7 Types of Conflict in Literature (With Examples)

types of conflict in literature, explained below

There are 7 types of conflict in literature that writers use to create tension and drive the plot. These conflicts can be internal or external, and they often involve a character’s struggle against their surroundings or themselves.

Understanding the different types of conflicts in literature can help readers engage with the story and appreciate the complexities behind each character’s journey.

The two main categories of conflict in literature are internal and external. Internal conflicts occur within a character’s mind, as they struggle to make sense of their emotions or reconcile with past events. External conflicts, on the other hand, involve a character’s struggle against an outside force, such as society or nature.

chrisComprehension Questions: As you read through this article, our editor Chris will pose comprehension and critical thinking questions to help you get the most out of this article. Teachers, if you assign this article for homework, have the students answer these questions at home, then use them as stimuli for in-class discussion.

Internal vs External Conflicts

Conflicts in literature can be divided into two main categories: internal and external. Internal conflicts occur within a character’s mind and heart, while external conflicts involve an outside force that the character is struggling against.

  • Internal conflicts are often the most compelling, as they offer insight into a character’s motivations and inner turmoil. These types of conflicts can be deeply personal, such as a struggle with addiction or mental illness, or more universal themes like morality or identity.
  • External conflicts usually involve a character battling against a force outside of them, such as another person or nature itself. These types of struggles can push characters to their limits physically and emotionally. In some cases, external conflicts may also reveal important aspects of a character’s personality that wouldn’t have been explored otherwise.

Internal Conflict Example

In Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” the protagonist faces a conflict between her passion and her sense of morality. She is in love with Rochester, but also knows that their social status is vastly different and this could affect their relationship severely. Jane must navigate her emotions while also considering what is right for herself and others.

External Conflict Example

In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” the protagonist Santiago struggles against the natural forces of the ocean as he tries to catch a fish. Despite his determination, Santiago encounters numerous obstacles such as sharks, hunger, and fatigue. His physical battles with nature resemble that of an external conflict where he fights to survive and overcome his circumstances.

Now that we understand the difference between internal and external conflict let us delve into each type of conflict with examples from literature and movies.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Before continuing, write down some ideas you have for external and internal conflicts in your own short story or novel. What internal battles will the protagonist(s) struggle with? What external conflicts will they face in order to pull the plot forward?

Types of Conflict

1. Man vs Self (Internal Conflict)

Man vs self conflict is an internal struggle that a character experiences within themselves. This type of conflict arises when a character’s own actions, beliefs, emotions, or desires are in direct conflict with their moral or ethical values.

Often, this struggle involves characters trying to confront and overcome their self-doubts, insecurities, fears, guilt, and weaknesses.

This type of conflict can often be the most challenging for characters to overcome because it requires confronting deeply-rooted personal issues. The resolution of man vs self conflicts tends to involve personal growth and self-awareness.

Man vs Self Example in Literature

An example of Man vs Self can be seen in “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky where the protagonist Raskolnikov murders an old pawnbroker to prove his theory regarding morality through his practical deed ultimately leading him towards severe psychological stress and guilt.

Man vs Self Example in Film

In the movie “Black Swan,” Nina Sayers is struggling with herself as she tries to become the lead ballerina in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She faces immense pressure from her mother, director, herself but mostly Black Swan which represents everything she isn’t. Her fear and anxiety cause her to lose touch with reality as she battles hallucinations and paranoia while trying to find a balance between her dark and light selves.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: If you were to write a plot containing man vs self conflict, what core conflict will you focus on? For help with this, you may want to read my article on man vs self examples, where I explore man vs self themes including: fear of failure, quest for a stable identity, struggling with envy, overcoming insecurity, seeking self-forgiveness, and more.

2. Man vs Destiny (Internal Conflict)

Man vs destiny conflict is a form of internal struggle where the protagonist battles against the predetermined fate or destiny that they believe is bestowed upon them.

