In order for something to be exciting to read or watch, it needs to have a conflict. But what is a conflict, and why is it important? Allow this friendly English teacher to answer all your questions about conflict, starting from the most foundational.
What is the Definition of “Conflict?”
A conflict is a noun defined as an argument, struggle, problem, or clash. It is pronounced “KANH-flict,” with the emphasis on the first syllable. An example sentence using the word conflict as a noun would be: “There was a huge, screaming conflict on Pi Day about who would eat the last slice of Pi Pie. Finally, my sister agreed to split it with me.”
Conflict as a Noun vs. Verb
“Conflict” can also be a verb with the definition being: to differ or clash. However, the pronunciation of “conflict” is different as a verb than as a noun. As a verb, conflict is pronounced “Kahn-FLICT” with the emphasis on the second syllable.
An example sentence using the word conflict as a verb would be: “Our views on octopus hugging conflict. She thinks one should hug all eight tentacles at once, while I prefer to just hug the front two tentacles.”
Conflict in Literature
Though conflicts are stressful in real life, they are essential to making stories, books, movies, and shows interesting. In this literary and entertainment context, conflict is created when the main character (the protagonist) wants something, but there is something blocking them from getting it — thus producing a struggle. A story is created by trying to solve or surmount that struggle.
Conflict is so important in literature that there are specific categories of conflict that authors pull from. Whether you’re analyzing someone else’s story, or writing your own, let’s explore the different the types of conflict.
Internal vs. External Conflict
“Internal” means “inside,” so an Internal Conflict is a tension or struggle happening INSIDE a person’s head or soul. For example, self-doubt and fear create internal conflict if there is something a character needs to do, but thinks they cannot.
“External” means “outside,” so an External Conflict is an argument or problem between a person and forces OUTSIDE them — like a physical or mental battle with an individual, a group of people (or society), nature, technology, the supernatural, and so on.
Many stories have both internal and external conflicts at play. Let’s dive more deeply into different conflict types.
4 (or 7?) Types of Conflict
Traditionally, there are four types of conflict (Self, Character, Society, and Nature), but as we will see, there could be as many as seven. Also, traditionally, these conflict types are usually written like: “Man vs. __,” but as we are now in the modern era, we know that to say “Man” to refer to all beings is not fabulous. I will therefore say “Character vs. __” to list the categories. Remember that a protagonist doesn’t need to be human, which is why I’m saying “Character” instead of “Person.”
1. Character vs. Self.
The “Character vs. Self” category of conflict is the internal conflict we discussed earlier, because it takes place inside a character’s mind. An example might be that the hero of the story needs to get a magic pumpkin from the top of a giant tower, but she’s scared of heights. The internal conflict is the struggle between her need for the pumpkin, and her fear of heights. The story would explore how she could conquer her fears in order to scale the tower.
2. Character vs. Character.
This — and the rest of the conflict types — are external struggles. In a “Character vs. Character” conflict, the protagonist is in a struggle with another individual character. For example, the hero wants to be elected president of a local high school student group, but another student also wants that position. Will the former or latter teen win? How that struggle plays out becomes the plot of the story.
3. Character vs. Society.
In a “Character vs. Society” conflict, a group of people is in tension with the protagonist. For example, the hero is living in a society where it is illegal to eat cacti, but the hero wants nothing more than to nibble on those sweet spines. The conflict of the story would be the struggle between the protagonist’s desire to eat cacti, and all the people of the town’s battle to stop him. This type of conflict can also be “Character vs. an Institution,” where there’s a way of doing things, or a traditional path of actions, that is hard to alter — though the hero yearns to change it.
4. Character vs. Nature.
A “Character vs. Nature” conflict is when the protagonist wants to do something, but the weather, terrain, or other element of the natural world get in the way. An example of this type of conflict would be if the hero needs to sail to Antarctica to drop off a package for an important penguin, but needs to battle winds, waves, and frigid temperatures to do so. The plot would center on whether or not they survived these elements and fulfilled their quest.
