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Monday, July 12, 2021

The 8 Types of Conflict (with Examples, Possible Resolutions, and Stakes)


Every story needs a character in a setting engaged in conflict. But sometimes writers get hyper-focused on one or two types of conflict, and never explore or include the other types. This can make a story feel flat or repetitive (similar to what I touched on in my plotlines post). Sometimes the writer senses that there is something wrong, so tries to add more to the story, but they end up either adding more to the same conflict, or simply adding the same type of conflict. Like always, I'm never going to say you can't ever do this, but just that it's almost always more satisfying if you put in a variety. Variety gives a story more depth and breadth--and also keeps things interesting.

Conflict is key in moving plot, character arc, and theme forward--in other words, the whole story forward. No conflict = no story. If there is no struggle, the character never grows. If there is no opposing argument, the theme never carries its weight. If there is no antagonistic force, no climax is earned. 

Early on in my writing journey, I was only introduced to five types of conflict. And indeed you can find arguments about what does and does not count as a conflict type (and some types can overlap). But today I've put together a comprehensive list of the most prevalent categories--and I think just about any conflict will fit within one of them. I'll also share a few things about each along the way. 


1. Person vs. Self


At the most intimate level, we have person vs. self conflicts. In regards to plotlines, you may have heard this called the "inner journey." 

There is usually a flaw, weakness, or misbelief the protagonist and/or another key character has and is struggling to overcome, which helps make up the character's arc. Often at some point, the character struggles with conflicting belief systems. For example, in A Quiet Place, Part II, Emmett struggles between believing people aren't worth saving vs. believing people are worth saving. As he comes to believe the latter, he completes his character arc.

Any key character may struggle with doubt, assertiveness, confidence, costs, conflicting wants, or something else. They may be in conflict with themselves about what to do or who to believe. Even characters who don't arc drastically can have internal conflicts. 

And of course, you can have an internal conflict that isn't fleshed out into a full plotline, but may be an incident. A character may have a brief internal struggle about whether on not to trust someone they've just met, and that may only last a scene. 

Person vs. self conflicts are great at making a story feel personal and deep. They are often the most empathetic conflicts.

Examples:

Frodo caught between wanting to destroy The Ring, and being tempted to keep The Ring.

Simba struggling between believing he is meant to be king vs. turning his back on being king. 

Jean Valjean trying to decide whether he should reveal his identity and save a man from going into prison in his place.


Possible Methods of Resolution:

Having a personal revelation (an epiphany)

Making a personal choice

Taking a personal action

Giving into a personal weakness

Overcoming a personal weakness

Learning new information


Common Stakes (Negative vs. Positive):

Psychological death vs. life, or a better, healthier psychological life

Loss of identity or sense of self vs. clearer sense of identity or a better sense of self

Becoming something undesirable vs. becoming who they want to be

Becoming unfit to do what is necessary vs. gaining the power and wherewithal to complete the task

Coming to terms with a painful reality about one's self vs. fully accepting one's self

How one's changing nature affects others (or the environment) around the character negatively or positively

Having to live with painful regrets vs. having the peace of overcoming

Loss of power (over self, or the internal conflict affecting an outside power) vs. gaining power (self-mastery, or the internal conflicting providing an external power)


2. Person vs. Person


In person vs. person conflicts, the character is (you guessed it) in conflict with another person. This is often what people think of, when they think of "conflict."

If your antagonist is a person, then your protagonist will be in conflict with him or her. Usually person vs. person conflicts mean that the characters have different goals or at least different methods for obtaining a goal. In Harry Potter, Harry and Voldemort are in conflict because they want opposing outcomes and have different views of the Wizarding World. But sometimes Harry also gets in conflict with Hermione about what methods they should use to reach their goals.

Most often the protagonist and antagonist will be embodying opposing belief systems, so their person vs. person conflict is an example of these two belief systems clashing and trying to claim dominance (which plays into theme). 

