Conflict

What Is Conflict? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Conflict Definition

 

In literature, conflict (KAHN-flikt) entails the opposition of forces or people that creates the dramatic action of a narrative.

The word conflict first appeared in English in the early 15th century and meant “armed encounter, battle.” This was derived from the Old French conflit and, prior to that, from the Late Latin conflictus, meaning “a striking together” or “a fight, conflict.” The additional meaning, which encompasses “discord of action, feeling, or effect, clashing of opposed principle, etc.,” came into usage in 1875. The psychological sense of “incompatible urges in one person” was first used in 1859 and included the sense of “internal mental or spiritual struggle.”

 

Types of Conflict

 

An author can employ one or multiple types of conflict within the same narrative, typically categorized as man vs. something—man being a general term for all of humanity, rather than indicating a specific gender. There are two main umbrellas of conflict: internal and external.

Internal Conflict

Internal conflict, called man vs. self, occurs when a character experiences opposing emotions or desires simultaneously—good and evil or vice and virtue, for instance. These conflicting desires force the character to battle their own mind. Internal conflict frequently occurs when a character struggles with mental illness or regrets actions they committed in the past. Emma by Jane Austen is an example of man vs. self, as the titular Emma struggles with the consequences of her actions and her own feelings.

External Conflict

External conflict is when a character is engaged in a struggle with forces outside themselves. There are five main types of external conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, man vs. technology, and man vs. the supernatural.

Man vs. Man

This type involves a character being in opposition to another character or characters. This conflict generally occurs between a story’s protagonist and antagonist, but sometimes it unfolds between the protagonist and a friend or acquaintance. The antagonistic relationship between Les Misérables’s Javert and Jean Valjean is a classic example of man vs. man.

Man vs. Nature

This conflict takes place when a character struggles against the forces of nature, such as a storm or an animal attack. Stories that involve natural disasters fall into this category, as do narratives where the protagonist is adrift at sea or lost in the wilderness. This type of conflict often involves internal conflict as well, since the protagonist may experience self-doubt as they struggle against the powerful forces of the natural world. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick may be one of the most famous man vs. nature conflicts in literature.

Man vs. Society

Here, the external conflict comes from the protagonist struggling against social or culture norms or against a ruling body, which could be the protagonist’s family or the government. In Suzanne Collins’s popular young adult novel The Hunger Games—and its sequels—protagonist Katniss Everdeen rebelling against an oppressive regime that forces teenagers to fight to the death.

Man vs. Technology

These conflicts happen when the protagonist faces off against threatening technology, such as machines, or technological failures. These stories can contain elements of man vs. society, as technology is often an extension of and tool for societal or cultural norms. Man vs. technology narratives can also appear in tandem with man vs. man stories, as an antagonist may frequently use superior technology to fight against the protagonist. The tech-filled surveillance state in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is the primary antagonist for Winston Smith.

Man vs. the Supernatural

In this type of conflict, the protagonist finds themselves struggling against an angry god, spirit or other supernatural force. This is frequently accompanied by man vs. self, as the protagonist is often forced to confront their human limitations while battling the supernatural or divine.  Sometimes people break this category into subsets:

  • Man vs. fate, such as in Oedipus Rex, where the main character is cursed by a prophecy that causes him to kill his father and marry his mother.
  • Man vs. supernatural forces, such as humanity vs. ghosts in the movie Ghostbusters or humanity vs. aliens in Independence Day or War of the Worlds.
  • Man vs. God, such as The Odyssey, where Odysseus is cursed by the sea god Poseidon and forced to wander for 10 years after the end of the Trojan War before he can return to his home.

 

Why Writers Use Conflict

 

Conflict is a powerful narrative tool. It is particularly important for developing plot and characterization.

In terms of plot, conflict is a crucial element of narrative or dramatic structure. A narrative’s conflict is often the catalyst for any events occurring in the story. Conflict also creates challenges for characters and uncertainty surrounding the outcome, all of which keep readers engaged. Plots may contain multiple conflicts that display a variety of conflict types. If a conflict is resolved by the story’s end, this creates a sense of closure and fulfillment for the reader.

Regarding characterization, the types of conflict a character struggles with, and the choices they make, show who they are as a person. Conflict also acts as an element of character motivation and explains why characters make certain decisions.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Internal vs. External Conflict

There are many reasons why writers will choose to use or avoid certain types of conflict in their narratives.

Internal conflicts work well for literary works that focus on character study. While the protagonist will likely encounter external obstacles as the plot progresses, the bulk of the drama comes from the protagonist’s inner journey. The main drawback of internal conflict is that man vs. self stories can lack an external narrative structure—basically, not very much happens outside of the character’s own mind. Thus, this type of narrative can be boring for readers who prefer more action.

External conflicts give readers tangible obstacles and negative forces to root against. Rather than being wholly introspective, external conflicts have more explicit consequences. On the other hand, plots that rely too heavily on external conflicts may lack depth of characterization. If a narrative’s conflict only involves the protagonist struggling against an external force, readers may not gain understanding or insight into the character’s inner thoughts and strife. This can make a less nuanced story.

