Literary Conflict

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  Conflict can arise at any time between people who are close friends, family members, co-workers, or romantic partners as disagreements about their perceptions, desires, ideas, or values spring up.  Some people try to avoid conflict at all costs, because they feel out of control when conflict arises.  Others feel that any criticism or disagreement is an attack on them and others that are stubborn will bottle up all of the complaints from their distant past.  Conflict may make you feel like you have been hit below the belt and it may cause others to withdraw and become silent.

Conflict is the struggle between opposing forces and it is present everywhere in the world around us.  We experience conflict on a daily basis, and it can be as minor as a disagreement with a friend about where to have lunch, or as major as countries deciding whether or not to go to war against each other.  In literature, a conflict is a literary element that involves a struggle between two opposing forces and conflicts can be a recurring theme throughout the story or a momentary and temporary obstacle.  Conflict in a narrative is created when the main character wants something.  When something else gets in the protagonist’s way, a conflict arises.  All stories contain conflict, and some people disagree about how many different categories of conflict there are.  These discrepancies depend on individual narrative circumstances, but there are cases in which you should recognize a total of seven different categories of narrative conflict.

Conflict is used to create reader involvement.  Conflict is a literary device used for expressing a resistance that the protagonist of the story finds in achieving his aims or dreams.  The conflict is a discord that can have external aggressors or can even arise from within the self.  It can occur when the subject is battling his inner discord, at odds with his surroundings or it may be pitted against others in the story.  Usually a protagonist is pitted against an antagonist and the two different kinds of conflict are internal or external.

Internal conflict resides inside the character as they struggle with morality, fate, desire and belief, to name a few.  An internal or psychological conflict arises as soon as a character experiences two opposite emotions or desires, such as virtue or vice, or good and evil inside of them.  This disagreement causes a character to suffer mental agony.  Internal conflict develops a unique tension in a storyline marked by a lack of action.  This form of conflict is central to the character, or characters and must be resolved by the character alone.  Every good character suffers from the weight of internal conflict, as it lends them an air of complex believability.  Internal conflict is also known as man versus self.  Internal conflict is the least complicated form of conflict.

External conflict deals with the problems of the world.  The story’s characters will struggle against the circumstances of external conflict, they may even suffer internal conflict resulting from the issues of external conflict, but this is not as simple as internal conflict.  External conflict occurs when characters are involved in the world’s woes, such issues as community, nature, government and other characters are all examples of external conflict.  External conflict is marked by a characteristic involvement of an action wherein a character finds himself in struggle with those outside forces that hamper his progress. The most common type of an external conflict is where a protagonist fights back against the antagonist’s tactics that impede their advancement.  External conflict manifests itself as man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society and man versus fate.

Most stories show a character arc from the beginning of the end, displaying development or transformation of the main character(s) nature or opinions.  The majority of this development and transformation occurs due to conflict.  Conflict challenges a character’s convictions and brings out their strengths and/or weaknesses, much as it does in real life.  Literature would be boring without conflict and conflict is not necessarily a bad thing.  Often it is not always obvious which side is right or wrong.  Conflict is the result of competing desires or the presence of obstacles that need to be overcome.  It is necessary to propel a narrative forward; the absence of conflict amounts to the absence of story and often there is one overriding conflict that is lasts the duration of the story.  The seven categories of conflict that exist in literature are: Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, Man versus Society, Man versus Self, Man versus Technology, Man versus Supernatural and Man versus Fate.  Each type of conflict is not mutually exclusive, as stories often have overlapping struggles, containing multiple characters and storylines.

In Man versus Man or Character Versus Character conflict, characters are pitted against one another as one person struggles for victory over the other.  Man versus Man involves a struggle is between two or more characters in a story.  The antagonist (or other character) tries to keep the protagonist from reaching his goal.  The protagonist must overcome the efforts of the antagonist to reach their goal.  In these sort of conflicts your characters will be opposed by or will oppose the actions, reactions, motivations of another character or characters.  When two characters have opposing desires or interests, this situation typically ends in a scenario that creates a conflict between the protagonist and antagonist.  This type of story usually features a hero and a villain or villains where the villain may in essence be the alter ego of the protagonist (thus representing the conflict of person versus self) or they might stand for society.  This is probably the most common form of external conflict, and is also known as interpersonal conflict.  This mode lies at the heart of all dramatic arts and places the struggle directly between the protagonist and the antagonist and is otherwise known as the good guy and the bad guy.  In a man versus man conflict, the protagonist wants something, and the antagonist obstructs the protagonist from getting what he wants.  A writer might choose to use this sort of conflict to provide comic relief to their narrative.

