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The Six Types of Conflict in Fiction

I’ve talked before about the importance of conflict in a story. This is all well and good to know, but what forms, exactly, can conflict take in a story?

At its most basic, conflict in a story takes one of six different forms.

  • Man Against Self. In a story about inner conflict, the character from whose point of view the story is told fights mainly against him- or herself. Think of Louis in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire; Louis struggles against his own ambivalence regarding his new vampire nature. The risk you run in detailing this sort of conflict, of course, is a far too introspective tale, but because it focuses on human nature, it can also be the most rewarding to write.
  • Man Against Nature. This type of conflict focuses on an individual who seeks to overcome natural elements: he or she seeks to scale a mountain, or survive three days in the wilderness, or cross an ocean. One of the most notable “man against nature stories,” of course, is Jack London’s Call of the Wild. These types of stories tend to be Realist in tone; when it comes down to it, humans simply cannot overcome Mother Nature – not for long, anyway.
  • Man Against Society. Probably the favorite of the bohemian artist set, this sort of narrative usually pits a misfit against a conformist society. He or she may seek to enlighten, liberate, flee from, or simply survive in such a society, but society as a whole wants him out of the way. Richard Matheson, in his I Am Legend, puts a fascinating spin on this conflict: only one human, Robert Neville, exists in the whole world – and all of the undead want to drink his blood.
  • Man Against Machine. Rapidly rising in popularity in our increasingly mechanized society, this sort of conflict usually depicts a human fighting against machines, which are conveyed as soulless or even demonic. Think of the 1927 Fritz Lang classic Metropolis, in which the hero, Freder, battles the man-killing machines of the dystopian Metropolis. These types of stories usually fall in the sci-fi camp.
  • Orpheus and Eurydice.Man Against God. In a story featuring this type of conflict, an individual fights a capricious or cruel god or gods; mythologies of many people focus on this sort of conflict. Many times, the hero or heroine overcomes the gods either through trickery or sheer valor, but in other stories, the hero fails and is condemned to eternal punishment. For example, take Orpheus, who wins the right to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, as long as he does not look behind him as they leave the Underworld. But, of course, before he can lead her all the way out of Hades, he turns to look at her, thus violating the agreement – and losing her again.
  • God Against Everybody. Possibly the most sweeping type of conflict concerns a god dead set on destroying all of humankind; again, these stories usually fall in the mythological camp. Think of the many mythological destruction narratives, such as an Egyptian tale in which the gods, annoyed with the amount of noise humans make, decide to send the goddess Hathor down to wipe out the pestilence of mankind. Today, these types of stories would be classed as fantasy, though they need not be.

Endless variations on these conflicts exist, and of course, there’s no reason multiple conflicts can’t happen within the same story. And no matter how complicated the plot, at the core of any good story, you’ll find a conflict driving the action.

Worst-Case Scenarios Make for the Best Stories

As I’ve written before, a good story requires conflict. Without tension, a story lacks intrigue, and a lack of intrigue stops a reader cold. But how do you generate ideas for conflict?

One method consists in brainstorming a list of the worst scenarios that could happen to your character. Say your character, whom we’ll call Wilmot, is a pacifist who only wants to avoid the war brewing in the kingdom in which he resides. If Wilmot’s desire to avoid the war comprises his main goal, then you’ll need a dozen minor conflicts along the way to thwart that goal.

What terrible circumstances could happen to our pacifist? Well, Wilmot might think he’ll be fine so long as the war doesn’t reach his little farm in that out-of-the-way corner of the kingdom. But what if a band of rebels encroaches on his homestead? How will Wilmot respond to that? Then, what if the rebels decide to stay and make his farm their headquarters?

SoldiersWhat’s another awful event that could befall Wilmot? Suppose Wilmot possesses expertise in some area that the rebels lack knowledge in — and they impress him into serving their cause with that knowledge?

Or, for example, what if the leader of the rebels takes a fancy to Wilmot’s winsome teenage daughter? Then, what if the rebels say they’re moving on — but his daughter, won to their cause and enamored with the rebel leader, runs away with them?