Therefore, the strongest plots tend to use a variety of conflicts, often combining the internal with one or more types of external conflict.

 

Common Conflicts Based on Genre

 

Different types of narrative genres rely on different types of conflict.

Superhero stories, such as those created by Marvel and DC Comics, typically involve man vs. man conflicts. Many superhero protagonists face off against their antagonist archenemies in every issue (e.g.,  Batman vs. the Joker, Superman vs. Lex Luther, Iron Man vs. Justin Hammer, Spiderman vs. Green Goblin, etc.).

Less frequently, superhero stories explore conflicts like man vs. society (e.g., the X-Men vs. the mutant-hating society in which they live). They can also explore man vs. self, such as when mild-mannered Dr. Banner must confront his rage, which physically manifests as The Incredible Hulk (courtesy of some misplaced gamma rays).

Mystery stories almost always portray man vs. man stories. A detective, such as Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, tries to solve another person’s dastardly crimes of and bring them to justice. Sometimes, detective stories involve man vs. the supernatural conflicts. The television shows The X-Files and Twin Peaks both follow erstwhile FBI agents attempting to unravel mysteries caused by a variety of supernatural forces.

Thrillers like John Le Carre’s spy novels or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl almost exclusively involve man vs. man plots. Science fiction, like the Terminator films, generally includes man vs. technology stories. Adventure stories, such as the work of Jack London, are examples of man vs. nature. Dramas often combine internal conflict with external conflicts like man vs. man or man vs. society.

 

The Use of Conflict Outside of Literature

 

Advertising

Conflict is a core component of advertising campaigns for the same reasons as literary works: to heighten tension and capture the audience’s interest. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign plays with the conflicts of man vs. self and man vs. society by highlighting how women, due to low self-esteem and societal conditioning, find it difficult to understand or recognize their own beauty. The caffeinated drink Red Bull creates campaigns based on man vs. nature as it shows extreme athletes pushing their limits through space jumps and ice climbing.

Music

Because songs—both instrumental and lyrical—often tell a story, conflict is prevalent in music. In opera, for example, conflicts such as man vs. man (Carmen) or man vs. society (La Boheme) are core parts of the plot.

In other musical genres, conflict may manifest in themes. For instance:

  • Punk music frequently explores the man vs. society type of conflict. Folk music like Bob Dylan’s anti-war protest songs also involve this type.
  • Hip hop often explores man vs. self, man vs. society, and man vs. man. Sometimes the man vs. man conflict theme is based out of real-life conflict, such as the long-running feuds between rappers Jay-Z and Nas or Biggie and Tupac.
  • Many introspective indie musicians explore man vs. self, such as Elliot Smith in his ballads about depression and drug dependency.

 

Examples of Conflict in Literature

 

1. William Shakespeare, Hamlet

William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet is a good example of someone experiencing an internal conflict that becomes the engine of the story’s plot. Throughout Hamlet, the prince is at war with himself. He wants to kill his uncle to avenge his father’s murder, but he struggles to act. His internal conflict inadvertently leads to his love interest Ophelia’s suicide and ruins his relationship with his mother.

2. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s novel explores the conflict between man and society. The lawyer Atticus Finch confronts a racist society as he defends an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, who has falsely been accused of rape. He is harshly criticized for doing his duty and actually trying to convince the jury of Tom’s innocence. Despite Finch’s best efforts, the racism of southern America prevails, which is a common ending in man vs. society stories.

3. Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

In this Philip K. Dick novel—the inspiration for the Blade Runner movie series—protagonist Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who kills escaped androids. This is an example of a man vs. technology conflict; however, the novel eventually explores ideas of man vs. society and man vs. self when Deckard develops affection for certain androids, subverting the constraints of his job.

4. Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

This novella explores the conflict of man vs. nature. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, catches a huge marlin on his fishing line. The fish is so strong, it pulls him toward open water and Santiago holds onto the line for two days as he tries to exhaust the fish. He faces additional dangers from the powerful forces of nature, including shark attacks and the vast expanse of the ocean itself.

5. Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

In this classic novel, Shirley Jackson explores a man vs. the supernatural conflict. Eleanor Vance is a young woman who joins two other guests in a haunted house for three months as part of a research project. The house has eerie, mysterious characteristics, and the three inhabitants struggle against its supernatural powers.

6. Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life

In his 1989 memoir, Wolff recounts his childhood and dysfunctional adolescence. His life is often examined through the lens of the man vs. man conflict he had with Dwight, his abusive stepfather. Dwight was openly cruel to Wolff, stole his money, and physically abused him.

 

Further Resources on Conflict

 

Jen Bannan wrote a great piece for The Millions that explores how conflicts in classic literature appear when viewed through the lens of diagnosing mental illness.

N. D. Storlid discusses the philosophy of conflict in literature for the online magazine The Artifice.

 

Related Terms

 

  • Antagonist
  • Climax
  • Plot
  • Protagonist