Fiction 101: Six Types of Conflict Every Author Should Know
Ah, conflict. Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it. Kurt Vonnegut once said that every story is about a character who gets into trouble and then tries to get out of it. That’s because who and what we entangle with isn’t just the stuffing for embarrassing Thanksgiving-dinner stories: it’s the types of conflict that drives every narrative forward.
It goes without saying that your conflict will affect not only your plot, but also almost every other important element of your story: your characters, theme, tone, and setting. In that sense, figuring out your central conflict is one of the most important things you’ll do as a writer.
In this post, we'll study the different types of external and internal conflict — and figure out what they're going to mean for your own story.
What is conflict in literature?
Simply put, the conflict of a book is a struggle between two opposing forces. Conflicts start when something stands in the way of a character and their goals. In other words:
CHARACTER + WANT + OBSTACLE = CONFLICT
This might sound overly simple, but almost all of the great stories in the world are born from this formula: a protagonist desperately wants something, but can't get it. Simply take a look at these famous external and internal conflict examples for proof:
- Pip yearns to be a gentleman but the British upper class frowns on social mobility in Great Expectations.
- Michael Corleone wants to stay out of the family business in The Godfather but cannot resist the gravity of filial obligation.
- Fitzwilliam Darcy discovers that he's in love with Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but for one tiny obstacle: Miss Bennett despises the sight of him.
Authors tend to plant the seeds of tension in the exposition of the book's narrative arc. This then gets the ball rolling for the rest of the book: CONFLICT + ACTION = (you guessed it) STORY.
One more thing: we can separate character conflict into external and internal conflict. We'll take a closer look at both later.
How does conflict affect character?
Has anyone ever told you that you need to put your characters through Hell? That’s not because all authors are masochistic, but because it's also one of the best ways to develop characters in fiction.
1. Shows us truths about who we are. Imagine a situation where Character A accidentally stabs and kills a man through a curtain, for instance. Does the character now:
- Immediately go to the authorities and report what they did?
- Hide the body in an undisclosed location (à la Hamlet)?
2. Forces characters to act in ways that reveal themselves. That said, conflicts don’t need to be violent or set on a grand scale. They could revolve around the relationship between two characters — or stem from one character’s private desire to start an alpaca farm, instead of going to college. Just remember that a well-written internal or external conflict will always make the protagonist confront their fears and bring their values into focus.
Don’t write conflict just for the sake of it
A word of caution: writing good conflict doesn’t mean cramming in as much of it as possible.
How would a thirty-second fight over who’s taking out the trash move the needle, for instance? Don't introduce a struggle if it does nothing meaningful to further plot or character. Strife should always be related to your protagonist’s goal — either developing it or blocking it. If you picture your story as a building, a good struggle isn’t going to be several gusts of wind that batters only a couple of windows. It should be that storm that makes a building shake from its very foundations.
So what makes for good "building-shaking" material? Let's look at each major type of conflict you'll find in literature.
What are the seven types of conflict in literature?
There are seven main types of conflict in literature: character vs. character, character vs. society, character vs. nature, character vs. technology, character vs. supernatural, character vs. self, and character vs. fate. However, broadly speaking, these seven types can be lumped into two categories: external conflict or internal conflict.
Let’s start by looking at the types that fall into the external umbrella, along with some examples.
Type 1. Character versus Character(s)
Pesky people, right? We cause trouble wherever we go. That’s the crux of this kind of external struggle, which you’ll find in many, if not most, books. When we say "character versus character," we mean both the black-and-white (a robbery, or a Hero vs. Villain setup) and the subtler kinds of confrontation (a romance or a family drama, for instance).
The most obvious example of character versus character contention is the relationship between Harry Potter and Voldemort: both are trying to defeat the other. But there’s plenty more examples in our Muggle world, too. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, Jay Gatsby must go against Tom Buchanan to capture Daisy Buchanan’s attention. Horror novels often pit mankind against mankind as well. That you see this kind of struggle so often in fiction isn’t surprising: we almost always need to navigate a sea of people when we’re trying to achieve our goals in life.
Further external conflict examples: Elizabeth vs. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Walt vs. Hank in Breaking Bad, Jean Valjean vs. Inspector Javert in Les Misérables.
Type 2. Character versus Society
Particularly prevalent in fiction these days, this type of external struggle pits the protagonist against the wider society. In this case, “society” could involve an oppressive government, adults as seen from a teenager’s perspective, a corrupt police force — any larger group of people that makes the protagonist realize that they don’t neatly fit into the world’s mold for them. So they struggle in various ways against society’s expectations, something that often trips into outright rebellion.
Think dystopian novels. By virtue of the genre, we often see a character fighting a society that’s obviously deranged: take Brave New World’s Savage, who doesn’t belong in London in 2540 AD and attempts to reject it. There are also the more understated examples. In The Devil Wears Prada, our protagonist, Andy Sachs, has to grapple with the allure of Miranda Priestly and the fashion industry.
Further external conflict examples: Winston Smith vs. Big Brother in 1984, Katniss Everdeen vs. The Capital in Hunger Games, Romeo and Juliet vs. the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet.
Type 3. Character versus Nature
How would you fancy a fight for your life against Mother Earth? This type of struggle is just that: a character whose primary opponent is nature. If you come across it in fiction, expect to see all sorts of wildlife (Jaws), apocalypses (Day After Tomorrow), weather (The Perfect Storm), islands (Robinson Crusoe), and post-apocalyptic landscapes (The Road) surface as antagonists. And, since it often comes down to survival when you’re facing the forces of nature itself, you’ll frequently find “character versus self” — something we’ll touch on later — emerge as a partner struggle in the story.
