This is what Robert McKee, the author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, calls the Law of Conflict, and storytelling is governed by it.
The finer details like story setting, character, and plot events all give the reader context and understanding, but conflict, according to McKee, is the “soul” of story. Every kind of story, every genre – novel, short story, science fiction, romance, mystery, historical, young adult, etc. – requires it.
In her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says that, in literature, “only trouble is interesting.” It’s a bit ironic that in real life, we resist trouble; we shy away from conflict. Yet readers crave it in fiction.
First-time authors often find the idea of putting their characters into conflict an upsetting one. Just as they want to avoid conflict in their own lives, they don’t want to place their characters into uncomfortable, confrontational situations. They’ll focus on eloquent setting description or complex character development but then give the main character no conflict to resolve. Don’t make that mistake.
Quite simply, conflict keeps your story interesting. Conflict is opposition – either internal or external (more on that below). Conflict is what comes from the challenges your protagonist must solve or resolve on the way to achieving his/her/their goal. It offers a teasing carrot of uncertainty about whether your protagonist will achieve that goal, keeping your readers engaged and turning pages to discover whether (or not) the conflict is resolved.
And that’s what every author wants, right? To carry the reader all the way to THE END?
Without conflict, your main character is simply experiencing a series of largely uninteresting slice-of-life moments. Without conflict, there is no story.
Types of Conflict Video
Six main types of literary conflict
There are several types of conflict used in literature. Here are the six main types:
1. Person vs. self
In a person-versus-self conflict, a character might be conflicted with their own feelings or have two opposing goals. An author can show this as a struggle between right and wrong or a struggle between opposing wants, needs or expectations. For example, a character might have to choose between two love interests.
2. Person vs. person
In a person-versus-person conflict, the main character’s goal is obstructed by another character or multiple characters. This conflict can result in either an argument or a physical confrontation. Ultimately, the hero of the story has to choose how they will try to overcome the person or people who are keeping them from getting what they want.
For example, a person-versus-person conflict could be a scene that takes place in a crowded subway station where the hero is running away from the villain.
3. Person vs. society
In a person-versus-society conflict, the character might work against injustices in society. This could be a character or a group of characters leading a protest against an agency or group of leaders. An author could also show this type of conflict in an alternative way, with society or an agency pursuing a character. For example, a government agency or the FBI might pursue a fugitive in an adventure-themed conflict.
4. Person vs. nature
In a person-versus-nature conflict, a character might find themselves in conflict with an element of nature or an animal. Consider a captain on a boat during a storm that threatens to capsize the boat or a hiker lost in the woods who confronts a bear.
5. Person vs. machine or technology
A person-versus-machine or technology-themed conflict refers to a conflict that includes a character versus a machine, robot or piece of technology. This type of conflict could include a character physically battling a robot who is trying to attack them. Or it could involve a character whose car breaks down in an unfamiliar town and leaves the character stranded.
6. Person vs. fate or supernatural being
A person versus fate or supernatural conflict is a struggle with a fated outcome or with a ghost or deity-type creature. An author might use this type of conflict in a ghost story where a character has to battle with a ghost or multiple haunted creatures. An author could also use this conflict style in mythical stories of deities where a character is struggling with multiple deities or their powers.
What is conflict in literature?
Conflict occurs when a character faces an obstacle to their central want or need and is used as a tool in literature to move the story forward. Conflict reveals itself as either an external or internal struggle, meaning the obstacle can be within the character or a force separate from the character.
Tips for writing conflict in literature
Here are some tips for writing effective conflict in literature:
Use purposeful conflict
Include only purposeful conflict that is functional to the story to keep your ideas and themes straightforward. Conflict moves the plot forward and reveals character by examining the choices your hero makes in removing the obstacles to their goal. Be sure your obstacles are not easy to overcome and that they directly oppose the hero’s goal.
Keep it simple
Consider keeping your story simple including only the necessary plot, details and conflicts. You can add multiple conflicts and multiple types of conflicts in one story, but including too many conflicts might distract your readers from the main plot or central purpose. Making a storyboard of your central plot with conflicts might help you see if you have any additional conflicts to remove.
Understand your characters
Fully understanding your characters goals, motivations and desires can help you explain why a character might enter into a situation with conflict or how they would arrive at conflict. Writing down a storyboard for each character about their motivations can be a good starting point. Once you know your characters, you can start working out details for your characters motivations and how they might get into conflict.
Keep your characters active
No matter what conflict your hero faces, make sure your character is active in working to overcome the obstacles that prevent them from reaching their ultimate goal. The choices that your hero makes when they’re opposed tell us a lot about their personality and create a compelling dramatic character.
What are the 7 different types of conflict?
What are the 5 types of conflict?
- Character vs. Character(s)
- Character vs. Society.
- Character vs. Nature.
- Character vs. Technology.
- Character vs. Supernatural.
- Character vs. Fate.
- Character vs. Self.