In Man versus Nature or Character versus Nature, the hero must overcome a force of nature to meet their goal.  Man versus Nature pits the main character against the forces of nature, which could be in the form of a natural disaster, or a similarly dangerous situation and this is often associated with literary naturalism, which hinges on the idea that nature is indifferent to humanity.  The force of nature can be Nature itself, like a storm, an earthquake, a flood, a difficult climate, or it might be a predatory animal, or a disease epidemic.  The hero sometimes meets their goal, but sometimes they are defeated.  This is a battle for survival against the inexorable and apathetic force of nature.  The hero may be forced to confront nature, or the protagonist may be seeking the conflict, trying to exert dominance over nature.  This can be an inspirational story where human spirit is able to triumph over adversity and this type of story will never go out of fashion.

In Man versus Society or Character versus Society, a protagonist sees something in a unique way.  Man versus Society is a mode of external conflict which occurs when the protagonist is placed at odds with a government or cultural tradition.  This is an external conflict where a character must take on society itself, and not a single person.  The character stands at odds with societal norms and realizes the necessity to work against these norms.  People in the town or a specific culture may not like the way that the leading character is thinking, because their bold ideas diverge from tradition or the established rules. They ridicule and threaten the protagonist and eventually they are compelled to act.  Our hero may convince the others that he is right, or they might be forced to flee town and they may even be killed.  These conflicts involve your characters’ firm beliefs which are against norms that the entire society as a whole endorses.  It could be social evils or discrimination practiced by society that is opposed by a minority or your character might be confronting institutions, traditions, or laws.  This is often found in a dystopian genre, where the person-against-society conflict follows the storyline of an individual or a group fighting (sometimes successfully, sometimes not-so-successfully) against injustices within a corrupt society.

In Man versus Self or Character versus Self, the protagonist must overcome his or her own nature to reach their goal.  The protagonist struggles within their own mind, their own prejudices or doubts or character flaws.  The protagonist may, or may not, succeed.  These conflicts involve internal battles that characters wage within themselves, where these internal issues affect their actions, motivations and interactions with other characters.  The conflict can be a recurring theme throughout the story or at a particular point in time.  The struggle or opposition is within a character to make a tough decision.  A character might struggle to overcome fear, addiction, emotional damage or another crippling personal issue.  This conflict develops from a protagonist’s inner struggles, and may depend on a character trying to decide between good and evil or overcome self-doubts.  Conflict takes place within the mind of the main character, and it often involves the character making a decision between right and wrong, or other mixed emotions, however, this struggle could also exist in the form of a character battling mental illness.  This conflict has both internal and external aspects, as obstacles outside the protagonist force the protagonist to deal with inner issues.

In Man versus Technology or Character versus Technology, the protagonist must overcome a machine or technology or something not normal in this world.  This is an external conflict and most often the encounter with the machine or this technology is through the character’ own doing, as perhaps they created, purchased, or owned the technology or the machine with the assumption that it would make their life easier.  In many stories the antagonists use technology to gain power or this technology takes over or becomes a malign influence on society.  Over time the protagonist must overcome the technology, in some instances, possibly even destroying it before it destroys them.

In Man versus Supernatural or Character versus the Unknown/Extraterrestrial, the protagonist battles against an entity that isn’t entirely known or comprehensible, whether it is extraterrestrial or metaphysical.  This is a common thread in science fiction and supernatural horror movies and books and it might include monsters, aliens or deities.  Supernatural elements are typically those that defy the laws of nature and are beyond scientific understanding.  Such a setting adds gravitas and drama to the story.  If you are using super natural elements you might want to make sure what genre you are writing in.

In Man versus Fate or Character versus Fate, a protagonist works against what has been foretold for that person.  This category could be considered part of conflict with self or with society, as many people only count four types of conflict, including those two and conflict with another person or with nature.  This type of conflict occurs when a character is trapped by an inevitable destiny and loses their freedom and free will as everything they try seems impossible.  This type of conflict was more prevalent in stories where gods could control fate, such as in ancient Greek dramas, but there are still examples of this type of conflict in more contemporary literature.

9 thoughts on “Literary Conflict

  1. Yep. Really deep dive. One thing to add: the internal conflict and how it becomes.
    A character has values for his life. Some values are core beliefs. One could be: nothing is more important than Money. Another could be: nothing is more important than Family. Where is the conflict in this? If the person’s aim/desire is to become wealthy and loved, because these two things are the most important things in his world, what happens when his child is threatened with death if he doesn’t hand over all his dosh?
    Values are the creators of conflict within the character. It forges the ambition to achieve the things that empower the values.
    Every single person has values, usually more than one, and there is always something that causes one to come to the fore; will it be at the cost of another value, something that causes change/damage/adaptation of the inner core beliefs?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t really develop a plot – I play something from inner character into the world in which he lives. that’s usually enough. A person says ‘I gotta do,’ and that’s what they gotta do, even against the odds. So much fun.

        Liked by 1 person

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