All of these ideas can try Wilmot’s desire to remain a pacifist. His world has been invaded; his farm has been defiled; he’s been made to help the rebels; and his own daughter has joined them. Compound these awful events a few times, and you have a dozen worst-case scenarios to test Wilmot’s mettle.

Think of every possible blow to your protagonist and his or her goal. Be merciless. It’s your job to make life miserable for your main character; keep in mind that fire purifies. In the end, you want a hero who withstood the worst that fate can devise for him or her, because in the end, those are the characters we want to read about.

Put Muscle in Your Story With Conflict

Today, we’re going to talk about the importance of conflict. The fact is, conflict drives a good plot, and without it, your story has no muscle.

In her book Outlining Your Novel, K.M. Weiland identifies five different types of conflict that you can write into your novel. These are as follows: personality conflicts; unexpected situations; “high stakes”; inner battles; and outer battles.

Personality conflicts, of course, consist not just of the classic struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist, but also all the minor personality conflicts that can ensue along the way. And minor conflicts your protagonist should have in spades – even with those of your characters who seem to be on your main character’s side. If you want your readers to root for your hero, no better way to make that happen than by pitching what seems to be the whole world against him.

Arthur Dent, much bemused by his adventure.Unexpected situations are just that and open the door to new situations for your main character. Perhaps, like Arthur Dent, your protagonist just goes down the pub to have a pint with his friend, only to be whisked away on an intergalactic quest. How could his horoscope have predicted that? Think of the most unpredictable outcome possible for the most mundane of situations – and write it into your plot as a startling twist.

What about high stakes? Weiland explains that when high stakes are involved, a task that otherwise would be doable becomes nothing short of heroism. Suppose, for example, that your hero must simply deliver a mysterious load of cargo to Epsilon Eridani. Easy enough for your dashing, young captain – until he discovers that his cargo is actually the cryogenically frozen Princess Malaguena of the Galeron tribe, and the fate of the entire star system depends on her successful delivery. Your young captain might sweat a bit now, but no reason to stop there – now an entire gang of reivers is after him, determined to kill him, capture Malaguena, and bring about interstellar war. High stakes indeed!

Finally, consider inner and outer battles. Of course, outer battles are easy to plot. Fight through the enemy, scale the castle walls, and behead the evil Lord Ulmar. Those conflicts are a dime a dozen. What’s more intriguing is the inner conflict taking place within the hero or heroine. Suppose the heroine is torn between her loyalty to her family and her loyalty to what she believes is right? Suppose she knows her father is a monster, but she still cannot convince herself to betray him? How strong are blood ties? There you have inner conflict.

All of these kinds of conflict can be present in varying degrees in your work of fiction, and all of them invest readers in the outcome. Nothing is more boring than a novel in which everybody gets along; amp up the conflict, and put muscle in your story.

No Dumping: Establish Conflict in the Very First Sentence

How do you start a story? Do you, like many writers, meander around like this?

The day promised to be warm and sunny, another clear, orange day on the alien planet. Lucrezia rose early, and after bathing in the spring near the pod, she contemplated what to have for breakfast. So many of the large, crested, birdlike creatures roosted in the giant trees near the landing site that she imagined she could find some of their eggs to eat.

Today, Lucrezia decided as she shimmied up the nearest tree in search of eggs, she would fix the ship’s Universal Translator. She had not come across any inhabitant of this unknown planet, but she had found elf bolts near the spring the day before. In her travels, she had come across so many different types of aliens. . . .

And so on. What’s the point of these paragraphs? Do they introduce a conflict? No. Does anything happen? No. Do they do anything but info dump? No.No dumping!

Conflict is essential in storytelling; without a conflict, whether inner or external, a story is just not interesting and reads more like an anecdote. And the most essential aspect of the opening lines of a story, whether short or long, is to establish that conflict.

So start with the problem. You don’t have to give away the ending, but you do have to let your readers know from the very first sentence that trouble is brewing. For example, what if Lucrezia found one of those elf bolts buried in a suspiciously human-looking skull?

Now that begins a story.