The Six Types of Conflict in Fiction: How To Identify Them and Make Them Work in Your Story
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 type 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 study the six types of conflict and what they might mean for your own story.
What is conflict in fiction?
In a nutshell, the conflict of a book is a struggle between two opposing forces, and it starts when something stands in the way of a character and their goals. It’s the gap between what they want and what they have. In other words:
CHARACTER + WANT + OBSTACLE = CONFLICT
This might sound overly simple, but almost all of the great books in the world are born from this formula: a protagonist desperately wants something, but can't get it. One of the major tensions in Great Expectations, for instance, sees Pip yearning to be a gentleman in the face of an upper class that frowns on social ascension.
In the broad scheme of the narrative arc, the seeds of tension are planted in the book’s exposition. This then gets the ball rolling for the rest of the book: CONFLICT + ACTION = (you guessed it) STORY.
How does conflict affect character?
Has anyone ever told you that you need to put your characters through Hell? That’s not because authors are all masochistic, but because it's also one of the best ways to develop characters in fiction.
Conflict 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 immediately go to the authorities and report what they did? Or do they drag the body to hide somewhere (à la Hamlet)?
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. In all cases, it should force characters to act in ways that reveal themselves. A well-written conflict will make the protagonist confront their fears and bring their values into focus.
Don’t write conflict just for conflict’s sake
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? You shouldn’t introduce conflict if it does nothing meaningful to further plot or character. Conflict 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 conflict 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 kinds of central conflict make for good "building-shaking" material? Let's look at the six main types of conflict you'll find in fiction.
What are the six types of conflict?
Broadly-speaking, a conflict is going to be one of either two things: external and internal. Rest assured that you can break these types of conflict down even further, though. It turns out that human beings struggle against themselves, other human beings, society — and more besides, as we’ll find out.
Character against Character(s)
Pesky people, right? We cause trouble wherever we go. That’s the crux of this type of conflict, which you’ll find in many, if not most, books. This could be starkly black-and-white (a robbery, or a Hero vs. Villain setup), or it could be a subtler kind of confrontation between people, such as the kind that you find in romances or family dramas.
One popular sample of character versus character conflict is represented in the relationship between Harry Potter and Voldemort: both are trying to defeat the other. But there’s plenty of examples in our Muggle world, too. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, Jay Gatsby comes up against Tom Buchanan while trying to capture Daisy Buchanan’s attention. That you see this kind of conflict 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.
Examples: Elizabeth vs. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Walt vs. Hank in Breaking Bad, Jean Valjean vs. Inspector Javert in Les Misérables
Character against Society
Particularly prevalent in fiction these days, this type of conflict 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 of this type of conflict. In The Devil Wears Prada, our protagonist, Andy Sachs, struggles against the allure of Miranda Priestly and the fashion industry.
Further 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
Character against Nature
How would you fancy a fight for your life against Mother Earth? This type of conflict 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), and islands (Robinson Crusoe) 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 conflict in the story.
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
Character against 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 — 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 type of conflict 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.
Examples: Humanity vs. robots in I, Robot, Rick vs. androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Character against Supernatural
Superficially, this type of conflict may seem camp and irreverent, but many authors use it to try and explore the inexplicable events in life. That’s because the supernatural can include anything from ghosts to omens to, yes, fate itself. Take two very different examples of the supernatural at work in fiction: in the play Oedipus Rex, Oedipus struggles against a prophecy that predicts that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother, while The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde uses the supernatural to question the dualities of our natures.
Examples: Humanity vs. ghosts in Ghostbusters, Humanity vs. aliens in War of the Worlds
Character against 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 conflict 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 conflict.
Internal conflict 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.
Examples: 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
How do internal and external conflicts impact each other?
When it’s done right, the interplay between internal and external conflict raises the quality of the story altogether: a character’s internal conflict adds complexity to the external conflict while the external conflict drives inner change. To use an example we all probably know, we’ll briefly visit Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. She wants advancement in the FBI — but most desperately of all, she wants to silence the screaming of the lambs in her dreams. These inner desires are then teased out and used to fuel the external conflicts between Clarice and Hannibal, and Clarice and Chilton.
What are some ways to brainstorm conflict?
If you’re struggling to come up with a good central conflict, try going back to the basics and thinking about conflict through the below two methods.
The Character-Based Approach
It never does any damage to remember one of fiction’s #1 guidelines: it always comes down to character. So one thing you can do to brainstorm is to return to your characters. Start by re-evaluating the things that make them tick. What are their fears and core values? What are their (conscious or unconscious) desires? Now, which one of those desires would get the character upending everything to achieve — and could that form a central conflict that’d provide the basis for a satisfying story?
To brainstorm internal conflict, 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. And if you need more specific character development exercises for inspiration? Check out this post.
The Theme-Based Approach
The theme of a book is a universal concept that recurs throughout the story. And the central conflict typically brings out — or makes clear — what exactly the theme is. In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, the conflict 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 your central conflict could best complement it. Will it raise the questions that you want readers to consider? Will its resolution convey the message that you want to deliver? If you remember that conflict is just one part of the whole, you’ll experience a much easier time creating the package deal.
Which of the six types of conflict are you writing? How do you approach writing conflict? Share your thoughts in the comments below!