Conflict in Literature

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Conflict is a necessary element of a story. It drives the narrative forward and is what compels the reader to stay up all night reading in hopes of some sort of closure. The types of conflict can be broken down into up to seven different types. While most stories focus on one particular conflict, they often contain more than one. 

The most common kinds of conflict are:

  • Man versus Man
  • Man versus Nature
  • Man versus Self
  • Man versus Society

A further breakdown would include:

  • Man versus Technology
  • Man versus God or Fate
  • Man versus Supernatural

Man versus Man is what you have when there is a clear protagonist (good guy) and antagonist (bad guy). In this version of conflict there are two people, or groups of people, that have goals or intentions that conflict with each other. Resolution comes when one overcomes the obstacle created by the other. Good examples of this would be and The Count of Monte Cristo. 

Man versus Nature is the conflict that arises when a character is pitted against weather phenomena, physical terrain, or an animal. 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 Self occurs when a character struggles with an internal conflict. The conflict can be an identity crisis, mental disorder, moral dilemma, or choosing a path in life. Fight Club stages the conflict as man versus man, only to later reveal the protagonist has dissociative identity disorder.

 

Man versus Society 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 takes place when a character is confronted with the consequences of the machines and/or artificial intelligence created by man. This is a common element used in science fiction writing. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is a classic example of the fear of robots and artificial intelligence one day surpassing the control of man. 

Man versus God or Fate can be a bit more difficult to differentiate from man versus society or man. This sort of conflict 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 can be described 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.