And usually, the protagonist and their ally (or allies) will clash about what is the best way to move forward in the plot.

These are just rules of thumb, of course, and the person vs. person conflict can also be as brief as a character getting into a heated debate with a stranger on the street. It can come across as obvious as a fistfight or as subtle as a smirk. Many times, the conflict will be expressed through subtext

In most stories, the protagonist will have many person vs. person conflicts, with different people.

Examples:

Batman fighting The Joker.

Jim and Pam arguing about how to deal with Michael in The Office.

Belle turning down Gaston's continual pursuits in Beauty and the Beast.


Possible Methods of Resolution:

Defeating the other person physically, intellectually, or emotionally

Agreeing to disagree

Being defeated by the other person physically, intellectually, or emotionally

Coming to a compromise

One character comes to embrace the other character's perspective, so they are on the same side

Going separate ways


Common Stakes (Negative vs. Positive):

Death (psychological, professional, or physical) vs. life

Physically or emotional pain and injury vs. Physical or emotional health and safety

How the outcome will affect the character's future lifestyle negatively or positively

Opportunities (gained or lost)

Plot goal lost or achieved 

How the outcome will affect loved ones or the world negatively or positively



3. Person vs. Nature


Here, a person is in conflict with nature. This is a struggle that usually comes from the setting. It could be surviving in the wilderness after a plane crash, dealing with disease, an earthquake, starvation, or a bear. Person vs. nature conflicts show characters at the mercy of Mother Nature; this often emphasizes a lack of control. Despite his best efforts, a person may be blindsided by illness or an earthquake. Some disasters can't be prevented, only coped with. We can try to prepare, or deal with the outcome, but we often can't simply stop nature.

Unlike most other types of conflict, there (arguably) isn't really anyone or anything to blame. Nature is indifferent. We can't really blame the clouds for not raining, or the ocean for the tsunami that wiped out our homes. Even if someone puts us in that situation, ultimately, it's Mother Nature that deals the blow. Without a clear entity to blame, this sometimes leads people to find someone or something else to blame, to take their hurt out on. 

Person vs. nature conflicts can be a great way to illustrate unfairness in the human experience. They also tend to reveal human tendencies, as characters typically find themselves in desperate situations.

Examples:

In Hidalgo, Hopkins and his horse must weather a sandstorm. 

In Hatchett by Gary Paulsen, Brian must survive in the wilderness after a plane crash. 

In The Martian, Mark Watney must survive on Mars.


Possible Methods of Resolution:

Armed with proper preparation (ex. having no clean water but having brought iodine)

Gaining knowledge (ex. discovering how to cure a disease)

Gaining experience and skill (ex. figuring out how to spear fish for food)

Finding ways to properly cope with the situation (ex. going under a desk during an earthquake)

Help from others, being rescued

Suffering or death


Common Stakes (Negative vs. Positive):

Death vs. life

Physical pain and suffering vs. comfort and safety

How death or suffering of the character will affect other characters, the world, or plot vs. how their physical safety affects those things

How lack of resources or stamina impede progress vs. having resources and stamina improve progress

Loss of valuable time vs. gaining valuable time

Loss of valuable resources (ex. a fire burning down a house or food becoming contaminated) vs. gaining valuable resources (ex. finding shelter or clean drinking water)

Exposing others to illness or danger vs. limited or preventing exposure


4. Person vs. Society


A "society" in a story is any type of collective. It may be as big as a government or as small as a school club. It's a group of people who work as a unit. The character may be in conflict with a culture, tradition, or an established law. It may be a conflict with a lifestyle or a taboo. 

Societal conflicts are less personal than one-on-one conflicts. Often the character is pitted against ideologies that can't be overcome directly or quickly. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss is pitted against Panem's government--it has laws, traditions, and ideologies that she can't defeat with sheer force. These things have to be undermined or challenged through smaller actions.

