You know in scary movies, when a character does something so irredeemably stupid that you know it will lead to their death? I’m talking about when, in a zombie-post-apolcalyptic world, they run screaming into a house and lock the door behind them. They don’t check and make sure that there aren’t any others in there with them—alive or undead. That anxious-sometimes-cringing-angry-frustrated-sad feeling you get is due to one of seven types of conflict that authors build into their narrative.
Conflict is an integral aspect of plot—it’s the building blocks of the entire operation. It doesn’t matter if your story is about your grandma or a futuristic civil war set in space. In simple terms, conflict is the struggle and clash between two opposing forces in a narrative. Learn all the different types of conflict used in storytelling, and you’ll have a story readers can’t put down.
The important thing to remember? Conflict is active in every aspect of plot.
If you want to write a story that readers obsess over, then know that there are seven types of conflict to choose from. Dear reader, since it’s impossible to master writing without reading, I included examples of books you can read that use each of the seven types of conflict. Read on, and find examples of the types of conflict in:
- Canonical Books (the kind you read in school);
- Young Adult books (YA); and
- Books written by authors with diverse voices, backgrounds and perspectives. Chances are that most of the authors you read in school were white, cisgender, men and women (but, let’s be real, it was 95% men). Do you see how that’s a problem? The point of reading outside of a single perspective is to broaden your worldview and realize that there’s more to the world than a single outlook on life.
There are a few important things to note about the following book recommendations. First, each of the following books can fit into multiple types of conflict. That’s okay. The bigger and more in-depth a plot is, the more types of conflict there will be. Second, someone could write dissertations on each of these books bigger than the stories themselves. I added a short summary for your sake—obviously, there’s more to these books than a few quick sentences.
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OVERVIEW OF THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CONFLICT IN STORIES
- Person vs. Self
- Person vs. Person
- Person vs. Nature
- Person vs. Society
- Person vs. Machine/Technology
- Person vs. Fate/God(s)
- Person vs. the Supernatural
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1. PERSON VS. SELF
Out of all the different types of conflict, person vs. self is the only internal conflict. Meaning, all the conflict begins in the protagonist’s head. In person vs. self, characters struggle with some aspect of their personality, beliefs, goals or purpose in life. Every comical, problematic, horrifying, faux pas thing the protagonist does stems from the conflict in their head. They are their own worst enemy. For example, any character who faces a moral dilemma and needs to choose between right and wrong faces a person vs. self conflict.
EXAMPLES FROM BOOKS
- From the Canon: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
How: Gatsby spends his life throwing elaborate parties to show how successful and rich he is. You have some serious issues to work through if you have to have a party every day of your life to get someone’s attention. I mean, there ain’t no party like a Gatsby party, but…c’mon.
- YA: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
How: Melinda starts her freshman year of high school as a social outcast because she called the cops on a party with under-aged drinkers she went to. The person vs. self conflict manifests itself in a few ways, but it’s mostly her coming to terms with what really happened at the party and finding the courage to speak out.
- Diverse Voices: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
How: Aristotle and Dante are opposites in almost every way. A coming of age story where two boys come to terms with their cultural and their sexual identity.
2. PERSON VS. PERSON
This type of external conflict starts with drama between two people (or animals or plants or whatever other living thing comes to mind). It manifests in a combination of physical, mental, verbal and emotional altercations. Any story where a character declares, “That guy! He’s the worst! He’s my nemesis!” is an example of person vs. person conflict. It could also take the form of a plot for a sneaky-sabotage-betrayal.
EXAMPLES FROM BOOKS
- From the Canon: Othello by William Shakespeare
How: When he gets passed over for a promotion, Iago plays extreme-reverse-matchmaker by turning Othello against his wife, Desdemona. In typical Shakespearian tragedy form, tons of people kill each other.
- YA: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
How: Born on a planet that Earth failed to colonize, Todd has never seen a woman or girl. They all died. For real. Then, one day a girl literally falls from the sky and everyone wants to kill both her and Todd. There’s also a talking dog. It’s the first book of a great series. Go—read it now!
- Diverse Voices: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
How: This novel uses multiple points of view and follows the inhabitants of the same tenement building to show how lost and forgotten Americans get by. For example, Alma and Arturo emigrated into the US so that their daughter with special needs could get better schooling. Struggles with others and (sometimes violent) misunderstandings occur because they know little English.
3. PERSON VS. NATURE
Person vs. nature is one of the other types of conflict that functions on the external level. This conflict occurs when a character fights nature. Some examples of this conflict: a character who treks into the wilderness to find themselves; someone stuck indoors because of a blizzard or someone escaping forest fires.
EXAMPLES FROM BOOKS
- From the Canon: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
How: Robinson Crusoe is the sole survivor of a shipwreck on a deserted island. This is the story of how he survives for twenty-seven years. ’Nuff said. Except! Fun fact: This is one of the first novels written in the English language.
- YA: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
How: Julie lives with her cruel aunt until she hears of her father’s presumed death in a hunting accident. She decides to run away from Alaska to live in California with her pen pal. She almost dies navigating the harsh Alaskan tundra, but then a wolf pack adopts her.
- Diverse Voices: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
How: An act-of-God hurricane rolls through and ruins everything. Looking on the bright side, the hurricane helped the protagonist, Janie, finally realize her right to personal independence and freedom.