5. Character vs. Machine or Technology.
Now we’re getting into the less-used types of conflicts! In a “Character vs. Machine or Technology” conflict — common in the Science-Fiction genre — the protagonist is being blocked from what they want or need by some form of robot, computer, or other advanced machine. This type of conflict is all about science, technology, and engineering. For example, the hero needs to figure out how to crack the code to stop a bomb that was created by a vast network of evil, sentient modems. Will the man or machine triumph?
Technically, this type of conflict could also be seen as Type #2 (“Character vs. Character”) if the struggle was against one single robot or machine, or as Type #3 (“Character vs. Society”) if the machines or computers were the people in charge, thus forming a society. It’s important to realize that these types of conflict sometimes flow into one another.
6. Character vs. Fate, Gods, or the Supernatural.
In the Fantasy genre, the “Character vs. Gods, or the Supernatural” type of conflict is quite common, and centers on the antagonist having magical powers to slow the hero’s pursuits. For example, the protagonist wants to find her sister, but angry gods keep throwing obstacles like boulders or monsters in her way to stop her progress.
Let’s unpack the “Character vs. Fate” type of conflict for a moment. “Fate” is defined as a magical destiny assigned by gods or the supernatural. Many a Greek myth center around heroes attempting to change the fate assigned to them. Technically, this could be seen as both an internal and external conflict, as it was assigned by an external force (the gods), but has become an internal feature of the character, as it is embedded into their future.
7. Character vs. the Unknown or Extraterrestrial.
Sometimes it’s unclear — or weird — what is blocking the protagonist from their goal, and in that case the “Character vs. the Unknown or Extraterrestrial” type of conflict fits best. This is somewhat like Conflict Types #5 and #6 in that there’s magic or currently-impossible technology involved, and in that it’s usually seen in Fantasy and Sci-Fi books. However the difference is that “Extraterrestrial” means aliens, and “Unknown” means… an undefined force which may never be fully revealed.
An example of this type of conflict would be that a hero wants to build a house, but a mysterious force keeps making the bricks fall off the wall. If it turns out that force was an alien, that’s “Character vs. Extraterrestrial.” If the force is never revealed, the conflict type would be “Character vs. The Unknown.” Either way, such a creepy struggle would almost certainly also cause the protagonist to have a “Character vs. Self” internal conflict as he battles going insane during this bizarre brick-falling experience.
Mixing and Layering Types of Conflict
Reflecting on books you’ve read and shows or movies you’ve seen, you’ll notice that every good one has at least two conflicts going at once — sometimes as many as four! If you’re writing your own story, consider having at least one internal conflict, and at least one external one. Start small, but once you get to more complicated plots, it may help to sketch out the flow of events using a pencil and paper, so you can keep the plan for each conflict separate.
Types of Conflict, in Sum
Let’s take this into real life, now. The next time you’re having a hard day, take a look to ascertain: what type of conflict am I living through right now? Is there an internal conflict, where my emotions are blocking me from taking an action I need to take? Is there a “Character vs. Character” conflict in which I’m struggling against an individual? Or is it a “Character vs. Society” conflict where a group of people or institution is making it hard for me to achieve my dreams? Hopefully it’s not a “Character vs. Extraterrestrial” conflict you’re having, because that would just be creepy.
I hope you can see here that these English lessons are fun and useful for analyzing books or movies and for planning good writing for your own creative stories — but learning types of conflict is also key in understanding, solving, and enjoying your real life!
The author and artist, Lillie Marshall, is a National Board Certified Teacher of English and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. All art on this site is original and hand-drawn by Lillie. She launched DrawingsOf.com Educational Cartoons in 2020, building upon the success of her other two sites, AroundTheWorldL.com (established 2009) and TeachingTraveling.com (founded 2010). Subscribe to Lillie’s monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media to stay connected!