Other times, the collective may work more as a "person"--just multiple people joined together as one. For example, a character may need to overcome a group of bullies who all heckle him together. The fact there are multiple, makes the bullying worse, but doesn't add much more to the dynamics outside of that. 

The character will be different from the collective in a significant way, and the collective will usually try to get the character to bend to their will. Because the opposing force is a collective, it often feels like the odds are stacked against the character.

Worth noting is that it's not unusual for a particular character to become the "face" of the society. For example, President Snow becomes the face of Panem's government, even though from the series' beginning to the series' end, the true antagonist is the society (one of the reasons I think Mockingjay is often misunderstood 😉).

It's also possible to develop a society vs. society conflict in a story. It may be the protagonist is part of a collective that is going head-to-head with an opposing collective. 

Examples:

Katniss ultimately refusing to be a piece in the Hunger Games

Lyra fighting for truth in a society that wants to keep humankind ignorant in His Dark Materials

Hamilton fighting his way to the top in Hamilton


Possible Methods of Resolution:

Helping the society have a revelation (epiphany)

Destroying, dismantling, or punishing the collective

Convincing society that it is wrong

Persuading the collective to allow the character to pursue her goal

A compromise with the society

Educating society on a better way forward

Being forced into submission or defeated by society

Eventually siding with society

Being exiled from the society or put to death

Being persuaded by society to give up


Common Stakes (Negative vs. Positive):

Death (psychological, professional, or physical) vs. life

Loss of identity and individuality vs. stronger sense of identity and individuality

Affecting society (negatively or positively) by refusing to conform

Society being corrupt vs. being enlightened

Individual being corrupt vs. being enlightened

Believing and perpetuating harmful ideologies and narratives vs. helpful and accurate ones

Imprisonment vs. freedom

Inviting danger to loved ones vs. safety for loved ones


5. Person vs. God


In modern times, the person vs. god conflict often gets left off lists. It is usually combined with or even replaced by the person vs. fate conflict. But because fate conflicts don't necessarily have gods, and god conflicts don't necessarily include fate, I've decided to put them in separate categories.

One may argue that the person vs. god conflict actually fits into the other categories, and I think that's fair. At the same time, it feels distinct from many conflicts, so I'm giving it its own space. In the end, just remember that these categories are meant to help us gain better discernment, which is certainly my intention. 

Here, a person is in conflict with a god, or even the God. It may be a person trying to outsmart or even kill a god, or it may be a person struggling to reconcile with God.

In His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel is in conflict with the Authority, which is seen as God. In Princess Mononoke, several characters aim to obtain the head of a forest god in order to bring immortality to the emporer. 

A character may face a personal, internal conflict with God, believing God wants her to do something she does not want to do, for example. Or maybe she is angry at God. Or seeks forgiveness from God. In Les Mis, Jean Valjean hopes to be found worthy of God's mercy. 

Other characters may be in conflict with the concept of God. Maybe their society believes in a concept of God that the character knows isn't true. (For this reason and others, I'd argue that even an atheist character can have a person vs. god conflict.)

God may seem to retaliate in the form of nature. Jonah was swallowed by a whale. 

With all that said, one may argue that Lord Asriel and the Authority fit into a person vs. person conflict. The forest god fits into a person vs. supernatural conflict. Jean Valjean could arguably fit into a person vs. self conflict. Fighting the concept of a god could fit in a person vs. society conflict. And being swallowed by a whale may be argued to be a nature conflict. 

Nonetheless, this is a category of conflict that goes far back, and I'd be remiss to leave it off. Besides, one can't help but debate if Jean Valjean's relationship with God is really a conflict with himself. I mean, if one believes in a god, and believes to be able to communicate with that god--would that even be considered a conflict with the self? In any case, I still feel person vs. god has a place.

Examples:

In Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, the antagonist is seen as a god and the key characters want to destroy him.

In His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel aims to bring about the downfall of the Authority (God).

In Les Mis, Jean Valjean hopes to find mercy from God. 


