The Four Types of Conflict

An exploration of the different types of narrative conflict, including self, others, authority, and nature.

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Epytome / Used With Permission

Whilst every story features different conflict depending on the characters and plot, conflict in general can be grouped into four distinct categories, each of which contain their own attributes.

Self

Conflict of self is, in effect, a character in opposition to themselves. Whether battling their own morality or conscience, arguing with their own desires or instincts, or questioning their own decisions or reactions, characters can be in conflict internally.

The central conflict in Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice is internal, as Louis recounts how he initially battled with depression, then later struggled to resolve himself with his vampiric urges. His love for his adopted daughter and loyalty to the vampire who turned him, his need for a companion, disgust of feeding upon humans, and his own loneliness as the world around him changes, creates multi-layered conflict within his own self.

At the heart of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the protagonist is in constant conflict with the world around him, others within that world, and himself as his own body is failing. As he treks across the country with his son, he battles his own memories, his love for his son versus the demands on him to ensure he survives, his own willpower, and his own sense of futility as the world around him disintegrates.

Others

Characters are most often found in conflict with others. Whether enemies, friends, rivals, relatives, or strangers, conflict with others creates barriers for the protagonist to overcome.

The protagonist of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jim Hawkins, is in constant conflict with those around him as trusted allies turn on each other and sailors and pirates are revealed to be bad, good, or mixtures of both. His allegiances shift as he sees change in those he admires—particularly Long John Silver—and those he is in conflict with are also in constant battles with others, whether through rivalries over pay or shares of the treasure, or greed or loyalty to the Crown.

Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal is a tale of conflict between two men: the assassin who has been paid to murder Charles de Gaulle, and the police detective attempting to stop him. Each face the other indirectly, though for the majority of the novel neither are even aware of the other’s existence.

Authority

Authority—including government and state, police, systems of control, military or occupying forces, disciplinary figures, gods, or any other option or organisation which dictates rules—can be opposed by characters to create conflict within a story.

The Hunger Games sees Katniss in constant conflict with society, both in terms of her initial situation of suppression by a totalitarian regime, then later in her adaption to and overcoming of the Hunger Games themselves. Ever-present is President Snow—Katniss’ and her people’s oppression personified—yet he is merely an individual, and it is the authority itself which causes the ultimate conflict.

The protagonist of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 initially is part of the authority which causes conflict, burning books (and people) on behalf of the law. As such, conflict already exists between authority and other characters, and the conflict he faces begins as his own conscience rejects the rules which he must follow.

Nature

Conflict can be created with the natural order, or systems or creatures within.

A famous example would be Hemingway’s novel the Old Man and the Sea, where the Old Man is in conflict with the sea and its inhabitants. He battles the weather, the waves, sharks, and the fish he catches.

In the Time Machine by H.G. Wells, the protagonist not only faces conflict with the creatures he encounters in the future, but with time itself. He is able to pass through it, but as he journeys further towards the end of the Earth’s life, he is faced with the realisation of the inevitability of humanity’s evolution and eventual destruction. This conflict raises another, as although he can break through one law of nature—time—he cannot change others.

 

Although conflict can be categorised, it needs to be organic based upon the story you wish to tell, and multiple types can and should be used together. Conflict upsets the balance of the fictional world; using it effectively will ensure your story moves at a suitable pace as the characters naturally adapt and face it, drawing readers in continuously and consistently.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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