When you decide to write a story, you know going into it that you have to introduce conflict for your protagonist to navigate through and deal with. Choosing what that conflict will be can be a challenge. There are many types of conflict in literature, and each has its own unique features, advantages, and drawbacks.
This article will define and explain types of conflict in literature and provide examples of ways that you can write it to keep it exciting for your audience.
What Is Conflict?
A conflict is a central struggle between two opposing forces within a story, this in turn, generates tension within fiction. It is through the conflict, that the narrative is driven forward and a series of events occur until the conflict gets resolved. The central conflict is also what keeps the reader engaged until the end because they are seeking answers or closure. Also, it is often used to uncover a character’s flaws, strengths, and way of thinking. Without conflict, the story is lifeless and meaningless, and no character arcs would be possible.
Different Types of conflict in literature:
Internal and External Conflict
These are the two main types of conflict in fiction writing. While one takes place within a character and is conveyed by internal monologue, the other is a much more broad term and refers to any conflict that happens outside of the character’s internal monologue. The following is a more detailed explanation and breakdown of these two broad terms.
Internal conflict, or character vs. self, is when a character struggles internally about something. Sometimes the struggle is about the character trying to decide what is morally right to do, or it could be an internal struggle with things like addiction. For example, in Stephen King’s The Shining, you see the character Jack Torrance in conflict with himself.
Plagued with self-doubt, he is slowly losing his sanity and free will as the malicious energy of the hotel he and his family are staying in drives him to homicidal madness. Jack is able to hold on to just enough of himself to be at constant internal war, and the writing of this struggle is a nearly perfect telling of this sort of conflict.
Internal conflict typically occurs around the time or at the same time as external conflict. The character must figure out what to do internally before deciding what to do with the external issue.
External conflict is any conflict that takes place outside of the character’s mind or internal monologue. There are several types of external conflict, and we will now go into further detail about each type.
Character vs. Character Conflict
Character vs. character conflict is when two characters are at odds and must engage in some sort of struggle that will result in a winner and a loser. This can be physical, verbal, or moral. The two characters simply have to disagree or have an issue for there to be character conflict.
This conflict usually takes place between the protagonist and the antagonist, but it can happen when two friends have disagreements or butt heads, as well.
For example, throughout the Harry Potter book series, you see conflicts between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy that result in physical contact through spells, charms, and old-fashioned bullying. Still, you also see a conflict between Harry Potter and his friends, Ron and Hermione.
While it doesn’t become a physical altercation, there are periods of the novels in which the three friends are not speaking with one another, arguing, or lobbing insults at each other due to a disagreement they have.
These are conflicts, put simply, in which the main character is at odds with another character. The writer must create tension between the main character and another character and then sets them loose to fight it out in some capacity or manner. This is one of the types of conflict that readers of all genres can relate and identify with and are very commonly used in fiction writing.
Character vs. Nature Conflict
A nature conflict can be anything from the weather, to a natural disaster, to the setting. It is when you see a character or group of characters struggle due to the setting and nature around them. If the state of the surrounding nature were better, then the character would have a much easier time.
One such example of this in fiction is the book The Troop by Nick Cutter. In this story, a troop of boy scouts is stuck on an uninhabited island where they must fend for themselves after a large storm decimates their cabin.
Without any help from adults, they have to navigate the forest, the sea cliffs, and the ocean itself to find food, shelter, and water to drink.
This struggle would not have occurred had this same group of characters ended up lost in a large city. While they very well may have been uncomfortable or frightened, resources would still be plentiful.
Lord of the Flies is another novel that is known as a classic today that creates conflict via this literary conflict of nature. While the boys in that novel are indeed experiencing conflict within themselves and against each other, they are also at war with nature, trying their best to survive a terrain they are totally unfamiliar with.
Natural disasters are also the cause of significant conflicts in literature. Many nonfiction stories emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as people attempted to make sense of their external struggle as well as internal struggle after having their homes destroyed, their communities washed away, and in some cases, their loved ones lost.
Character vs. Society Conflict
In character vs. society conflict, it is often a government, reigning body or organization, or society as a whole that the character conflicts with. The character is against an entire system that they view as unjust rather than just one event, antagonist, or situation. Examples of this sort of conflict are bountiful.
This sort of literary conflict is often used, especially in satirical fiction, to call attention to society’s issues. Fahrenheit 451 is one such example. In that novel, author Ray Bradbury wraps the protagonist in deep conflict with himself and society.
Another popular example of this type of literary conflict is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. In this dystopian novel, we see a woman who is not only against her oppressors but also what society and the government have become. This type of conflict never gets old and is often eye-opening to the reader upon finishing the book.
Character vs. Supernatural Forces
You most likely think of the horror or science fiction genre when you think of supernatural forces. However, when you have a supernatural conflict in a story, it doesn’t have to center around a boogeyman or a ghost. It can be as simple as a person struggling with religion.
For example, in C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a man who has recently lost his wife due to illness goes through the stages of grief. Throughout the story, he struggles with his faith, doubts the existence of God, and wonders to himself whether there is any point in belief in anything after death at all. While this book would certainly not be found on a horror shelf at a bookstore, it still contains supernatural conflict.
Classically, however, there are certainly many examples of characters vs. actual supernatural entities in many books. The likes of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub are experts in this type of conflict.
In Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, a group of old men must face self-conflict, as well as conflict in the form of a malevolent ghost. The major conflict goes back and forth between their own belief in what is happening and the actual events that are occurring as one after another, the ghost goes after and kills them.
Identifying Major Conflict
When you read or write fiction, it is beneficial to identify the major conflict in the story, especially if there is more than one conflict. Think about the protagonist and how each conflict affects them so that you can better isolate what the major conflict is.
Often, you can decipher the major conflict by looking at the protagonist. Ask yourself what the main character’s major motivation is. For example, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss Everdeen has a moral sense that she should not allow her sister to compete in the games when she is selected, but she also feels that she has to do something about the corrupt government and the way her people have been forced to live.
Her character development throughout the story tells us that the major conflict is less the fact that she has to compete in the games and more the fact that she is fighting against a corrupt and unjust governmental organization that makes its citizens kill each other so that their people can survive another year.
What Does Conflict Add to Fiction?
Conflict can add a lot to fiction writing. Aside from keeping the story interesting, it can also clue the reader in on a deeper meaning that the author is trying to convey. For example, in Stephen King’s The Stand, the world has been ended mainly by a fast-moving virus.
There are very few people left alive, and those that are left must choose the path of goodness and head to Colorado and attempt to rebuild society, or they can choose the path of self-indulgence and excess and head to Las Vegas, where they can have fun. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, they must make moral decisions alongside dealing with external forces in the natural world, like no food, no transportation, and finding shelter.
While the theme here is good vs. evil, the more profound meaning to this conflict is whether the characters choose individually and which path they should take. It is a journey that proves that although being good is more challenging work, it may be worth it, in the end, to put that work in and do the right thing.
Conflict also moves a story forward. Once you have provided the backstory for your characters and introduced your setting, things will become boring quickly if you don’t introduce conflict. A famous example of this is the change in dynamics and pace in Harry Potter as soon as Potter realizes that he’s a wizard.
He can either go ahead with Hagrid to Hogwarts or stay with his aunt and uncle. Had this internal conflict not been introduced, the rest of the book would be the boring and pretty depressing life of a neglected eleven-year-old boy.
Conflict is a necessary literary device for a good book or story. No matter the type, as long as a character faces some sort of challenge, the reader can feel as though there is something human to the character. The more real you can make the story, the better, and conflict can help achieve this goal.