Further external conflict examples: Mark vs. Mars in The Martian, Pi vs. the ocean in Life of Pi, Ahab vs. the Whale in Moby-Dick, Santiago vs. the marlin in Old Man and the Sea.
Type 4. Character versus Technology
Technology might feel as though it’s one of the newer categories out there, given the only recent rise of smartphones and Google in the 21st-century. But characters were battling technology way back when. In fact, you can trace it all the way back to Mary Shelley‘s 1818 Frankenstein, in which a chemist needs to fight his own creation: a monster born out of science.
This is perhaps most predominant in science fiction, where it’s used to raise questions about morality and identity at the boundaries of technology. But “character versus technology” can just as easily take place in our modern world (and not just when you’re trying to teach Grandma Millie how to use emojis)! In Apollo 13, for instance, the characters find themselves in a race against time when the machinery on their spaceship starts breaking down — in the middle of space.
Further external conflict examples: Rick vs. androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Humanity vs. robots in I, Robot.
Type 5. Character versus Supernatural
Superficially, this type of turmoil might seem camp and irreverent, but many authors use it to try and explore the inexplicable events in life. For example, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde uses the supernatural to question the duality of our natures. The supernatural can include anything from ghosts to vampires, to aliens and cannot be explained by natural law, but the character must press on all the same.
Further external conflict examples: Humanity vs. ghosts in Ghostbusters, Humanity vs. aliens in War of the Worlds.
Type 6. Character versus Fate
While this may seem similar to character vs. supernatural, character vs. fate stands on its own legs. character vs. fate can include dealings with God or the gods and their prophecies — where freedom seems far out of reach for the protagonist. This is a common trope in Greek tragedies, where the characters can do nothing but endure the destiny befallen them. For example in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus struggles against a prophecy that predicts that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. But we also see fate play out in more contemporary literature as well.
Further external conflict examples: Frodo vs. destiny in The Lord of the Rings, Billy Pilgrim vs. fate in Slaughterhouse-Five.
With those external factors out of the way, let's look at a final type of conflict.
Type 7. Character versus Self
It was writer Maxwell Anderson who said: “The story must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person.” Though that might be an oversimplification, it is true that every interesting story will involve a character’s inner dilemma at some point. That’s because, as James N. Frey points out in How To Write A Damn Good Novel, a reader experiences the most empathy for a character when that character is in the middle of some intense inner strife.
Internal strife will stem from a debate that occurs within a character. It might originate from any combination of the character’s expectations, desire, duties, and fears. In Hunger Games, for instance, Katniss Everdeen must reconcile her reluctance to kill another human being with the need to survive in the battle arena. Gripping inner tension is often morally complex or universal, and that’s what will ultimately resonate with your readers.
Further internal conflict examples: Pretty much every book! For more specific examples, though, see: Mrs Dalloway vs. self in Mrs Dalloway, Hamlet vs. self in Hamlet, Humbert Humbert vs. self in Lolita, Holden vs. self in The Catcher In The Rye, Pip vs. self in Great Expectations.
The difference between internal versus external conflict
When it’s done right, the interplay between internal and external conflict raises the quality of the story altogether. A character’s internal battle adds complexity to the external conflict while the external drives inner change. Otherwise, your character will simply be one-dimensional.
Perhaps the best way to think about this is to look in the nearest mirror. What kind of internal battle do you go through yourself? Doesn't it influence the struggles that you face externally?
To use an example from literature we all probably know, let's briefly visit Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. There's her internal struggle: she wants advancement in the FBI — but most desperately of all, she wants to silence the screaming of the lambs in her dreams. This issue is then teased out and used to fuel the external conflicts between Clarice and Hannibal, and Clarice and Chilton. Both are intrinsically tied to the other in Clarice's character arc, and should be written as such.
How can I practice writing a type of conflict?
If you’re struggling to come up with a good central conflict, try going back to the basics and thinking about it through the below two methods.
The Character-Based Practice
It never hurts to remember one of fiction’s #1 guidelines: it always comes down to character in the end. So one thing you can do to brainstorm is to return to your cast of characters. Start by re-evaluating the things that make them tick. Ask yourself:
- What are their fears and core values? (This is vital if you want to create a strong internal conflict.)
- What are their (conscious or unconscious) desires?
- Which one of those desires would get the character upending everything to achieve? Could that form a central struggle that’d provide the basis for a satisfying story?
To brainstorm internal conflicts, John Vorhaus suggests putting “but” into an equation with opposing forces, such as: I love my younger sister, but I’m a danger to her because of my ice powers, or I want Daisy Buchanan, but I’m a poor boy from the Midwest. Try it for your characters!
The Theme-Based Practice
Generally, the central conflict teases out — or makes clear — the theme of the book. In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, the discordance between the two noble families of the Montagues and the Capulets is the perfect backdrop for the Love versus Hate theme that pervades the play.
If you’ve already got a sense of what you want your theme to be, think about ways that the central struggle could best complement it. Will it raise the questions that you want readers to consider? Will the resolution of the external and internal conflicts convey the message that you want to deliver? If you remember that strife is just one part of the whole, you’ll experience a much easier time creating the package deal.
Which of the seven types of conflict are you writing? How do you approach writing conflict? Share your thoughts in the comments below.