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In literature, conflict is a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other. 

Conflict is one of the most crucial parts of any story, poem, or novel. Without it, the story would fall flat. There are several main types of conflicts, all of which are defined below, but they revolve around the main character or characters fighting against something that seeks to disrupt their path. This might be an addiction, a plague, another character, a storm, or any other variety of roadblocks. 

Conflict pronunciation: Con-flicked

Conflict - Literary Definition and Examples


Definition and Explanation 

Conflicts can be divided into two distinct categories, the internal and the external. Internal conflicts are those which take place within a character’s mind. For example, a battle against the urge to inflict harm or the struggle to overcome an addiction. It happens within the main character and drives their character development over the course of the story. 

External conflicts happen outside the character’s mind. They are conflicts that involve other people or other elements in their lives. Some external force stands in the way of what the character wants to achieve. For instance, discrimination, a personal enemy, or a natural force like a storm or illness. 


Why Do Writers Use Conflict?

Conflict is crucial to writing a compelling story. Without some kind of conflict in the novel, whether that be human against human or human against society, etc., readers won’t have anything to keep their attention. There would be nothing to drive the plot nor a reason to get to the end of the novel/poem/story to find out how the conflict is resolved. Not all stories need a raging battle of some kind to be worth reading, the conflict can be much subtler, such as that seen in The Hours, a moving novel by Michael Cunningham in which he tells the stories of three women across time in their respective societies. There are no enormous dramas to shake and surprise the reader, but the story is compelling nonetheless.


Examples of Conflict in Poetry 

Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling 

In this poem, which is one of Kipling’s best-loved, the character Gunga Din is faced with several challenges. The most prominent of these are character against society. Din is part of an ongoing war, fighting alongside and assisting British soldiers. Although he’s there to help and is kind to everyone he meets, he is met with hostility and hatred. The men look down on him and have no problem letting him know that. Here are a few lines from the poem: 

The uniform ‘e wore   

Was nothin’ much before,   

An’ rather less than ‘arf o’ that be’ind,      

For a twisty piece o’ rag   

An’ a goatskin water-bag   

Was all the field-equipment ‘e could find.

Din is not the narrating of the story, so the reader gets the details of his life secondhand. Despite this, his kindness and determination come through clearly. At the end of the poem, the speaker understands Din and himself much better. 


 The Cry of the Children by Elizabeth Barrett Browning 

This is a moving and quite a popular poem in which Browning’s speaker, who is likely the poet herself, tries to bring the issue of child labor into the forefront of society’s concern. Throughout the poem, she narrates the lives of these terribly depressed, miserable children while trying to appeal to the better natures of her readers and listeners. She notes how uncaring the world can be and how much better off the children think they’d be if they were dead. Here are a few lines from the poem: 

Do ye hear the children weeping, O my brothers, 

Ere the sorrow comes with years ? 

They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, — 

And that cannot stop their tears. 

The young lambs are bleating in the meadows ; 

Browning presents the conflicts of character against character and character against society in this piece. The children are trying to survive day to day while coming up against uncaring men and women on the street and the insinuation they’re a part of. 


Examples of Conflict in Novels 

Into the Wild by John Krakauer 

This popular novel tells the true story of a young man named Christopher McCandless. After graduating from college, he chose to sell all his possessions, abandon his life and his parents, and set off “into the wild.” There, he found joy and sorrow as he traveled across the United States, eventually arriving in Alaska. Throughout the novel, Krakauer describes McCandless’s conflicts with nature, other characters, and himself. 


The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger 

In this novel, Salinger’s main character Holden Caulfield struggles with conflicts with himself, society, and other characters. He’s incredibly dissatisfied with his life and everyone he meets. No one can live up to his standards. The novel follows him through New York City as he tries to take joy from various pursuits and meetings. None of it works, and eventually, it’s revealed that he was institutionalized. 


Examples of Conflict in Film 

The Lord of the Rings Series 

In the three Lord of the Rings films, which are of course based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, the main character  Frodo Baggins, faces several different conflicts. These include character against character, character against society, and character against nature. His journey is a long one, and throughout it, he has to deal with innumerable threats from all sides.


Call Me By Your Name 

This moving film was released in 2017 and is based on a novel of the same name. It follows the emotional romance between two men during a summer holiday in Italy. The two struggle with their own sexual identities and with the society that they live in. 


Types of Conflict 

There are several primary examples of conflict throughout all genres and styles of storytelling. These are broad categories that include a variety of more specific conflicts within them. Normally they are classified as “Man against,” but here, we have classified them as “Character against” in order to include all genders and perceived ages. 


Character against human 

This is the most obvious and commonly used type of conflict in storytelling. It involves stories in which two characters are up against each other in some way. This conflict is external, and it drives the narrative forward. It might include two rival soldiers, two people on one side of a romantic relationship, or even a longer, drawn-out story of feuding families. Examples include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 


Character against Technology 

In this conflict, a character is up against the threat of technology. This might refer to something like The Matrix or something like The Imitation Game based on the life of Alan Turing. (In this last example, Turing is faced with several different kinds of conflict, including character against character, society, and themselves.)


Character against Supernatural 

In these stories, characters are up against supernatural elements like ghosts or monsters. This means that the main character/s have to work even harder as they are likely up against something they don’t totally understand. A monster is much harder to fight off than another person—for example, the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series. 


Character against Nature 

This is another external conflict that occurs outside the protagonist’s mind. The character struggles against a force of nature. This might include a storm or an animal—for example, The Old Man and the Sea and Robinson Crusoe. 


Character against Themselves 

This is an internal conflict, one that occurs within the protagonist’s mind. The main character might be struggling to overcome something like an addiction or a fear. Alternatively, the main character might be seeking out the morally correct path to walk in life while fending off their more destructive nature. For example, Fight Club, a novel by Chuck Palahniuk and a popular film. 


Character against Society 

This is a broader conflict in which the main character or characters are up against an institutional problem—for example, slavery or a totalitarian regime. Many dystopian novels include this conflict, among others. The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 are good examples.  


Conflict Synonyms

Dispute, disagreement, fight, squabble, strife, friction, discord, antipathy, class, dissension, and opposition. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Anti-Hero—a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
  • Audience— the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
  • Characterization—a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
  • Genre—a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
  • Prose—a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.


Other Resources 

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