Possible Methods of Resolution:

A god is defeated

The character is defeated by a god

The character eventually joins the same side as God

God is revealed to not actually be a god

The god is persuaded by the character

The character gains a better understanding of God

The character ignores, dismisses, or stops believing in God


Common Stakes (Negative vs. Positive):

Spiritual death and damnation vs. paradise and redemption; eternal misery vs. eternal glory

Physical death vs. physical life

Cloudy sense of self and purpose vs. divine clarity of one's self and purpose

Remaining in ignorance vs. gaining knowledge and wisdom

How the outcome of the conflict affects others, society, or the world, negatively or positively

Imprisonment (mental, spiritual, or physical) vs. freedom 

Losing meaning in life vs. finding meaning in life


6. Person vs. Fate

(Often categorized as part of person vs. god, or sometimes, person vs. supernatural)


I feel out of all the conflict types, this one is most often misunderstood. 

Traditionally, person vs. fate is seen as a part of person vs. god, but as I mentioned above, not all fate conflicts actually include gods. In fact, most of those around today, don't. 

Here, the character is in conflict with a destiny. Something is predetermined or foreordained and the character is struggling with that. Certainly the event can come from the will of the gods, but it doesn't have to. In fantasy, this information often comes from a prophecy. In horror, this may be a kind of curse. In Final Destination, the characters are trying to cheat their deaths--they are fated to die. It can even play into the concept of the universe having a particular order or law (perhaps dharma?), that must be upheld or fulfilled (like the Circle of Life). 

If you want to broaden the concept further, the "law" or destiny need not be otherworldly. For example, a man on death row arguably has a predetermined fate. This has a slightly different tone than what is traditionally placed in this category, but still fits within it, more or less. One may also broaden the category to look at things such as terminal illnesses or arranged marriages. Even in these cases, there is a sense of a "higher" power being in control (even if that power isn't otherworldly).

The character may openly take action to fight against fate, or the character may have more of a personal struggle with either accepting fate or the costs of the fate. Often characters who fight against fate are punished (and the fate portrayed as inevitable), but it's possible to write a story where that is depicted positively and/or where they succeed in altering fate. With this conflict type, consider whether or not the fate is altered, whether that is a good or bad thing, and whether the character ultimately embraces or rejects fate. Are they punished or rewarded for that? Was the effort worth it?

Usually person vs. fate conflicts emphasizes free will within strict limitations. While some writers choose to ultimately emphasize a lack of free will, others choose to emphasize the power of free will. Free will may alter fate, or the character may realize they have the power to choose how to face and accept an inevitable fate.

Sometimes it's interesting to explore the origins of the "destiny." In Dr. Faustus, Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil to gain all knowledge--he only has himself to blame for his inevitable fate. Was gaining all knowledge worth an eternity in hell?


Examples:

Oedipus Rex is prophesied to marry his mother and kill his father. And in his effort to keep this prophecy from happening, he fulfills it. 

In The Lion King, Simba is destined to be the king to fulfill the Circle of Life, but rejects that idea in the second half of the middle.

In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, Harry struggles with accepting the prophecy that was revealed in the previous book.


Possible Methods of Resolution:

The character unknowingly brings about his fate, in his efforts to thwart it

The character eventually embraces her destiny

The character successfully alters fate

Another character intervenes, bringing about the destined outcome

Fulfilling a prophecy in an unexpected way


Common Stakes (Negative vs. Positive):

Death vs. life

Disrupting divine order vs. upholding divine order; or chaos vs. order

Lack of choices vs. power of choices

Experiencing limitations vs. power and opportunities

How the outcome affects society and the world, negatively and positively

How the behaviors and outcome affect one's soul (ex. ultimately going to hell vs. going to heaven)


7. Person vs. the Supernatural

(Also known as Person vs. the Unknown)


A character may be in conflict with something otherworldly. This may be magic, a ghost, a vampire, or a portal--pretty much anything speculative. This type of conflict can seem to overlap with person vs. person conflict. For example, a character may be in conflict with a werewolf. It may also seem to overlap with person vs. nature conflict, such as a character trying to heal a magical ailment. 

