Conflict is what makes any story interesting. A story about a boy waking up, going to school, sitting in classes, coming home, and going to bed is not very exciting. But add a conflict—maybe a bully or a difficult exam coming up—and the story comes to life.
The good news is, you have a whole set of different types of conflict to choose from, broadly categorized as internal or external conflicts.
Types of Conflict in Literature
We will outline the most common types of conflict below, but do note that most stories do not limit themselves to only one type, and instead use a combination of these.
For internal conflict, your character will essentially be fighting against himself. It may be a moral struggle, in which he needs to do something that goes against his beliefs.
Man vs. Self
Some writers do not categorize conflicts as internal or external, instead choosing to label the conflict as “Man vs. Self.” This is often considered one of the most powerful types of conflict for a story.
Internal conflicts can manifest as struggles between what you want to do and what others want you to do, what you should do, or even between two conflicting desires.
A good example of inner conflict is the scene in Disney’s animated film Tangled, where Rapunzel has finally left her tower. Her feelings are divided between exuberant glee at having escaped, and guilt and remorse over having deceived her mother. She struggles between what she wants to do and what she thinks she should do.
Another example is the inner conflict that Elizabeth Ann of Understood Betsy experiences. Betsy starts off with a timid, fearful personality, and as she is thrown into a whole new world with the Putney cousins, she struggles with shaking off everything she used to believe, and tries to learn new things and to live a whole new life.
As the name suggests, external conflict happens when the protagonist, or main character, strives against external forces. The most common types of external conflict include:
Man vs. Fate
In Man vs. Fate, the main character usually struggles with a prophecy or something that is considered his “destiny.” This is very common in Greek dramas, where the gods were believed to have the power to control a person’s fate.
In modern literature, stories with a strong supernatural slant can carry this off well.
A good example of the Man vs. Fate conflict is the 3rd part of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where The Hound is chasing Montag, having been programmed to kill him.
The Hound is described as one that “never fails,” and represents Montag’s fate of being killed; he struggles with this “fate” and tries to escape.
Man vs. Man or Man vs. Others
Man vs. Others can come in the form of the main character being at odds with one or more other characters. The reasons for the conflict are endless: a family feud, a business deal gone awry, anything you can think of!
Many thrillers and mystery novels use the Man vs. Man conflict, increasing the stakes. For example, in Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, the protagonist Tracy Whitney finds herself framed by the Mafia, which triggers her plans to take revenge on the group.
Another example for the Man vs. Others would be Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, wherein Cassie’s family and community are in clear conflict with the white folks who are lording it over their cotton fields.
Man vs. Nature
A Man vs. Nature conflict sees the protagonist struggling to survive against the challenges of nature or the environment. These stories grab our attention because many of they come with a life-or-death stake.
Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” expertly weaves this conflict into the story of an unnamed male protagonist who needs to survive in the subzero boreal forest in the Yukon. A native dog accompanies him, and he ends up underestimating the harshness of the cold and finds himself freezing to death.
David Goggins’ autobiographical book Can’t Hurt Me, although rich in other types of conflict, also features a Man vs. Nature slant in his descriptions of defying the odds in his numerous races and exploits through the harshest terrain.
Another example of a Man vs. Nature conflict would be stories about pandemics, such as Robin Cook’s Contagion, wherein a sabotage causes the spread of a deadly epidemic.
Man vs. the Unknown
Another type of conflict that also makes for a compelling read is Man vs. the Unknown. In this type of conflict, your main character is struggling with the future, with things that he cannot see before him.
In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’ Hara faces conflict with other characters and also conflict with herself, as she treads down the path of moral decay.
But throughout the story, she also struggles with the unknown, and the many circumstances that all seem to tumble in one after another to contribute to her financial ruin.
Another example of Man vs. the Unknown is scenario commonly found in science fiction stories, wherein the main characters fight against extraterrestrials.
One classic example is the sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, in which a group of human beings clash with a race of Martians.
Man vs. the Supernatural
Man vs. the Supernatural features the main character fighting against unseen spiritual elements. This may include fighting against the gods, as in ancient Greek epics, or supernatural beings like fairies, wizards, ghosts, or other entities.
Fantasy stories deal with a lot of magical and supernatural elements, so the Man vs. the Supernatural conflict will most likely come up in fantasy novels.
One good example of a Man vs. the Supernatural conflict is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo and his hobbit-friends are engaged in a battle of the wits over a supernaturally-empowered ring, with clear, frightening power that draws it back to its creator, the evil Sauron.
Man vs. Society or Government
In Man vs. Society, the main character is pitted against society at large, usually with the government. Conflict between man and society is common in dystopias, where the government controls everything and something doesn’t feel right somehow.
For example, in Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, Jonas is destined to be the new Receiver of Memory. Although the story also includes a Man vs. Fate slant, because of the dystopian society he grows up in, the conflict that’s highlighted is his conflict with society as a whole and the body that governs it.
Man vs. Machine
Although the Man vs. Machine conflict is not limited to modern-day technology-filled life, the possibilities of man struggling against machines have increasingly captured writers’ imagination.
One example is the science fiction novel 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, whose main character Dave Bowman, an astronaut, finds himself struggling with the HAL 9000, a machine designed with superior intelligence—so superior that it believes Dave’s weaknesses as a human being translate into its needing to remove him from the mission.
Challenge Your Characters
As you can see, the possibilities for introducing conflict in stories are endless, and an interesting conflict can help you to develop character arcs and make your protagonists more dynamic.
Whether you simply enjoy reading novels or are writing them yourself, understanding how conflict plays into a compelling read will make your experience all the richer.
What’s your favorite example of conflict from film or literature? Share it with us in the comments below!