Conflict in a Story
Conflict in literature is what makes a story interesting. Sure, you have characters, setting, and plot that play into the quality of a story, but you don’t have a story at all if you don’t have conflict.
In literature, conflict is any struggle between opposing forces. Most often, this happens when the main character wants something—to live, to rise above his or her situation, to change society—and something else gets in his or her way.
All conflict in literature is divided into two main types: internal and external.
Internal conflict only has one category: person vs. self. This occurs anytime the protagonist is battling an inner war. Jack London’s Call of the Wild, for example, is a person (or in this case, dog!) vs. self conflict between the dog’s wild and domestic nature. Or think of Hamlet’s famous monologue in Shakespeare’s play by the same name: “To be or not to be” is an example of a character at war with his own fears and desires.
External conflict occurs when the main character gets swept up in the issues of the world’s woes, such as government, society, community, or nature.
In most cases, external conflict can be divided into four categories—person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. fate and person vs. society. There are two more possible categories that have arisen in recent years, but we’ll talk about those later. First, let’s take a closer look at the main four.
In person vs. person conflict, the protagonist is opposed by another person. A well-known example of this appears in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, when the justice-driven Javert continually thwarts Jean Valjean’s attempts at redemption and mercy. Think also of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, a classic revenge tale where a wronged man sets out to destroy the people who ruined his life.
The second type of external conflict is person vs. nature. This occurs when the protagonist faces a harsh wilderness, gets struck by lightning, or has to navigate a natural disaster. An excellent example is Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, a story about a lone man struggling with a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream.
The third type of external conflict, person vs. fate, is very common in Greek tragedy. This occurs when the main character is trapped by what seems to be an inescapable destiny. Think of Oedipus Rex, a Greek play where Oedipus learns he is fated to marry his mother and kill his father. Oedipus’ attempts to escape this fate only end up bringing it to pass. In person vs. fate literary conflict, freedom and free will take a back seat to the unfolding action.
The last major category of external conflict, person vs. society, occurs when a character struggles against the mores of their culture or government. Think of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where a fireman required to burn books ends up secretly collecting them instead.
Remember those other two categories I mentioned earlier? Some argue that person vs. the unknownand person vs. machine should also be included in the list.
Person vs. the unknown is an external conflict caused by something outside human understanding, such as aliens, monsters, or the supernatural. Think of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, or Stephen King’s The Shining.
Person vs. machine is a theme that places the main character against technology. A classic example of this would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although this conflict is also a common theme in modern science fiction. Think of The Blade Runner, The Terminator, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Often, a work of literature will have multiple conflicts within it. Let’s take a quick look at Herman Melville’s famous novel, Moby Dick. There’s a major person vs. nature conflict between Ahab and the Whale, but there’s also a person vs. man conflict between Ahab and crew, as well as an element of person vs. the unknown between Ismael and God.
So remember: there may be many different kinds of conflict in one story, but there has to be at least one example of conflict for any story to exist.
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