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What Are the Four General Types of Conflict in Fiction?

by Jana Sosnowski

Great stories draw the reader into the main character's struggles and conflicts. A character may experience conflict either internally or externally and may experience multiple conflicts throughout a story, particularly in a novel or movie. Understanding the four basic types of character conflict can increase understanding of overall plot development and character actions.

Man vs. Man

The conflict between characters is an external conflict in which one character creates a direct obstacle to what the other wants or needs. The conflict between the two characters may take the form of emotional, verbal or physical struggles. This type of conflict between two characters is most often present in a hero story as the main character fights against a villain for some greater good. For example, the struggle between Superman and Lex Luthor is an external conflict between two characters.

Man vs. Nature

The conflict between a character and the forces of nature includes struggles against elements of weather, natural disasters or mishaps during activities in nature. The main character must overcome difficulties created by nature to reach a goal or survive the outcome of damage created by a natural disaster. For example, Jack London's "The Call of the Wild" features a dog as the main character who has to battle snow, freezing conditions and icy rivers to survive in a new home.

Man vs. Society

Conflicts between a character and a larger group, such as a culture or community, are external conflicts that often find the main character at odds with the morals or standards of the larger group. The conflict with society may take the form of oppression against a character who belongs to a racial, socioeconomic or gender group. For example, Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" focuses on the conflict an immigrant worker finds with a capitalist society and his eventual work with a union to combat injustices in the work place.

Man vs. Self

Conflict that exists between a character and his own thoughts or weaknesses is an internal conflict. Internal conflicts may stem from morality, fate, desires or beliefs. Internal conflict is a technique used to increase the depth of the character as his decisions are not always easy to make. Many superhero stories feature the internal conflict of a hero who also wants to be a normal human. For example, Spider-Man faces internal conflict in his desire to save people versus his desire to maintain a normal life as Peter Parker.

About the Author

Based in Los Angeles, Jana Sosnowski holds Master of Science in educational psychology and instructional technology, She has spent the past 11 years in education, primarily in the secondary classroom teaching English and journalism. Sosnowski has also worked as a curriculum writer for a math remediation program. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in print journalism from the University of Southern California.

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