Conflict (narrative)

Conflict is a necessary element of fictional literature. It is defined as the problem in any piece of literature and is often classified according to the nature of the protagonist or antagonist, as follows:

Types of conflict

There are five basic types of conflict. In modern times, Person vs. Machine, also known as Person vs. Technology, has become a sixth one.

Man vs. Self

Man vs. Self is the theme in literature that places a character against his or her own will, confusion, or fears. Man vs. Self can also be where a character tries to find out who he or she is or comes to a realization or a change in character. Although the struggle is internal, the character can be influenced by external forces. The struggle of the human being to come to a decision is the basis of Man vs. Self. Examples include the novel Grendel on the character taken from the epic Beowulf. More recently, there have been movies about Man vs. Self such as the Academy Award winning movie, A Beautiful Mind. When a person struggles with his or her inner self by deciding what's right or wrong.

Man vs.Man

Man vs. Man is when, in a novel, there is a conflict of two forms of like beings. An example is the hero's conflicts with the central villain of a work, which may play a large role in the plot and contribute to the development of both characters. There are usually several confrontations before the climax is reached. The conflict is external. Person vs. Person can usually be expressed by when a child is being ridiculed by a bully. An example is the conflict between Judah and Messala in Ben-Hur.

Man vs. Society

Man vs. Society is a theme in fiction in which a main character's, or group of main characters', main source of conflict is social traditions or concepts. In this sense, the two parties are: a) the protagonist(s); b) the society of which the protagonist(s) are included. Society itself is often looked at as a single character, just as an opposing party would be looked at in a Man vs. Man conflict. An example in literature would be Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

Man vs. Nature

Man vs. Nature is the theme in literature that places a character against forces of nature. Many disaster films focus on this theme, which is predominant within many survival stories. It is also strong in stories about struggling for survival in remote locales, such as the novel Hatchet or Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire".

Man vs. Supernatural

Man vs. Supernatural is a theme in literature that places a character against supernatural forces. When an entity is in conflict with his, her, or itself, the conflict is categorized as internal, otherwise, it is external. Such stories are often seen in Freudian Criticism as representations of id vs. superego. Bram Stoker's Dracula is a good example of this, as well as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and "Christabel" by Samuel Coleridge. It is also very common in comic books.

Man vs. Machine/Technology

Man vs. Machine/Technology Places a character against robotic forces with "artifical intelligence." I, Robot and the Terminator series are good examples of this.


As with other literary terms, these have come about gradually as descriptions of common narrative structures. Conflict was first described in ancient Greek literature as the agon, or central contest in tragedy. According to Aristotle, in order to hold the interest, the hero must have a single conflict. The agon, or act of conflict, involves the protagonist (the "first fighter") and the antagonist (a more recent term), corresponding to the hero and villain. The outcome of the contest cannot be known in advance, and, according to later critics such as Plutarch, the hero's struggle should be ennobling.

Even in contemporary, non-dramatic literature, critics have observed that the agon is the central unit of the plot. The easier it is for the protagonist to triumph, the less value there is in the drama. In internal and external conflict alike, the antagonist must act upon the protagonist and must seem at first to overmatch him or her. For example, in William Faulkner's The Bear, nature might be the antagonist. Even though it is an abstraction, natural creatures and the scenery oppose and resist the protagonist. In the same story, the young boy's doubts about himself provide an internal conflict, and they seem to overwhelm him.

Similarly, when godlike characters enter (e.g. Superman), correspondingly great villains have to be created, or natural weaknesses have to be invented, to allow the narrative to have drama. Alternatively, scenarios could be devised in which the character's godlike powers are constrained by some sort of code, or their respective antagonist.

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