Character writing Novel writing tips Story conflict Writing advice

6 story conflicts possible in your book

Conflict is at the heart of all stories. These are six of the story conflicts possible in your book:

Conflict is at the heart of all stories. These are six of the story conflicts possible in your book:

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 types of conflict:

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 (or interpersonal conflicts, or character vs character conflict) 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, or there can be a relationship conflict such as the breakdown of a marriage and so on. This can make for complex and challenging storytelling. Hint: some of these stories can also be taken directly from real life examples.

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, as well as to develop a realistic character arc.

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 (young adult) 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 against natural disasters 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

Some protagonists are struggling largely with inner conflicts.

Person against self or an internal conflict, 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 internal struggle is not the main conflict of the novel, a person against self conflict, an intrapersonal conflict, can add significant depth and complexity to your book. This type of conflict can be difficult for your protagonist to overcome, and could be an interesting challenge to write. Your character could also be facing a moral conflict, which would also be challenging to portray. They may also be battling against societal norms, another interesting conflict to explore.

Of course, this is not an appropriate choice for every book. Novel help from a writing coach will help you make your conflicts fit your story’s arcs and themes. 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.

Brainstorm riveting conflicts

Brainstorm ideas for conflict in your story and get pro critique and webinars on writing craft when you upgrade.

Now Novel write a book

4. Person against society

Some characters are not fighting a single antagonist but a whole group of antagonists. 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.

Infographic: 6 types of story conflict | Now Novel
Share or embed this infographic.

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.

Supernatural conflicts, i.e. 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.

Multiple conflicts

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.

Create your story outline online and get helpful feedback to make your conflicts effective.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

22 replies on “6 story conflicts possible in your book”

Each story has a conflict. A story takes the main character into a situation where she (or he) struggles with a problem (or conflict) that changes her for the better, the worse, or where she remains unchanged but enlightened.

This is true.

Shayne, there are many examples that come to mind. Types of conflict in novels often depend on genre. For example, in a fantasy series, the primary conflict is most often one of succession or tyranny: Who will rule over a fictional world (e.g. George R.R. Martin’s Westeros or Tolkien’s Middle Earth)? That’s often the underlying question.

These are classic hero/villain conflicts. But smaller conflicts between characters, between friends and lovers, also help to give a story in any genre micro tensions and resolutions that keep us interested and suspenseful as the larger plot arcs resolve themselves.

As an exercise I’d suggest thinking about books you love and writing down their conflicts and how they advance the story. Should be useful.

Information is laid out well, thank you. However, I note that under Person vs. Society you write: “Some characters are not fighting a single protagonist but a whole group of protagonists.” Shouldn’t it read “…a single antagonist but a whole group of antagonists.” Seems a bit too much work to fight against a whole group of “good guys”… especially if you are also the protagonist, aka “good guy”. 🙂

hey guys! I am working on creating a new way to tell stories, and I feel that stories can be told without conflict. What do you think? What is it about conflict that we need in stories?

Hi Eduard,

I’m not sure in what way it would be new, as some stories do certainly have less conflict (depending on how you define conflict). Yet most stories have some form of conflict whether it’s a character’s internal conflict (for example, their doubt about whether they should make choice A or B) or a conflict between different entities or characters.

The things we need about conflict in stories include its ability to create narrative suspense.

When there is a struggle of some kind – whether it’s an athlete’s internal struggle to stop putting pressure on themselves to win gold, for example, or the struggle between a hero and a villain – we wonder how it will turn out. So it’s a key ingredient in stoking readers’ curiosity.

I hope that clarifies further! I’m curious about the ‘new way’ of telling stories you have in mind?

Thanks for posting. There’s so much good information in your article. Does it happen that in some stories, the conflict is not the main way to keep the reader interested? For example, story “It Had to Be Murder” – more famous as Hitchcock’s movie adaptation “Rear Window.” It is more about the mystery and keeping the reader in suspense.

Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts, Damir. You’re right that ‘conflict’ (in the sense of punch-ups, brandished swords and so forth) isn’t the focal point of every story.

Sometimes it’s a subtler conflict such as the tension between objects and symbols’ appearance and their significance and sense of mystery. Although there is conflict aplenty in it too, a lot of Alice Munro’s writing is like this, where it’s more a process of concealment and revelation that supplies the central tension (rather than fist-fights, menacing storms, and so on).

Thank you for this. I was having one of those days where you experience a sudden drop of confidence in your current work. I was thinking to myself that there was no villain as such. I came to this page via Google, read the six conflicts, applied them to my work. As it turns out, I have 25 out of a possible 36 conflicts (six characters with POV chapters). Phew! Thank you for providing me with an excellent tool to gauge my writing. PS I added an extra conflict when checking my work: Knowledge. I often find that a character is in conflict with knowledge; maybe they are unaware of something the reader knows, they are in conflict with a truth they do know, or they are struggling to find the truth. Thanks again!

It’s a pleasure, Peter! It happens, but I’m glad to hear that it’s helped you get a different perspective on what you’ve put down already. Also if it’s a first draft I’d say what a thesis supervisor once told me, ‘It’s not your last will and testament’ ? one can always make changes or tweak the conflicts later.

That’s a good example of a subtler kind of conflict, thank you for sharing it.

Hi im working on a assignment and I was wondering if any of you guys have some ideas I can use for a conflict in my story and i need to resolve that conflict.

Hi Yessika, thank you for sharing that. What is your story about? A little more information would help narrow down the options. Good luck with your assignment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *