What is Conflict in a Story? Definition and the 4 Types of Conflict
As we saw in our article on plot, all story is driven by actions, reactions, and choices. And all choices are driven by conflict.
Conflict can be something as simple as choosing a brand of cereal at the supermarket—do I buy the one I know I really want, or do I get the one that’s on sale? Or it can be a socio-internal quandary—do I risk moving across the country to take a fantastic job opportunity, or do I stay in a place where I already know I’m comfortable and safe? Your character’s conflict can also be a direct opposition to another person, or it can be a fight against an impersonal, external force, like a big storm.
The type of conflict your protagonist faces and, more importantly, how they deal with it, can reveal a lot about their character. It’s also what causes them to begin making choices that form the backbone of the story.
Let’s look at some of the major types of conflict you’ll find in storytelling.
What is conflict in a story?
In a story, conflict is any moment where the protagonist of the story wants something, but someone, something, or the world around them is standing in their way. Often this is another character who either wants the same thing as the protagonist or wants something that’s in direct opposition. For example, if your character wants a promotion at their job, their conflict could stem from another character who also wants that promotion, or a family member who doesn’t want the protagonist to apply for it so that they can spend more time at home. Maybe even both!
Alternatively, your character’s conflict might come from within. For example, maybe your character is struggling because the promotion would ease their financial troubles, but it would also involve doing things that compromised their own personal ethics. The conflict in the story might be a matter of the protagonist balancing their needs and desires, choosing what’s worth fighting for and what’s worth sacrificing. It’s for you as the writer to decide which choices are the right ones for the story.
Why does conflict matter in storytelling?
Conflict in a story is what powers the events of your plot. Without some sort of personal, internal, or societal conflict, your characters would go on living their lives exactly as they always had, and there would be no plot.
All stories begin with a change in circumstance that we call the inciting incident. You may have heard this mentioned before as a moment early on in the story where your protagonist’s world is forever, irrevocably, altered. What’s talked about less is that this moment, the inciting incident, cannot exist without conflict.
For example, one of the most famous types of inciting incidents in storytelling is the formula called “a stranger comes to town.” This is where a new character arrives in the protagonist’s world and knocks it squarely off center. This could be something like a travelling theatre coming to deliver a very special one-night performance, or a troubled new kid arriving at the main character’s school.
While these are both great places to begin a story, neither is a story in and of itself—not without conflict. If the travelling theatre delivers an enjoyable family-friendly show before moving on, or if the new kid settles into a productive routine and does their homework on time and is quickly forgotten, then nothing has happened to drive a complete story. We don’t just need these strangers to arrive at the beginning of the story—we need them to arrive and start messing things up!
The same is true for each pivotal plot point in our story. Throughout our story, the protagonist and the characters around them will face conflict, make choices in response to that conflict, and resolve the conflict (or not); and the choices that they made will lead them into other plot points, other conflicts, and other layers of story. This is useful to remember if you’re ever stuck in your writing and not sure how to move forward; the answer is almost always more conflict.
The 4 types of conflict your characters will face
As we saw above, conflict in a story can present itself in many different ways. It can be overt, characterized by ticking time bombs and villain monologues and hostages tied to railroad tracks; or, it can be subtle, stemming from deep psychological shadows and moral uncertainty and primal human weakness. All types of conflict have their place in storytelling and, in fact, very often several types of conflict in a story will be layered one on top of the other. Let’s look at the different types of classic storytelling conflicts in literature.
1. Character vs. Character
The character vs. character conflict (also called the interpersonal conflict) is a situation in which two people, or groups of people, find themselves fighting for contrasting desires that are absolutely exclusive to each other.
This is the classic “hero vs. villain” story that we all learned to recognize as children: Spiderman vs. Doctor Octopus, Peter Rabbit vs. Mr. McGregor, the Pevensie children vs. the White Witch. This can also be a conflict between two otherwise good characters, such as two best friends fighting for the same wedding venue, or two business owners competing for customers in a small town.
In these stories, your characters will fight tooth and nail for what they want, they may question why they want what they want (this ties into internal conflict, which we’ll look at next), and by the end of the story one or both of your characters will either end up with nothing or they’ll learn to want something different. You may close your story with the defeat of one character—usually your antagonist—or your conflicting characters may come to some sort of peace with one another.
2. Character vs. Self
Also called the internal conflict, this is where a character struggles with two conflicting desires or needs, such as whether to do something against their personal ethics in order to succeed or survive, or whether to alter a deeply-ingrained set of beliefs when faced with new information or a new circumstance. In most cases, these conflicts come from flaws that are already present in the character when the story begins: fear, greed, addiction. Then, when the rising action of the story introduces a need to overcome these flaws, the character begins making difficult choices that propel the story forward and ultimately make them a very different person than when they started out.
You’ll often find the internal conflict and the interpersonal conflict used together quite effectively, as the antagonist of the story causes the protagonist, or hero, to begin making choices that aren’t entirely comfortable and examining their own internal weaknesses. Your protagonist may also consider why their initial goal was so important to them in the first place, and they may discover that what they’ve actually been chasing is something much deeper.
