What Are the Different Types of Conflict in Fiction?

Whether you are writing horror or romance, conflict propels the story forward. The absence of it or choosing the wrong conflict type can be disastrous for your novel. Here are the different types of conflicts and how they drive narratives in a story.

What is Conflict?

Before discussing the different types of conflict, let’s find out what conflict is in literature. 

A conflict is a literary structure driven by a struggle between two opposing sides. This opposition can be external or internal and offers a compelling tension element. One classic example of a conflict is the battle between good and evil. 

What are the Two Main Types of Conflict?

Different types of conflicts are divided into two main categories – internal and external. 

Expert Insight: It’s not usual to find novels with internal and external conflicts. Most of the time, they are intertwined to develop a compelling plotline. One perfect example is The Lord of the Rings.

Internal Conflict

When a character grapples with his/her own beliefs or ideas, it is called an internal conflict. This internal struggle can be about self-worth, intimacy, confidence, or a combination of two or more issues. Authors often use internal conflict to reveal a character’s thought process, values, and struggles. It also sets the stage for character and plot development.

Types of Internal Conflict

Internal struggles are divided into two – destiny or fate and self-conflict. These types of internal conflicts offer readers a closer look at a character’s beliefs and thought processes. And in return, this gives the character depth and moves the story forward. It also humanizes his/her struggles. 

Destiny / Fate:

Internal conflict revolving around destiny depicts characters pitted against their predestined futures. This challenges them to come to terms with their fate, regardless if it contradicts their beliefs. 

Expert Insight: Internal conflict may also result from choices like guilt or regret. If a character suffers from their choices, their mistakes often impact their future.

Here are some examples of books with a destiny conflict: 

  • Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter’s internal conflict begins when the truth about his identity as a wizard. He wants answers like why he lived when his parents died and whether it was really his destiny to defeat Voldemort.
  • Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: Aragorn, a mortal and the future king of Men, struggles with becoming king. He is also unsure about uniting an army of elves, dwarfs, and the dead to defeat Sauron. Amid all the competing factions, he contemplates a future without the love of his life.
  • The Godfather by Mario Puzo: Michael Corleone has made no secret of his desire to avoid inheriting his family legacy. Yet, after killing a room full of people, including the chief of police, he realizes that he is succumbing to his family’s criminal legacy. 

Self

The self-conflict can have a meaningful effect on a story’s plot or other characters. It arises when characters disagree internally about their authenticity. This means characters are either fighting inner demons or trying to improve themselves.

  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: This story follows two friends, George and Lennie. When Lennie, who has a mental illness, accidentally kills the wife of Curley (their boss’ son), George is faced with internal turmoil about whether or not he should end Lennie’s life to spare him from a more painful death at the hands of Curley. Tragically, George decides to shoot Lennie while he is reciting the dream they shared of owning a farm.
  • Pelican Brief by John Grisham: Darby Shaw, a law student, researches the death of two Supreme Justices. She concludes that politics had nothing to do with their deaths. She shows the brief to her law professor and lover, who, in turn, is killed. Darby struggles to decide whether to report the information or keep quiet and stay alive.
  • The Lady or the Tiger by Frank R. Stockton: The princess faces an internal dilemma when deciding which door to send her lover through. Will she choose the door with a tiger or one with a beautiful woman, her lover’s future wife?

External Conflict

An external conflict, as the word “external” implies, is from an outside source, typically beyond the control of the protagonist. It can be anything from a natural disaster like a tsunami or supernatural like ghosts in a horror story.

Expert Insight: There is often one central conflict in many works of literature, but you’ll come across books with different types of conflict. 

Types of External Conflict

Literary critics divide external conflicts into five types: nature, villain, supernatural, society, and technology. Like internal conflict, some books are structured and centered on one kind of external conflict, while others can have two or more. 

Nature

Nature conflict pits characters against forces of nature, like natural disasters. Usually, protagonists are lost in blizzards, storms, or in the middle of nowhere. Some are even afflicted by diseases, making the story even more compelling. By establishing an element of nature, you can develop the challenges which will test a character’s resiliency to survive. 

  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: Santiago, a fisherman, tries to catch a marlin. He fights long and hard for several days without giving up. After months of bad luck, Santiago finally catches the fish. Unfortunately, sharks stole his catch. Santiago battles with human emotions while nature carries on unabated.
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: The job of Guy, a firefighter, involves burning down the home of anyone found hiding banned literature. However, he is on the run from authorities after stealing books in a society where they are forbidden. Montag finds himself running through the wilderness, completely lost and disoriented as he tries to escape. His escape puts him at odds with nature.
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe: Crusoe fight to stay alive after he washes up on a remote island. In this harsh environment, he lacked modern technology and conveniences. Left with no choice, Crusoe had to fish, hunt, build, and farm to survive.

