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Types of conflict in literature

by tutlance

Conflict is what drives the plot of most literary works. This includes movies, television shows, games, and even poems. It can be either internal or external conflict. Internal conflict is when a character struggles with their inner self while external conflict is when the character struggles against an outside force.

What Is Conflict in Literature?

Conflict is the struggle between individuals, groups, ideas, or elements. Conflict can be internal (the protagonist struggles against his own inner demons) or external (the protagonist struggles against an antagonist). The conflict in a literary work is what causes the action and shapes the characters.

External conflict is caused by something outside the character’s control while internal conflict is created when the character has conflicting feelings about who he/she wants to be or what he/she wants to do.

How to Create Conflict in Your Writing

When writing a piece of literary fiction, you want to create conflict. Conflict will keep the reader interested in the story and make them ask questions about what will happen next. The conflict can be resolved or unresolved by the end of your literary work. When creating a plot outline, make sure there is some sort of conflict throughout the entire work.

Conflict can come from many sources including: man vs nature, man vs self, man vs society, etc. To provide more insight into how one might go about composing an effective plot with characters that are richly layered and three-dimensional, here are six very simple but profound keys to writing strong fiction:

  1. Give Your Characters Internal Conflicts: Internal conflicts involve two struggles going on in the mind of your protagonist. One might be an internal struggle–like battling with alcoholism–and the other is a problem he/she is trying to solve in the story.
  2. Make Your Protagonists Human: To write realistically, you must make your protagonists human – flawed and vulnerable with both virtues and vices. Readers can relate more easily to characters who are not perfect than they can to characters who don’t have any problem at all. A protagonist without problems makes for boring reading.
  3. Create Likable Characters: Readers will care about what happens to your character only if they feel something for him or her; whether it’s like or hate, readers need some sort of emotion when they read fiction (it’s called empathy after all). To make your character likeable, remember certain key personality traits. Make them warm-hearted, sincere, and sympathetic. Or make them humorous or clever – consider P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves or Anne Tyler’s Macon Leary.
  4. Have Your Characters Pursue Goals: Your protagonist must be proactive about getting what he wants but not in an overbearing way that the reader hates him for it Right from the start, you want to create a story where your characters are doing something that gives direction to the plot—a strong enough desire that will propel him/her into action regardless of any obstacles he/she might encounter along the way . An effective needs at least one goal-oriented character to have a story that makes sense.
  5. Add Conflict: Once you’ve established your characters and what they want, the next step is to create a conflict between them and their wants. This might mean the protagonist must confront his own flaws—or it may be as simple as someone trying to stop him from reaching his goal. Whatever form this takes, make sure there’s tension at all times in order to keep the reader turning pages (external conflict). At least one other character should oppose or hinder your protagonist’s quest for whatever reason; but note: it doesn’t need be an actual person – animosities within your protagonist can also serve as obstacles (internal conflict). The point is that somebody, something stands in the way of your protagonist—and always has the potential to nullify his/her efforts.
  6. Surprise Your Reader: Don’t make your protagonist’s journey too easy by giving him everything he needs when he needs it. Some of the best fiction is rife with conflict and obstacles that, for a moment, seem insurmountable . These conflicts must be difficult enough to create suspense but not so hard that they overwhelm or discourage your readers.

6 Types of Literary Conflict

Literary conflict is a general term that encompasses the struggles and obstacles within works of fiction. Conflict is an integral part of plot development, and while some conflicts are more obvious than others, all literary work features some form of emotional struggle. Plot and characters depend on it to develop and resolve problems in a meaningful way.

There are six main types of literary conflict: man vs. self, man vs. society, man vs. nature/machine, man vs. God or religion, man vs. fate or time; and other (man vs other). These kinds of conflict not only add depth to stories but can also be used together in various combinations to reflect different styles and themes throughout texts .

  1. Man Vs Self: A character struggling against himself. The most common of literary conflicts, man vs. self occurs when an individual character is struggling with him- or herself; his or her own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and decisions . An example of this kind of literary conflict would be any sort of introspective novel such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (a Holocaust memoir) and Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. These stories are about men who survive arduous conditions where they face extreme suffering but still manage to overcome the odds in their struggle to find meaning in life.
  2. Man Vs Society: A character struggling against group pressures, customs and so on.
  3. Man Vs Nature/Machine: A character struggling with the physical environment or a machine. This type of literary conflict is represented by characters that are facing struggles against the pressures and norms of society, such as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.
  4. Man Vs God/Religion: A character struggles against his religion or beliefs. Works like Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky contain this type of literary conflict because they take place in religious societies where characters must face their own religious beliefs and make difficult decisions based on them.
  5. Man vs Fate/Time: A character struggles against an abstract element such as fate, time, destiny, etc. In books such as Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, this kind of literary conflict exists when a character struggles against his destiny and the harshness of life’s circumstances. This is also explored in the novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
  6. Other (Man Versus Other): In this case, other characters are used to represent the conflict that exists between man and self since humans do not live in isolation from one another.

