top of page


Conflict is at the heart of fiction. Without conflict, we have characters who want something, get it without a struggle, and then it’s over. There’s nothing interesting about fiction unless there’s conflict. In real life, we prefer to avoid conflict, and it’s possible that the way we structure our lives that we’re able to achieve that. In fiction, conflict is necessary. As an aside, Freytag's Pyramid is something you should be intimately familiar with if you're writing fiction, as it provides the dramatic structure for fiction, which includes conflict.

In general, there are five types of conflict, six if you count the newest one, Technology:

1. Man (or woman) vs Themselves

2. Man (or woman) vs Man (or woman)

3. Man (or woman) vs Nature

4. Man (or woman) vs Society

5. Man (or woman) vs Supernatural

6. Man (or woman) vs Technology

Let’s start with the first type of conflict, Man (or Woman) against themselves. The root of this type of conflict is the internal struggle our hero goes through. Now, this is not to say that we just have our hero sitting around having an internal struggle, although that’s possible. More likely, something happens to our hero or they have to make a choice that goes against what they believe in, and are thus forced to struggle through the ramifications of their decision(s).

A great example of this is Hamlet, in William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” Throughout the play, Hamlet has an internal struggle between whether or not he should kill King Claudius (his father’s brother, his mother’s new husband, and the man responsible for killing Hamlet’s father), or whether he should commit suicide instead. Hamlet’s struggle is fascinating to watch, is full of subtext and symbolism, and in the end, we understand why it’s one of Shakespeare’s better-known tragedies. We feel for Hamlet, and we understand why he’s so tormented mentally and emotionally.

The second type of conflict in literature is Man (or Woman) vs Man (or Woman). This can mean a variety of things, including actual physical conflict between two opposing forces, or simply one person against the other in regards to anything—a battle between a mother and daughter about where she’s to go to college, two colleagues fighting for the same position at work, or brother’s fighting for their father’s love and attention. Often, it’s the conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist. The conflict is external, as opposed to internal, like the Hamlet example. The parameters are wide open in terms of what choices the writer can make, but the one thing that must remain true is that you will have characters being in opposition to each other for one reason or another. An example of this is in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” The protagonist in the novel is Ralph, who represents the good in men and a civilized society, and Jack, who represents the bad, and thus the savagery men are capable of. The conflict between the two in terms of who will lead the island drives the narrative.

Man (or woman) versus Nature is perhaps one of my favorite types of conflict. There are many great examples of novels and novellas that fall into this category, including Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea,” “Into the Wild,” by Jon Krakauer, and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Our heroes in these novels set out on adventures that have them battling the elements (the conflict), including not only animals but the weather and the harsh terrains in which they find themselves. In these cases, it is nature itself, and all that that implies, that is in direct conflict with our protagonists.

While “Into the Wild” is biographical, our hero, Christopher McCandless, is beaten by the elements, as he dies after presumably eating poisonous roots and plants. Same thing in “The Perfect Storm,” which is classified as Creative Nonfiction. All of the characters perish at sea. Not so for Santiago, the old fisherman in “The Old Man and the Sea.” He lives. But the Marlin he caught is torn to shreds by sharks and so Santiago, in the end, also comes to a loss.

Man (or Woman) versus Society is just what it sounds like—a man or a group in conflict with a community or society in general, though it’s likely more specific than that. The conflict can come in the form of a man/woman fighting against the government in the way Winston Smith fights against the dystopian government in “1984,” the way someone might fight against the norms and expectations of the Home Owners Association of their neighborhood, or how Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of women in conflict with The Republic of Gilead, which takes away women’s rights. We, the readers, root for our heroes because there is an injustice perceived by the protagonist(s), and thus the reader.

Man (or Woman) versus the Supernatural is a very popular form of conflict, both in literature and in the movies. Our hero is in conflict with an implacable god or supernatural force. An example of a movie I am fond of is “Clash of the Titans,” the original version that came out in 1981. It includes supernatural beings like the Kraken, a giant sea monster, but also more recognizable characters such as the Greek god of sky and thunder, Zeus, as well as Athena and Aphrodite. In literature, Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” is another example. In “The Odyssey,” Odysseus is in conflict with Poseidon and other mythical creatures, as he makes his way home after the Trojan War. Because of all of the conflicts he encounters, it takes him ten years to get home, when it should have only taken a few weeks.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is about “The One Ring,” or “The Ruling Ring,” or “Isildur’s Bane,” all of which refer to the magical ring that gives its bearer supernatural powers. The ring was created by the Dark Lord Sauron, and Frodo Baggins, the hobbit in possession of the ring, sets out on a journey to destroy it. This is where the conflict enters with Dark Lord Sauron, who wants to take over Middle-earth.

Last by not least, especially in modern times, is Man (or Woman) versus Technology. This type of conflict is often associated with Science Fiction, but it doesn’t have to be. As I write this, AI, or Artificial Intelligence, while rather new, is taking over a lot of business processes, and to a scary degree. This has a lot of implications for workers, who could be put out of work, but even scarier than that is that if a machine can become self-aware it can also challenge the humans who created it in ways still unknown, many of which can be detrimental to society.

A famous movie example is the machine HAL, in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Space Odyssey,” where HAL begins displaying disturbing behavior. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” is another example—this one involving the monster coming after its creator. And Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?,” which inspired the Blade Runner movie starring Harrison Ford fighting against “replicants,” is another great example.

These six types of conflict should contain whatever it is you’re writing about in your novel. Study how the literary works and movies handled all of the fictional elements of conflict, and see if you can’t create as compelling a narrative as each of these examples possess. I don’t know about you, but just reminding myself of the types of conflict available to us as writers gets my writing muse in the mood to put pen to paper.

Do you have a novel you've written but need someone to help you get your novel in shape? Send us an email at

As a Substantive Editor (SE) I will read your novel twice, and provide guidance around what's working, what needs improvement and why, as well as provide insight into the structure of your novel, the plot and subplots of your novel, characterization, setting and scene, dialogue, and everything else agents and editors at publishing houses are looking for in the manuscripts they want to acquire.

Editors and publishers are looking for professionals, so you want to put your best foot forward. Don't take shortcuts now and expect success later. Stand out above the rest.


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page