3. Character vs. Society
This type of conflict sees the protagonist pitted against a collective, impersonal antagonistic force such as a government body, an unfamiliar culture, or a conflicting demographic. This type of conflict is often used in dystopia-type stories, like The Hunger Games, where only the protagonist and the reader realize that there’s something deeply wrong with the society as a whole. It can also be an instance in which the main character is thrown into the alien cultural practices of an unfamiliar landscape and is forced to adapt, and quickly. Sometimes, like in Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, it might be a matter of the protagonist and the society coming around to some sort of understanding and acceptance of the things that make them different.
These types of stories can be used to show injustices and points of discussion in our own society, and encourage readers to examine their own relationship with the world around them.
4. Character vs. Nature
These are stories in which the main character, or central characters, are battling against a force of something beyond anyone’s control. This could be something like being lost at sea and surviving against impossible odds, or preparing a town against the threat of an incoming hurricane.
The most famous example of this type of conflict is in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the central character makes it his mission to conquer the white whale at the center of the story—to overcome nature itself. Although the whale is a living, sentient being, in this story it’s shown as an impersonal force of the natural world. The ship’s crew also face storms and other natural challenges characteristic of being at sea.
In contemporary and futuristic literature, this “character vs. nature” dynamic can come in the form of a conflict against technology. Although this presentation of our natural landscape is quite different, it follows the same principles of conflict against a broad, impersonal, uncontrollable force of the world around us.
How to find the right conflict for your story
It’s important to note that while most story conflicts fit into one of these four categories, many, if not all, stories will use more than one type of conflict at the same time. Really, any time any choice is made at all there is some degree of conflict happening, and in a well-crafted story there’ll be multiple levels of internal and external conflict happening at any given moment. It is by overcoming conflict that both our stories and our characters change and grow.
As you may remember from our article on character, all story stems from a place of human need and desire. What our characters want and need most will inform every moment of the plot, which means that the conflicts that drive this plot also have to be directly intertwined with our character’s journey.
In order to find the right conflict for your story, begin by asking yourself what your protagonist wants—for example, do they want to have their creative work recognized, to see more of the world beyond the confines of their small town, or for the man they love to leave his unhappy marriage and be with them instead?
Now, ask yourself: Why don’t they already have what they want? What’s standing in their way?
Perhaps your protagonist hasn’t shown anyone their work because they’re too afraid of ridicule and rejection (character vs. self). Maybe they haven’t left their hometown because they’re locked into a respected position, such as a doctor or a priest, and they have too many people relying on their presence there (character vs. society). Maybe the love interest’s wife has him tied into difficult circumstances because she doesn’t want him to leave, or maybe the man himself is too adverse to uncertainty and change (character vs. character). Can you see the stories beginning to shine through?
Once you have a clear idea of what your protagonist wants and what’s preventing them from getting it, your story’s conflict will naturally fall into place.
How to resolve your story’s conflict (the right way)
Once your characters have fought their way through the conflict that you’ve thrown at them, you’re going to need to give them a resolution. The most important thing to remember is that the resolution to their conflict must come from them—from their actions, needs, and understanding of the world (not coincidentally, these are usually the same things that caused the conflict in the first place).
Let’s look at a few examples of plotlines that don’t have good resolutions:
The creative main character—let’s say they’re a painter—accidentally leaves some of their sketches behind at a café. A major publisher of children’s books stumbles across it, finds out who they are, and offers them scads of money to illustrate their upcoming new book.
A man is stuck in a small village and dreams of faraway adventure. Then a member of the town council contacts him, and tells him that in exchange for decades of exemplary service he’s being gifted with a generous early retirement so he can live and explore where he pleases.
The main character has fallen in love with someone who is married. Suddenly the spouse dies, leaving the main character free to build a happily-ever-after with their love interest.
Do you see the problem that all of these resolutions have in common?
The protagonist doesn’t do anything.
These are all examples of the plot device deus ex machina, or “god from the machine.” This is a term left over from Greek stage dramas where a god-like figure would be lowered onto the stage via pulley, where they would then swoop into the entanglements of the plot and save the day. It refers to any moment where an external, unforeseen force—this can be another character, a new discovery, a natural disaster—shows up out of the blue to magically sweep away the conflicts of the story and give our heroes a chance at a happy ending. These types of resolutions leave the reader (or viewer, in theatre and film) feeling unsatisfied and cheated out of a good story.
It’s okay to give your protagonist a few moments of good luck (not too many!), but the overall resolution to the story’s major conflicts need to come from them—from the choices they make, from the things they learn about the world and about themselves, from the way they grow as a person through the events of the plot. Resolution in a story comes from the protagonist gaining a deeper understanding of their own weaknesses and learning how to overcome them. In many ways, it should be a direct reflection of what caused the conflict in the first place.
When you’re wrapping up your story’s plot and resolving the major conflict, ask yourself how your protagonist has changed over the course of the story (and if they haven’t… you need to go back and look at your character arcs again). Do they still want the same things they did at the beginning? How would they approach those goals knowing what they do now? Use what they’ve learned to look at the story’s conflict in a new way.
Conflict is the driving force behind your story
Even with rich, evocative settings and vivid, relatable characters, you need conflict in order for ideas to become a story. Conflict in a story is what links one plot point to another; it’s what gives your characters something to fight for and a reason to change and grow as they fight for those things. Whether your story’s conflict is between your protagonist and another character, between them and the wider world, or even between them and the shadows deep within themself, it’s engaging conflicts which will keep your readers there beside them for the entire journey.