Each of these conflicts can be either internal or external depending on whether the struggle is taking place within a person’s mind or society at large . The six types of literary conflict can be used to present a different style and theme of literature.

Creative Writing Prompts for Creating Conflict

Here are 30 creative prompts for creating a conflict for college students. These examples can be used as a starting point when writing an essay.

  1. Your main character is in a life or death situation, but this person needs to survive another day to tell the story. What happens?
  2. You’ve just finished writing an intense scene that ended with your protagonist’s team losing the game. Now what?
  3. Something unexpected has come up at work and it will cause your main character not to be able to do something they really wanted to do today. How does that affect them?
  4. You’ve just learned about a new law coming into effect that targets people who are like your primary cast of characters (e.g., black people, women). How does this affect them?
  5. Write about something/someone your protagonist loves being destroyed without any method of rebuilding, repairing, or restoring that thing/person.
  6. Your protagonist is trying to get across town in rush hour traffic, but it’s all stopped dead. What happens next?
  7. Someone—or possibly something like global warming—is causing a drought in your country of choice and will soon turn all available water into a scarce resource. How do the main characters survive this?
  8. A natural disaster has struck near where your character lives and they have to flee their home immediately while barely grabbing anything on the way out. How does this affect them going forward?
  9. Something absolutely ridiculous has just happened and nobody can explain why it happened… except for one person who claims they know exactly what happened and why it did. What did happen?
  10. Your protagonist’s best friend comes to visit them after being away for a while, but this former best friend is acting really weird—almost hostile towards them. What happens next?
  11. The person your protagonist hates the most is in some sort of trouble and pleads with your protagonist for help… even though they have never done anything kind or helpful to this person before. How does your main character respond?
  12. A new law has just been passed that means people who are exactly like your cast of characters (e.g., women) will be forced into specific kinds of work based entirely on their gender. How do those affected by it react?
  13. You have a choice between two protagonists in a story you’re writing. Both of them are in a life or death situation, but one character needs to survive in order for the story to continue. Which protagonist lives and why?
  14. There’s something about your main cast of characters that others find questionable or suspicious—so much so that they take steps to counter it even though it has never been an issue before. What is causing this change in behavior?
  15. You have a lot of currency stored up from when times were good, but now you need food and other basics because the economy has collapsed around you. How do you get what you need without using your hard-earned cash?
  16. Your protagonist is on trial for something they didn’t do (and likely shouldn’t have been blamed for in the first place) and the jury is ready to deliver a verdict. How does this turn out?
  17. Your protagonist has just been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, but they’re about to discover that everyone around them—friends, family, or even complete strangers—also has this life-threatening illness. What happens next?
  18. A new war is starting up between two countries you’re already familiar with (e.g., North Korea vs South Korea). How does your cast of characters get caught up in it?
  19. The political party your main character supported throughout their entire adult life has just passed legislation that goes directly against everything they believe in… yet no one else seems upset by this. How does your main character react?
  20. A massive event that everyone was prepared for (e.g., an earthquake, tsunami, terrorist attack) strikes… but it isn’t as bad as expected and people start wondering why this might be the case. What happened to make this unexpected situation occur?
  21. Someone has released a new drug into the world which works like a truth serum—and more than that, it stimulates trust and liking within the person who takes it, causing them to believe nearly everything they’re told and become very friendly with those around them. What happens next?
  22. Your protagonist has just decided on a criminal or evil scheme that will cause huge amounts of damage if successful (e.g., stealing a large sum of money, causing a nuclear meltdown), but they’re struggling to find the right person to help them carry it out. Who do they approach and why?
  23. The person your protagonist hates most in the world has just died and left their entire estate/fortune/life savings behind for their known enemy… much to everyone’s surprise! Why did this happen?
  24. Your protagonist is in a good mood today when something else—something completely trivial—starts bothering them to no end. How does it manage to affect them so much?
  25. A new law has been passed that forbids anyone from doing something (e.g., drinking alcohol, building structures taller than 2 meters) they are not part of an approved group/class/race/organization to do. What happens when it comes into effect?
  26. Your protagonist has just been introduced to someone new, but they’re convinced this person is lying about who they are because the information matches up with someone else entirely (e.g., that person used to be your sister’s boyfriend). How are they proven right in their suspicions?
  27. The world has ended and you have one hour left before everything explodes—how do you spend the last hour of your life?
  28. It’s time for school sports day where everyone competes against each other, though this year there’s an unusual twist: students can only compete against people they know or strangers, not both; thus why would they choose?
  29. The person your protagonist hates most in the world is after them, but they’re not sure why—they’ve done their best to be nice/honest/kind lately, so what could it possibly be that this person dislikes about them?
  30. Your protagonist has just gotten an opportunity to get back at everyone who’s wronged them in some way (e.g., bullies pushed them down the stairs and broke their leg; cheated their significant other out of money). How does this happen?

Now you know various types of conflict in literature and how to use them to make your writing better.

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