5 types of conflict in literature with examples

Types of conflict in literatureWe provided you with tips on how to write and develop the plot of a story. We talked about why one of the top questions that you need to stop and answer during each writing session is, “Is Something Happening?

Let’s look at this question under a slightly different light: If nothing were happening would it be interesting to read? This question is closely related to the topic on hand – conflict.

As a writer it is necessary to put your characters in interesting situations that provide any one of the following outcomes: obstacles that affect his/her goal, suspense, drama, tension. The situations that cause these outcomes are typically conflict.

In The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Abbot H Porter says, “There may be multiple points of conflict in a single story, as characters may have more than one desire or may struggle against more than one opposing force.”

Five Commonest Types of Conflict in Literature

Conflict 1. Man Versus Self

These are internal battles that characters wage within themselves; these are internal issues that affect their actions, motivations and interactions with other characters. The conflict can be a recurring theme throughout the story or at a particular point in time. In Julius Caesar, Brutus constantly struggles with his feeling towards his friend Caesar and his country.

Example of Man Versus Self Conflict

The below excerpt from Gora by Tagore is an example of a momentary internal conflict.

“…as the cab drove away, the girl joined her hands in a brief namaskar. Utterly unprepared for this gesture, Binoy remained frozen, unable to respond. Back home, he repeatedly cursed himself for this minor lapse. Scrutinizing his own conduct in their company from their first encounter to the moment of parting, he felt that his manner had been rather uncivil. He tormented himself with futile thoughts of what he could have said or done at specific moments.”

Conflict 2. Man Versus Society

These are conflicts where your characters’ firm beliefs are against norms that the entire society as a whole endorses. It could be social evils or discrimination practiced by society that is opposed by a minority.

Example of Man Versus Society Conflict

The excerpt below is from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It is the story set in a fictional town in America at a time when racial discrimination was at its height.

“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything. It’s hard to explain – ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody is favouring Negroes over and above themselves. ..”
“You aren’t really a nigger lover are you?”
“ I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody. It’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you. So don’t let Mrs. Dubose get you down…”

Conflict 3. Man Versus Man

These sort of conflicts are the most common. Your characters will be opposed by or will oppose the actions, reactions, motivations of another character or characters. As a writer you can choose to use this sort of conflict to provide comic relief to your narrative.

Example of Man Versus Man Conflict

Consider the example below; an excerpt from one of my favorites – Swami and Friends by the legendary R.K.Narayanan.

“Oh wretched idiots!,” the teacher said, clenching his fists, “Why do you worship dirty, lifeless, wooden idols and stone images? Can they talk? No. Can they see? No. Can they take you to heaven? No. What did your Gods do when Mohammed of Gazni smashed them to pieces, trod upon them, and constructed out of them steps for his lavatory?...
Now see our Lord Jesus. He could cure the sick, relieve the poor, and take us to Heaven. He was a real God. …
Did our Jesus go about dancing with girls like your Krishna? Did our Jesus go about stealing butter like that arch-scoundrel Krishna? “

The teacher paused for breath. Swaminathan’s blood boiled. He got up and asked, “If he did not, why was he crucified?”

Conflict 4. Man Versus Nature

Nature serves as the obstacle for characters. You could choose to write a particular scene around a natural calamity such as a typhoon or tsunami. There are many stories waiting to be explored because, in my opinion, an inspirational story such as the triumph of human spirit over adversity will never go out of fashion.

Example of Man Versus Nature Conflict

The excerpt below is from Life of Pi by Yann Martel and a great part of the book is set in the middle of the sea.

The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished.
Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart. From the lifeboat I saw something in the water.
I cried, "Richard Parker, is that you? It's so hard to see. Oh, that this rain would stop! Richard Parker? Richard Parker? Yes, it is you!"
I could see his head. He was struggling to stay at the surface of the water.
"Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu, how good to see you, Richard Parker!
Don't give up, please. Come to the lifeboat. Do you hear this whistle? TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!

Conflict 5. Man Versus Supernatural

Supernatural elements are typically those that defy the laws of nature and are beyond scientific understanding. Such a setting adds gravitas and drama to the story. If you are using super natural elements you might want to make sure what genre you are writing in.

Example of Man Versus Supernatural Conflict

Excerpt from Vikram and Baital, an Indian fairytale.

Remember the old saying, mighty Vikram!" said the Baital, with a sneer, "that many a tongue has cut many a throat. I have yielded to your resolution and I am about to accompany you, bound to your back like a beggar's wallet.
But pay heed to my words, as we set out upon the way. I am in talkative mood, and it is well near an hour's walk between this tree and the place where your friend sits. Therefore, I shall try to distract my thoughts, which otherwise might not be of the most pleasing nature, by means of sprightly tales and profitable reflections.
The great king nodded.

• Remember that conflicts can be a recurring theme throughout the story or a momentary and temporary obstacle
• Consider the above examples from literature. Observe how the conflict is introduced – sometimes through dialogue and sometimes through narration

Are there other conflicts that would affect characters? Do write to us; an example would be great. We’d love to hear from you.

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

10 thoughts on “5 types of conflict in literature with examples”

  1. Snorkyputzah

    This article is good, but the examples from the text do not apply to everyday literature. I was not able to apply these conflicts to my life or any other literary worlds i have read.

  2. Suleiman Ibrahim Ohinoyi

    Is there types of conflict that is of ‘man versus time’? if yes what is the definition or explanation to that conflict

    1. Anon

      Depends on where you live in the world I suppose. I learned it as Man vs *type of conflict* in grade 9 and like that throughout school

    2. a dude

      man used to mean person. it’s just tradition and for simplicity. it does aggravate women, yea.. except a woman is also a type of man, in a sense.. words like character, protagonist, or even person, are too complicated. and the word hero would not work here.

  3. Lucy Levonson

    Some of he examples were not clear if you had not read the books. Also, isn’t there character vs. technology?

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