This conflict type often emphasizes a struggle with the unknown. Characters may have to learn how the supernatural functions in order to overcome the conflict. Getting the necessary information typically proves difficult because the character has few resources to turn to. Usually there is a mystery, to some degree. 


Examples:

Mulder and Scully taking on the paranormal in The X-Files.

In The Ghostbusters, characters take on ghosts.

In Stranger Things, characters must confront creatures of The Upside Down. 


Possible Methods of Resolution:

Defeating the supernatural element

Being defeated by the supernatural element

Learning to live with the supernatural element

Limiting the influence of the supernatural element

Making one's self inaccessible to the supernatural element


Common Stakes (Negative vs. Positive):

Death (psychological, professional, or physical) vs. life

Physically or emotional pain and injury vs. Physical or emotional health and safety

How the outcome will affect the character's future lifestyle negatively or positively

Opportunities (gained or lost)

Plot goal lost or achieved 

How the outcome will affect loved ones or the world negatively or positively

Remaining in chaotic ignorance vs. gaining valuable knowledge


Frankly, all kinds of stakes could fit here, depending on how the supernatural manifests.


8. Person vs. Technology

(Also known as Person vs. Machine)


A character may be in a struggle with technology. Usually in this case, we think of things like AI, robots, or a computer virus. But it can be as simple as a character struggling with using social media, learning how to fly a plane, or trying to fix a car. The technology may be old (a youth who doesn't know how to use an outdated phone), modern (a character trying to fix the internet so he can meet someone during the pandemic), or advanced (anyone know how to fly this alien spaceship?).

In classic literature, there is often a theme of technology being dangerous because it enables people to "play god." Today we still have similar arguments in regards to things like cloning. A technological conflict may look at whether or not we should use technology, and if we should, how should we use it? Who gets to use it? And does it ultimately make life better for people? Or worse?

Examples:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

In Oblivion, it is revealed that an alien artificial intelligence is working to acquire Earth's resources and destroy humanity. 

In Ralph Breaks the Internet, the characters must learn how to navigate and use the internet to save Sugar Rush.


Possible Methods of Resolution:

Learning how to use the technology

Defeating or disabling the technology

Overcoming technology with other (or new) technology

Overcoming technology with human heart, intellect, or physicality

Being defeated by technology


Common Stakes (Negative vs. Positive):

Death (psychological, professional, physical, or sometimes spiritual) vs. life

Loss of humanity (literally or figuratively) vs. preservation of humanity

Being dependent (on technology) vs. being self-reliant

Danger in exploration vs. safety in what is familiar and simple

Having one's view of reality altered vs. coming to the truth about reality

Improvement in life and society vs. decay in life and society

The potential of the technology (negative and positive)


As you work on your stories, check to make sure you have a variety of conflicts. Obviously some types work better for certain genres than others. You probably wouldn't want to put a supernatural conflict in a romance, for example (unless of course, you are writing a paranormal romance, then definitely do that). 

Something important to keep in mind is that conflicts are usually most effective when they have a sense of cohesion and progression. A story that has a bunch of conflicts that aren't connected or don't move anything forward, is scarcely a story at all. Usually conflicts build in intensity, which moves the plot forward. If a conflict doesn't directly move a plotline forward, then it should usually move the character arc or the theme forward--by the impact it has on the character or the thematic topic it explores. 

If you need help brainstorming more specific types of conflict, check out the conflict thesaurus on Writers Helping Writers

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2 comments:

  1. I've written stories with some of these conflicts but doubted myself because I couldn't really see stakes - good to see them pointed out. Stakes don't have to be life or death.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Tim,

      Yes, it's so easy to get stuck on thinking everything must be life or death to be powerful. Definitely some things are worse than death. And they also don't have to be so intense to be meaningful and significant.

      Delete

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