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski