Types of Conflict

February 20, 2021

Stories are, fundamentally, all about conflict.

In most stories, your protagonist wants something—to change a law or the government itself, to avenge a death, to hook up with the cutie, to dispel a curse—and your antagonist usually wants something that is in direct opposition of whatever the protagonist wants.

From those opposing wants come the narrative conflict and thus plot.

In general, there are ten kinds of narrative conflict. When deciding what the conflict of your story is going to be (and thus what is going to drive the plot), keep in mind that the strongest stories often feature multiple kinds of conflict, for example, where the protagonist in opposition not only with a specific antagonist, but perhaps also with an internalized pressure coming from some type of self-doubt or conflicting morals, or perhaps a societal issue, or both. Here are the main examples:

Internal Conflicts

Person vs. Self

This is a story about someone struggling with something within themselves – either genetic, or cultural and internalized – which gets in the way of something they want.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Gender & Sex
  • Morals & Taboos
  • Truth & Lying about/to oneself
  • Body Image & Dysmorphia
  • Ambition & drive
  • Desire & Lust

Example: “Cinderella Boy” by Kristina Meister

Person vs. Society / Institution

This is a story about someone struggling with truths, beliefs, customs and taboos and internalized by the protagonist from an organization such as a church/religion, school system, military complex, etc.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • The ability to declare oneself a person and believe it / not being recognized as a person under the law
  • The truth of one’s own gender and / or sex
  • Struggling to overcome internalized prejudices, fears, and ‘truths’

Example: “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison

Person vs. Machine/Technology

This is a story about someone struggling with their personal relationship with technology, or is a piece of technology themselves struggling with their own personhood.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Is a robot a person? Can they declare themselves a person? Do they have thoughts and feelings, emotions and desires?
  • The dangers of technological dependence
  • The pervasiveness of technology in everyday life
  • How technology gets in the way of, or improves personal relationships

Example: “A.I.” (film)

Person vs. Faith/Religion/The God(s)

This is a story about someone struggling with their own personal belief, religion, and/or faith. God(s) may or may not actually be real, but the focus is on the self and one’s own connection to the divine.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Loss of faith
  • Discovering and confronting hypocrisy in one’s religion/peers
  • The juxtaposition of personal desires with community rules
  • Leaving or entering a religion

Example: “Abide With me” by Elizabeth Strout

External Conflicts

Person vs. Person

This is a story about someone struggling in direct opposition of someone else, with conflicting aims and desires.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Competitions (sports, games, arts, etc.)
  • Love rivals
  • Heroes and villains

Example: “Face/Off” (Film)

Person vs. Society / Institution

This is a story about someone struggling with their place in society, what that society expects of them, and their sense of self and worth as dictated by that society.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Expectations and hegemony
  • Bad/wrong social structure
  • Class War
  • Gender War
  • Rights and Privileges (declaring who is ‘human’ and a ‘person’ under the law)
  • Wanting the wrong/right thing according to outside forces

Example: “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

Person vs. Nature

This is a story about someone struggling with, surviving, or overcoming a natural disaster, a hostile environment, abandonment/self-isolation in a natural setting, or finding ways to adapt to an unfamiliar natural setting.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Environmentalism/climate change
  • Survival
  • Agriculture
  • Natural disasters
  • Doomsday prepping
  • Finding oneself/communing with nature

Example: “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George

Person vs. Machine/Technology

This is a story about someone struggling with technology that is pervasive and may be a direct threat or aide to their desires.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Technology as a direct physical threat to health, happiness, or life
  • Using technology to help you get what you want
  • Technology as a shortcut or cheat

Example: “The Terminator” (film)

Person vs. The Supernatural

This is a story about someone directly, and usually physically, struggling with supernatural entities and forces.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Faith and belief
  • Protecting family/friends
  • Self worth and self sacrifice
  • The personhood of an Othered creature
  • Life after death

Example: “Supernatural” (TV Show)

Person vs. Fate/Destiny/The Gods

This is a story about someone struggling with physical, emotional, or mental threats from divine real entitles, or the direct manifestation of forces that control the course of their life.

May focus on topics/issues around:

  • Self-determination/fate/destiny
  • Supernatural intervention/deus ex machina (both for the protagonist’s good, and/or against the protagonist)
  • Faith and religion when the people you worship are real
  • Enslavement or forced obedience

Example: “The Odyssey” by Homer