This struggle involves characters trying to challenge and change the course of their life or overcome a perceived inevitability.

This type of conflict often involves a battle against oneself to take control of one’s own life and make choices that could alter their future. The resolution can either be accepting the predetermined fate or changing it by taking matters into one’s own hands.

Man vs Destiny Example in Literature

An example of Man vs Destiny can be seen in “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles, where Oedipus tries everything in his power to evade his fate predicted by Oracle. Despite his best attempts, he ultimately fulfills his prophecy.

Man vs Destiny Example in Film

In the movie “The Truman Show,” Truman Burbank is living a seemingly perfect life in Seahaven Island, unaware that he is on a reality television show. However, as he begins to question his surroundings and doubt his perceived reality, he challenges what he believes was destined for him: being part of an elaborate TV show designed since birth. He decides to break free from what was believed “his destiny” toward achieving true freedom and self-determination regardless of preordained events.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: If you were to write a plot containing man vs destiny conflict, what would you select as the character’s inescapable destiny? For some stimulus, consider my article on man vs destiny examples where I present multiple plots from famous film and literature that contain man vs destiny plotlines.

3. Man vs Society (External Conflict)

In Man vs Society conflict, a character battles against the larger society they live in and societal norms.

Man vs society usually involves a clash of individual beliefs, values or ethics with those associated with the community, government or culture. 

This type of conflict can be seen when institutionalized rules or societal expectations create hindrances to direct action such as revolutionary thought process, going against social injustice and fighting oppression.

Man vs Society Example in Literature

A famous example of Man vs Society is depicted in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, where protagonist Atticus Finch goes against the town’s racist ideologies by defending an innocent black man who is falsely accused of a crime. Atticus faces backlash and criticism but chooses to remain persistent in his beliefs.

Man vs Society Example in Film

The movie “Dead Poets Society” depicts a similar form of external conflict where John Keating, an English teacher, encourages his students to break free from societal conventions imposed by their strict boarding school curriculum. Through poetry and literature, he urges them to follow their hearts even if it means going against their parents’ expectations which leads them towards finding authenticity in their own lives.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: If you were to write a plot containing man vs society, what struggle would you focus on? For help with this, you may want to read my article on man vs society examples, where I explore common man vs society themes including: struggling against prejudice, standing up against evil and corruption, rebelling against social norms, and challenging a dystopian world.

4. Man vs Nature (External Conflict)

Man vs Nature is another form of external conflict where a character encounters adverse natural elements such as physical barriers, natural disasters, or environmental challenges in their journey.

This type of conflict demonstrates the power and uncontrollable forces of nature that can be controlled by nobody.

A classic example is “The Old Man and the Sea,” where the protagonist Santiago battles against an enormous marlin during his fishing expedition. Despite his perseverance, he faces numerous outside factors such as sharks, hunger, fatigue in his struggle to bring home his catch.

Example of Man vs Nature in Literature

In Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, Professor Lidenbrock continues on his quest despite being faced with a vast array of geological obstacles like lava-filled caverns, subterranean oceans and underground storms in their epic adventure to find out what lies beneath our world. 

Example of Man vs Nature in Film

In the movie “Cast Away,” we witness how Chuck Noland struggles after being stranded on an uninhabited island following a plane crash. He battles with nature for survival with limited interactions while gathering resources for basic needs ultimately leading towards self-discovery along with accepting nature’s immense power overwhelming humanity.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: If you were to write a plot containing man vs nature conflict, what natural challenge would you consider? Examples include struggles against fires, climate change, and volcanoes, as well as the very common theme of being lost in the jungle, desert, or another remote environment.

5. Man vs Technology (External Conflict)

Man vs Technology conflict portrays a protagonist in a clash against an advanced technological force such as artificial intelligence, robots/computers or other futuristic technologies.

It amplifies how modern scientific advancements and tools can lead to dire consequences underlying the risk of technology’s misuse or unintended results of their creations.

