Conflict in Writing: What is Literary Conflict and Why do You Need It?


Part One: What is Literary Conflict?

Welcome, dear readers, to the first part of my article on literary conflict. You’ve probably heard about literary conflict. You might have read that conflict is the essence of good writing or that it is essential in creating plot. You know your writing should have conflict, but what does that really mean? Should your protagonist be starting more fights? Does your story need more ninjas?

Um, no.

So, what exactly does literary conflict look like?

Conflict is what gets your protagonist out of bed in the morning. It makes your story move and allows you to take your characters from one scene to another without losing momentum or confusing your readers. While conflict can play out in many different ways, it will always fall under one of two categories: Internal or External.

Internal conflict is also described as Person vs. Self. When the conflict is internal, it will involve a struggle within the protagonist. For example, let’s say your protagonist, Fred, has very strong beliefs about kale. Fred thinks anyone who eats kale is a freak of nature. Then Fred discovers that his daughter loves kale and has been eating it in secret for years. Fred is facing an internal conflict: does he banish his daughter from his life or does he let his daughter’s love of kale change his perspective about people who eat kale?

External conflict is conflict between your protagonist and an external force. There are three main types of external conflict, which we will look at now.

  1. Person vs. Person: This type of conflict typically involves another person (or sometimes a group of people), who your protagonist struggles with throughout the story. The struggle can be psychological, physical, or emotional. This type of conflict is often characterized by the classic good guy vs. bad guy scenario. Some examples include James Bond vs. Dr. No/Goldfinger/General Orlov/Etc.; Dorothy vs. the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz; and Frodo vs. Gollum in the Lord of the Rings.
  1. Person vs. Society: This type of conflict involves your protagonist’s struggle against institutions, laws, or traditions of the dominant society in which he or she lives. This type of struggle usually involves the protagonist coming up against an element of society that either frustrates their attempts to reach their goal—or forces them to make a moral decision. Some examples include Twelve Years a Slave, by Soloman Northrup; Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; and The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.
  1. Person vs. Nature: This type of conflict involves your protagonist in a struggle against the natural world, which can include animals, natural disasters, and weather. Some examples include Moby Dick, by Herman Melville; The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe; and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

In addition to the above, some argue that Person vs. Technology/Supernatural/ Fantasy/Etc. should also be considered as types of conflict. However, if your protagonist happens to be a vampire locked in a bitter fight with a werewolf arch-nemesis, you are essentially writing about person vs. person conflict. And if your protagonist is railing against the use of dragons in warfare, you are looking at person vs. society conflict. Similarly, if your protagonist is trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, you are basically writing about person vs. nature conflict.

This brings us to the end of part one of Conflict in Writing. Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll talk about some different ways to incorporate conflict in your writing.


Image credit:  scumbugg deviantART

12 thoughts on “Conflict in Writing: What is Literary Conflict and Why do You Need It?

  1. General Orlov was from Goldeneye, right? My favorite Bond movie of them all. And indeed, a classic example of person vs. person conflict. 🙂

  2. This just in from a panel at Squaw Valley Writers Workshop:

    Conflict is what happens when your characters are busy living their lives with their own agendas and something happens that makes their lives more complicated.

    For example, relatives drop by unexpectedly and then are stuck at your house because of the blizzard that’s unloading outside. Uncle Frank who you’ve hated since you were a little kid and his wife, Thelma, and their annoying, ironic 26-yr-old son, Reginald, who never moved out of their house. They’ve come to point out what you’re doing wrong in your life. And you’ve just signed up for anger management classes that the court settlement required you to take, but haven’t been to yet. It’s time to start drinking heavily because the water pipes just froze and exploded in the kitchen after you forgot to keep the tap running. Uncle Frank says this never would have happened if it had been his house….etc…..

    Man vs. Himself/Herself
    Man vs Man
    Man vs Society
    Man vs Nature

    All in one paragraph. 😀

    Nice post!

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