4. PERSON VS. SOCIETY
Person vs. society takes a few forms. A character can literally lead a revolution against a corrupt government. Another way that this type of conflict shows itself is when an outsider tries to get in with a group of people. Simply put, person vs. society happens when a character challenges the status-quo and structure of (capital-“S”) Society in some way. They wake up one day and decide that they will “stick it to the Man!” or fight the Law. Person vs. Society also turns up whenever a young character struggles with the idea that one way to be popular is to assimilate to the standards of another group/class/culture.
EXAMPLES FROM BOOKS
- From the Canon: 1984 by George Orwell
How: Big Brother is the omniscient government Party leader who watches and controls all of Oceania. Having a sense of individuality is a punishable crime. Winston, the protagonist, secretly hates Big Brother and wants to rebel.
- YA: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
How: Junior realizes the differences between life at his home on the Spokane Indian Reservation and life at the high school he goes to off of the reservation. Figuring out how to navigate the rules of two separate and conflicting societies is a major conflict in this novel.
- Diverse Voices: The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour
How: Rescued from an abusive mother who locked him in a cage with birds, Zal must learn to live a normal life as a functioning member of society in America. Side note: he still dreams of flying and eating bugs.
5. PERSON VS. MACHINE/TECHNOLOGY
In this type of conflict, the force that opposes the protagonist is a machine or technology. It could be as mundane as your character’s dad trying to figure out SnapChat or as intense as a killer robot on a mission to vanquish the human race.
When reading a novel with this type of conflict, it’s important to remember that technology meant different things at different points in time. Things we take for granted now (e.g., electricity) were once newfound innovations. So, that story of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite with a metal key tied to the string in a thunderstorm is both person vs. nature and person vs. machine/technology because he discovered electricity.
EXAMPLES FROM BOOKS
- From the Canon: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
How: A mad scientist robs graves for body parts, sews them all together, and gives life to the corpse using science and technology. It should be no surprise that he comes to regret everything. Also, for the record: Frankenstein is the name of the scientist—not the monster. But it’s not that big of a deal.
- YA: Feed by Matthew Tobin Anderson
How: In the future, humans have microchips in their brains that deliver a constant feed of information and connectivity to them. There’s young love, broken feeds, and tragedy. I couldn’t look at my phone for days after reading this.
- Diverse Voices: Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
How: This poetry collection describes how we would live on Mars in the future. There’s a lot of conflict dealing with person vs. technology. Be sure to check out “The Museum of Obsolescence.” There’s a human on display who tells about the history of humanity. When he dies, the speaker mentions how he’ll be replaced by a looping video recording of himself. Yikes.
6. PERSON VS. FATE/GOD(S)
This is one of the trickier types of conflict because it sometimes falls under the umbrella of other conflicts. For example, take the mythological character who insults a god. I’m sure you already predicted, dear reader, that that character’s life will take a drastic downward turn when that god decides to spend the entire story trying to kill him in revenge. In this example, anyone could argue that the beef between human and god is a type of person vs. person conflict. However, the concept of Fate and God(s) in a story functions as a device. They operate on a higher level than a character does. Fate and God(s) have symbolism, history, and structure behind them. As a result, any conflict between a character and Fate/God(s) is something bigger than person vs. person.
EXAMPLES FROM BOOKS
- From the Canon: The Odyssey by Homer
How: Odysseus tries to return home after fighting in the Trojan War. Along the way, he insults and befriends different gods and goddesses, which causes most of the trials and suffering he and his crew undergo.
- YA: The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
How: Though Dumbledore says that there is always a choice, Harry fights Voldemort because of a prophecy (Fate). And also because Voldemort is an evil, mega jerk.
- Diverse Voices: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
How: Though American Born Chinese also fits with person vs. self and person vs. society, it also falls into the category of person vs. Fate/God(s) because there’s an actual fight between a human and an immortal deity. Literally, it’s a brawl with lots of punching and kicking and losing.
7. PERSON VS. THE SUPERNATURAL
In this type of conflict, a character fights a supernatural force. The supernatural takes the form of otherworldly beings: aliens, werewolves, dragons, spirits, goblins, etc.
Much like person vs. Fate/God(s), in person vs. the supernatural, there is a distinction between person vs. person. Though the supernatural doesn’t have the capital-letter ideologies associated with Fate and God(s), the supernatural is a force in itself. Therefore, it is separate from person vs. person.
EXAMPLES FROM BOOKS
- From the Canon: Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
How: The hero, Beowulf, protects his homeland and other places from the invasion of various monsters.
- YA: Jackaby by William Ritter
How: Sick of the boring life she’s expected to live in Victorian Era Britain, Abigail moves to America and becomes the assistant to the mysterious detective, Jackaby. Together they solve various crimes and mysteries committed by supernatural beings. A very fun series with a Doctor-Who-meets-Sherlock vibe.
- Diverse Voices: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
How: To save her brother, Laia infiltrates the Blackcliff Academy as a slave to spy for the Resistance. There are creepy, red-eyed prophets who read minds, vengeful spirits and characters with magical healing powers.
There you have it. The seven types of conflict you can add to your writing. Remember: there is no story without conflict. Though you may strive for the “drama free life” in your personal life, and your characters may claim to be about that life, living that way should not be easy for them. So, if you have a story about a grandma, there better be some kind of conflict wherein she fends off telemarketers or wages war with her TV remote. Just saying.
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