Conflict is at the heart of all stories. These are six of the story conflicts possible in your book:
But first, what are story conflicts?
A conflict in a book is a situation or meeting between characters that results in challenge and opposition. Conflict, such as a power struggle between a hero (or protagonist) and villain (or antagonist) is arguably the most important element in fiction because without conflict there is no movement and no narrative drive.
A lack of conflict in stories is a common error among beginning writers. A writer will often painstakingly develop a setting and characters and then produce a story that is almost entirely lacking in conflict. One way to avoid this error is to outline your novel, and another is to get feedback on story scenes and conflicts. However, Outside of the most experimental approach to literature, all novels need a major conflict as well as smaller conflicts along the way. (Pro tip: It’s easier to build in conflict naturally when your scenes are structured well – download our free guide to starting, developing and ending scenes here.)
Throughout the study of literature, there have been numerous attempts to codify the conflicts that can appear in fiction. In school, students are often taught that the main conflicts in literature are “man against man,” “man against nature” or “man against self.” Of course, these types of conflicts can involve women as well. However, others argue that this list is incomplete. Some have pointed out that a protagonist can also be in conflict with society. Genre fiction arguably creates another set of conflicts. A person might be in conflict against supernatural forces or against technology.
Taking all of this into account, it seems there are roughly six different types of conflict that are possible in fiction. Most conflicts can fit into one of these six categories:
The 6 kinds of story conflicts
1. Person against person
This is the most common type of conflict both in fiction and in life, and it can form the basis of the main conflict in your novel. Alternately, you might have a series of smaller person against person conflicts that may or may not be part of the larger conflict.
Person against person conflicts have a number of interesting possibilities. In a person against person conflict, the two people who are in conflict may be on opposite sides of an issue, but there may be no clear right or wrong, or both sides may believe themselves to be in the right. This can make for complex and challenging storytelling.
On the other hand, a story with an obvious and unambiguous villain can be fun to read and write. Both approaches are legitimate ways to develop a person against person conflict.
The novel The Hunger Games is a stark example of this type of conflict. Katniss must fight her fellow contestants to the death in order to survive. Many mystery novels have the person against person conflict at their core as one character tries to uncover who is responsible for the crime.
For example, Agatha Christie’s detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are engaged in person against person conflicts. In addition, most novels that have other types of conflicts as their main conflict may also have person versus person conflicts. People tend to complicate things wherever they go and whatever they do. In fact, if your novel feels light on narrative drive and conflict, introducing a person against person subplot may be an effective way to better develop it.
If the conflict in your novel is between many people, the conflict may instead be person against society.
2. Person against nature
A protagonist who is lost in the woods or who is under attack by wild animals or who is fighting to survive a terrible storm is in a person against nature conflict. Examples include Robinson Crusoe, “Jaws” and Cujo. Some classic YA novels are person against nature including Island of the Blue Dolphins and the Little House on the Prairie books.
Notice here that the type of conflict does not dictate the genre of the novel. Cujo is a horror novel while the Little House books are about an American frontier family and Island of the Blue Dolphins is about a young girl struggling to survive stranded alone on an island and might be called an adventure novel.
Because they are often on their own and struggling to survive against nearly impossible odds, protagonists in person against nature stories often have a secondary conflict of person against self.
3. Person against self
Person against self is a common secondary conflict in much fiction. It is not uncommon for a protagonist to be struggling with some aspect of self-sabotage. The character might be struggling with fear, a difficult past, an addiction or a tendency to keep choosing the wrong relationships. Even if this is not the main conflict of the novel, a person against self conflict can add significant depth and complexity to your book.
Of course, this is not an appropriate choice for every book. Some characters are defined by their self-assuredness. No readers want to see the aforementioned unflappable Miss Marple undergoing a great inner struggle or crisis of confidence.
4. Person against society
Some characters are not fighting a single protagonist but a whole group of protagonists. Sometimes they may be fighting their entire community.
If the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy is person versus person, then the second, Catching Fire, marks a shift toward person against society, and that becomes the main conflict of the third novel in the series. To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that features a lawyer in a small American Southern town in the 1930s defending a black man against a false charge of rape, is another example of this type of conflict because the lawyer is in conflict with nearly everyone in their small community. Other examples of this type of conflict include 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Because society is made up of individuals, this type of conflict will also include significant elements of person against person. However, when the person against person conflicts include conflicts against entire systems and ways of life, the overarching conflict becomes one of person against society.
5. Person against the supernatural
The supernatural might here be considered a broad term that also covers conflicts against any unknown entity as well as fate and gods. The famous play “Oedipus Rex” is essentially the story of a man’s efforts to escape his fate and is therefore a person against the supernatural story.
Stories in which characters are facing ghosts or demons if those entities are not too human-like would fit in this category as would stories about any kind of inexplicable antagonist. Therefore, a story like The Birds would fall under this conflict and not person against nature because the birds in that story are clearly not acting in a normal fashion.
Conflicts against aliens might be classed as conflicts against the supernatural or as person against person depending on the types of powers and technology the aliens possess. In a science fiction story where humans and aliens are on roughly equal footing, the aliens might be considered the same as people for the sake of the conflict. But in stories like “The War of the Worlds” or “Alien” in which aliens deploy powers that might as well be supernatural for all the power that humans have to resist them, the conflict might best be considered as person against the supernatural.
6. Person against technology
As our lives become more dependent upon and vulnerable to technology, the use of this as a conflict is likely to grow. However, we can actually look back hundreds of years to perhaps the earliest novel in which this was the central conflict. Frankenstein tells the story of a creature created through scientific means, and thus it is a classic example of the person versus technology conflict.
This is a popular theme in science fiction film and television with movie franchises such as “The Matrix” and “The Terminator” and the TV show “Battlestar Galactica” pitting humans against powerful technology. Classic hard science fiction like many of the novels of Arthur C. Clarke in which protagonists must solve a technical problem in order to survive are also people against technology conflicts.
However, this is not a theme that is strictly for the science fiction genre. A thriller might deal with a protagonist who is struggling to contain a piece of rogue technology or cyber attacks. Protagonists might have to pilot a crippled plane or survive a submarine explosion.
Most novels feature one of six main central conflicts at their cores with smaller conflicts along the way. However, some novels are so big that they contain multiple major conflicts. For example, in Stephen King’s novel The Stand, much of humanity is wiped out by a virus, but this is not just a story about person versus nature. It is also person versus person and person versus supernatural.
In Crime and Punishment, the murderer Raskolnikov is equally in conflict with others and himself. Identifying the key conflict or conflicts in your novel is key to ensuring that you keep your focus on that conflict throughout the book, as well as maintain enough narrative tension.
If you want to refine your story idea and make sure there is enough conflict to drive your story to its conclusion, use the Now Novel process.