Conflict In Literature Essay

Posted on by Nahn

Let's be honest—literature would be a little boring without conflict. As painful as it is to read about our favorite characters going through hardships, these struggles are necessary to keep us engaged, entertained, and turning pages.

Given the amount of literature in the world, it's inevitable that there will be variations in the types of conflict characters experience. Of course, each type is not mutually exclusive; stories often have overlapping struggles, containing multiple characters and storylines. For example, in Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is in conflict with his society, himself, and another person (Javert)—not to mention the different conflicts other characters experience amongst each other!

Considering the many types of conflict that exist within literature, let's look at seven of the most common, using examples from famous novels to illustrate each type.

Person vs. Person

Conflict that pits one person against another is about as classic as a story can get. This type of conflict is pretty much self-explanatory, with one person struggling for victory over another. There are countless examples of this type of conflict in literature.

In fact, the instances throughout the history of literature are so numerous that mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote TheHero with a Thousand Faces, a book outlining the archetype of a hero going on a journey and overcoming an enemy. The book eventually inspired George Lucas to create the character of Luke Skywalker. Another example, mentioned in the introduction, is the conflict between Javert and Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, who clashdue to their conflicting opinions on justice and mercy.

Person vs. Self

In this type of conflict, a character finds him or herself battling between two competing desires or selves, typically one good and one evil.You won't get a more obvious example than TheCall of the Wild,in which the protagonist (in this case, a dog) is torn between a domesticated self and wild self.

Person vs. Fate/God(s)

This type of conflict occurs when a character is trapped by an inevitable destiny; freedom and free will often seem impossible in these stories. You'll find this trope in Greek tragedy: Oedipus is fated to marry his own mother and Odysseus finds himself sailing throughout the Mediterranean due to the anger of Poseidon. What can humans do in the face of the gods and fate? Only endure, it seems.

Person vs. Nature

In this type of conflict, humankind comes up against nature, battling for survival against its inexorable and apathetic force. The hero may be forced to confront nature, or the protagonist may be seeking the conflict, trying to exert dominance over nature.

Probably the most famous example of this type of conflict is Herman Melville's Moby Dick; it tells the story of a man's obsession with overcoming nature—specifically, a whale. A shorter example (and on a slightly smaller scale—smaller boat, smaller fish) is Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

Person vs. Society

Cue the dystopian genre. The person-against-society conflict follows the storyline of an individual or a group fighting (sometimes successfully, sometimes not-so-successfully) against injustices within their society.

Whilethe characters ofGeorge Orwell's Animal Farm are animals rather than people, it still illustrates a story driven by rebellion against a society, as the characters struggle against a corrupt power structure, create a new society, and continue to experience struggles within the new society.

Person vs. the Unknown/Extraterrestrial

This is a common thread in science fiction and supernatural horror movies and books. In this type of conflict, the protagonist battles against an entity that isn't entirely known or comprehensible, whether it is extraterrestrial or metaphysical. Think of Stephen King's The Shining (or many of King's books, for that matter). On the science fiction side, H.G. Wells' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds is an example of a group (humankind) clashing with an alien race (Martians).

Person vs. Technology/Machinery

The popularity of this genre has risen steadily over the last hundred years, and in the face of increasing mechanization and improving artificial intelligence, it's not hard to see why. This type of conflict focuses on a person or group of people fighting to overcome unemotional and unsympathetic machinery that believes it no longer requires humanity.

Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, pits astronaut Dave Bowman against the super-intelligent HAL 9000, which believes Dave's shortcomings as a human being mean he must be forcibly removed from the mission.


Whether you're enjoying literature, analyzing it, or writing it yourself, knowing these seven types of conflict will help you gain a greater understanding of what makes a story so compelling. Hopefully, while reading this short list, you will have thought of your own examples, too. If so, let us know on Facebook or Twitter! 

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Conflict Definition

In literature, conflict is a literary element that involves a struggle between two opposing forces, usually a protagonist and an antagonist.

Internal and External Conflicts

Careful examination of some conflict examples will help us realize that conflicts may be internal or external. An internal or psychological conflict arises as soon as a character experiences two opposite emotions or desires – usually virtue and vice, or good and evil – inside him. This disagreement causes the character to suffer mental agony. Internal conflict develops a unique tension in a storyline, marked by a lack of action.

External conflict, on the other hand, is marked by a characteristic involvement of an action wherein a character finds himself in struggle with those outside forces that hamper his progress. The most common type of external conflict is where a protagonist fights back against the antagonist’s tactics that impede his or her advancement.

Examples of Conflict in Literature

Example #1: Hamlet (By William Shakespeare)

Hamlet’s internal conflict is the main conflict in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.” This internal conflict decides his tragic downfall. He reveals his state of mind in the following lines from Act 3, Scene 1 of the play:

“To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep…”

The conflict here is that Hamlet wants to kill his father’s murderer, Claudius, but he also looks for proof to justify his action. This ultimately ruins his life, and the lives of his loved ones. Due to his internal conflict, Hamlet spoils his relationship with his mother, and sends Ophelia (Hamlet’s love interest) into such a state of despair that she commits suicide.

Hamlet’s internal conflict, which is regarded as indecisiveness, almost got everyone killed at the end of the play. The resolution to the conflict came when he killed Claudius by assuming fake madness so that he would not be asked for any justification. In the same play, we find Hamlet engaged in an external conflict with his uncle Claudius.

Example #2: Doctor Faustus (By Christopher Marlowe)

Another example of an internal conflict is found in the character of Doctor Faustus in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Faustus has an ambitious nature. In spite of being a respected scholar, he sold his soul to Lucifer by signing a contract with his blood, in order to achieve ultimate power and limitless pleasure in this world. He learns the art of black magic, and defies Christianity.

After the aforementioned action, we see Faustus suffering from an internal conflict where he thinks honestly about repenting, acting upon the advice of “the good angel,” but “the bad angel” or the evil inside him distracts him by saying it is all too late. In conclusion, the conflict is resolved when devils take his soul away to Hell, and he suffers eternal damnation because of his over-ambition.

Example #3: The Lord of the Flies Farm (By William Golding)

The most straightforward type of external conflict is when a character in a story struggles against another character physically. In William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies, for example, Ralph (the leader of the “good guys”) steadily comes into conflict with Jack – a bully who later forms a “tribe” of hunters. Jack and his tribe give in to their savage instinct, and make attempts to hunt or kill the civilized batch of boys led by Ralph.

Example #4: To Kill a Mockingbird (By Harper Lee)

Another kind of external conflict sets a character against the evil that dominates a society. In this type of conflict, a character may confront a dominant group with opposing priorities. For instance, in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, an honest lawyer, Atticus Finch, goes up against the racist society in which he lives. Atticus has the courage to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused of a rape. Though Atticus has the support of a few like-minded people, most of the townspeople express their disapproval of his defense of a black man.

Function of Conflict

Both internal and external conflicts are essential elements of a storyline. It is essential for a writer to introduce and develop conflict, whether internal, external, or both, in his storyline in order to achieve the story’s goal. Resolution of the conflict entertains the readers.

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