Man vs Technology Example in Literature

A prime example is Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” where Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster that ultimately turns against him giving way to disastrous events highlighting how playing with the power of transformation could result in unforeseen outcomes.

Man vs Technology Example in Film

The movie “The Terminator” demonstrates an extreme level of Man vs Technology conflict, when a computerized AI system named Skynet annihilates human race post its sentience recognition becoming self aware by triggering “judgment day” wherein all humans are destroyed by its army of machines. It shows humanity’s battle to survive in the face of technological power and unstoppable machinery.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: With the recent rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence, this theme isn’t going anywhere any time soon. In a hypothetical plot about AI, how would AI cause problems for the protagonist to overcome?

6. Man vs Man (External Conflict)

One of the most common forms of external conflict depicted in literature is Man vs Man. In this type of conflict, a protagonist encounters an antagonist who is usually opposing them out of individual interests or conflicting ideologies. 

These conflicts can take various forms such as one on one physical fights to mental battles and psychological manipulation. The resolution in these cases tends to occur through changed values or compromises or sheer triumphs.

Example of Man vs Man in Literature

A classic example includes William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” wherein the title character’s uncle, Claudius murders his father, resulting in Hamlet’s quest for revenge leading him towards his moral dilemma ultimately ending with all meeting their inevitable fate.

Example of Man vs Man in Film

The movie “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” depicts a similar kind of confrontation when struggling actor Rick Dalton feels threatened by rising star Roman Polanski moving into the house next door. However, events take a dark turn when followers of Charles Manson break into Polanski’s home to carry out horrendous acts illustrating how rivalry spirals beyond measure if unchecked ultimately leading towards tragic ending.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: If you were to write a plot containing man vs man conflict, how would you set up the person-vs-person conflict? This can be anything from standing up against the schoolyard bully to uncovering a spy in the ranks of an intelligence agency.

7. Man vs Supernatural (External Conflict)

Another type of external conflict is Man vs Supernatural. It involves a protagonist engaging in a battle against an entity smaller or greater than oneself such as mythological creatures, ghosts, aliens or unexplainable unknown forces.

Supernatural forces can sometimes be represented as a metaphor for human fears and desires that exist beyond our physical world but which directly impact our lives. For example, in Bram Stoker’s classic novel “Dracula,” the vampire Count Dracula serves as an allegory for the dangers of unchecked desire, lust and addiction.

The resolution of man vs supernatural conflicts is usually a combination of physical and mental fortitude alongside outsmarting supernatural forces. The boundary between what is real versus imaginary often remains blurred keeping viewers on edge portraying some situations being more challenging to accept than others.

Man vs Supernatural Example in Literature

One example is found in Stephen King’s “The Shining”, where Jack Torrance’s family moves into the isolated Overlook Hotel for the winter, only to be haunted by supernatural entities residing there that drive him insane ultimately leading him towards his demise.

Man vs Supernatural Example in Film

In the movie “Ghostbusters,” protagonists face an army of ghosts invading New York City requiring immediate action by a group of scientists – busting ghosts! It depicts a clash between everyday people and merely big scare many disbelieve, demonstrating how even when humans encounter metahumans or supernatural beings, they can find their way to prevail over them with human wit and intelligence.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: If you were to write a plot containing man vs supernatural conflict, what would the supernatural act as a metaphor for? It could be a metaphor for inner fear, the evil potential in everyone, and so on.

Conclusion

In literature, conflicts serve as a driving force behind the plot and character development, turning reading experiences into exciting journeys filled with suspense and emotional tension. This is why knowing the common types of conflict in literature is essential for writers to create complex characters that audiences can relate to, and help readers appreciate how these characters deal with different forms of adversity outside or within themselves. By providing a more profound understanding of how characters handle challenges, good writing comes to life making readers feel connected emotionally and intellectually through each unique story.

Chris
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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