Character

In this conflict, your book’s protagonist faces off against another character, which in literature is called the antagonist. The whole plot of the story revolves around these two characters, where one’s needs or wants are at odds with another’s. 

Sometimes, the battle is physical, and sometimes it is psychological. In physical fighting, the protagonist faces the antagonist directly and uses weapons or other combat methods to defeat him. 

On the other hand, a psychological conflict with another character means that the battle is fought by outwitting one another. It can be through words, intelligence, and even a clever plan. 

  • The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton: This book reveals the conflict between two gangs, the Greasers and the Socs. Johnny and Ponyboy, members of the Greasers, kill Bob, a member of the Socs, in a violent confrontation. The murder was in self-defense, so Johnny and Ponyboy fled the scene. Tensions rise between the two gangs after this incident, leading to a battle won by the Greasers.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: To survive, Katniss has to outwit the Gamemakers and the others competing in the arena. Katniss’s strategy was to win the games by threatening to eat the toxic berries with Peeta to kill both of them. While Katniss’s physical survival is another conflict, the mental game she played to outwit the Gamemakers and the Capital and ultimately be the victor is also a conflict.
  • The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving: In this story, Old Scratch (the Devil) offers Tom Walker the riches in the swamp in exchange for a high price, often regarded as his soul. Tom thought about it, and since his wife was abusive, he exchanged her soul for money so that he could become rich. However, with age, Walker begins to worry about his deal with the Old Scratch – had he agreed to give his soul away? 

Supernatural

Character vs. supernatural is a type of external conflict in storytelling in which the protagonists battle supernatural forces.

These forces operate outside the rules of nature, so they might possess special abilities or powers or have access to things others do not.

Supernatural forces appear in stories in many different ways. They can be in the form of wizards, witches, vampires, ghosts, and other paranormal creatures. 

  • Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling: Harry takes on Lord Voldemort armed with his magic and wits in this classic tale of good versus evil. Harry is also struggling with his relationship with magic, creating two literary conflicts: character vs. self and character vs. supernatural. 
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis: Lucy decides to take a tour of the professor’s mysterious old house and find the secret of the wardrobe. The secret is the magical land of Narnia. In Narnia, they discover a country enchanted by the White Witch and mythical creatures. After meeting Aslan, the lion, the children realize they must embark on an incredible journey and bravely join the battle to free Narnia of the Witch’s evil spell. The children are excited about the adventure but are unsure of their roles in the battle.
  • War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells: This story starts with Horsell Common finding a meteor near his home in Surrey. The meteor opens up, revealing a Martian, and it turns out that these extra-terrestrial beings are looking for a new home. 

Society

Most character vs. society conflicts involves an oppressive or dystopian government. However, this type of conflict can also revolve around an unfair law or social justice issue. Keep in mind that the protagonists are not blameless or perfect, but they usually have a higher moral compass than other characters.

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: This novel depicts an unfair justice system. Although Atticus understands that he will lose the case, he takes on the challenge to defend African American Tom Robinson against rape charges. 
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: After a plane crash, Ralph tries to organize the group of boys and restore order among the survivors. Unfortunately, Jack and his group ignore Ralph, causing trouble, and ultimately leading to Piggy’s death. This causes a huge rift between Ralph and Jack. The conflict between the two led the group to chase Ralph to the beach’s edge for his extreme method of restoring order.

Technology

In a typical character vs. technology kind of story, the protagonist’s goal is to save the world from technological disasters. Sometimes this entails alternate universes, robots, genetic alterations, or disasters from science fiction.

  • The Giver by Lois Lowry: This book tells about Jonas living in a perfect society. The weather is regulated, there is no crime, and the Elders are responsible for choosing Jonas’s job and securing the future. The Giver reveals an almost mystical level of technology to Jonas as it passes on ancient memories. Unfortunately, this technology controls people and murders children who fail.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Victor Frankenstein meant no harm with his experiment, but the doctor’s fusion of body parts resulted in a monster. Unfortunately, the monster eventually seeks revenge against his creator for creating him and condemning him to a life of loneliness and scorn.
  • 1984 by George Orwell: Technology advancement in this novel has become a way to invade people’s privacy. It collects information and uses it to control every aspect of Oceania’s citizens. The government watches the citizens through monitors in their apartments. There are even listening devices all over the city.

Final Thoughts

Conflict gives your book a story, your protagonist depth and a character arc, and most importantly, keeps readers reading your entire novel. Remember, there are different types of conflict that you can use, whether you are writing a book series or a short story. 


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