Conflict

Though the word ‘conflict’ sounds like a bad thing due to its negative connotations, without it no book or novel would be engaging. Conflict is the driving force of a novel and is what allows a plot to move from A to B.

Conflict Conflict

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Table of contents

    To understand just how important conflict is in a novel we will first look at the meaning of conflict. Then, we will find out the causes of conflict including internal and external conflicts. Finally, we will be looking at the different types of conflict in literature.

    Conflict: meaning

    Conflict is essential in every story as it is the driving force of the narrative and builds narrative tension, portrays complex concepts that are interlaced into the story, and presents a deeper look into the characters’ motivations, feelings, weaknesses and values.

    A conflict is a literary device that presents the struggle between two sides due to a disagreement in values, desires, motivations etc. It doesn’t necessarily need to be man versus man, but can be man against nature, man against society or even man against themse.

    Effects of conflict in a novel

    Let's take a look at the different effects conflict can have in a novel:

    • Presents new sides of a character and the plot

    This is done through internal conflict (conflict within the self) and external conflict (conflict with outside forces).

    Conflict is a triggering force that determines what the main action that the protagonist takes would be. Often during the climax of a story characters are faced with internal and external conflicts that they must overcome to create a change in their lives.

    The conflict is the cause of the protagonist’s motives and actions throughout the plot. Therefore, without conflict, the protagonist would have no motives to do anything.

    • Creates tension

    By creating tension, conflict helps to drive the plot forward. It creates suspense and interest for the readers as the characters are faced with conflicts that make them react to the events happening around them. The tension brought upon by conflict can also lead to change within the character.

    • Leads to the resolution

    As the entire plot is based on the protagonist reaching their goal by overcoming various conflicts in the narrative, when they have reached their goal they have also resolved their conflicts. The resolution is where the final message or moral can be presented to readers.

    Internal and external conflict

    Conflict comes in two basic forms - internal and external.

    Internal conflict is the conflict the protagonist faces within themself; this could be because of their fears, their lack of confidence, their desires or other issues on their mind. Internal conflict is usually characterised by resolving two opposite thoughts within an individual.

    External conflict is the conflict between characters and other external forces such as technology, nature, society etc. It acts as a barrier to the protagonist reaching their goals.

    Causes of conflict

    The conflict is presented in the exposition of a narrative and lays the foundation for events in the future. A story can contain multiple conflicts; however, there is usually one primary conflict that the protagonist deals with throughout the story.

    The exposition of a narrative is the background information provided by the author about the characters, the setting or events that happened in the past.

    In a plot, the three key stages that a protagonist usually goes through are motivation, opposition, and goal. First, the character is motivated to achieve a goal or solve a problem. On their journey to achieving their goal, they face opposition. Finally, by the end of the novel, the protagonist reaches their goal.

    Ignorance

    Ignorance can be a cause of conflict; for example, when a character refuses to see the truth. This ignorance forces other characters to take action to make the character see the truth or to change their opinion. This can be both an internal conflict and external conflict because of the growth the character must to let go of the ignorance and because of the effects of their ignorance on other people.

    Fear

    Fear of external events, rejection and failure of any form can be causes for conflict. This fear can lead to conflict with other characters as they may not understand the fear the protagonist has.

    Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen faces conflict due to fear and ignorance in the novel. His shyness and rejection of conventional societal rules cause his awkward relationship with the novel's protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet. When he overcomes his shyness, he reveals to Elizabeth that he loves her and eventually Elizabeth realises she loves him too due to overcoming her ignorance of his true character.

    Dilemma

    Dilemma is another cause of conflict where the protagonist is forced to choose between two choices with bad consequences. The lead up to the character’s decision is what causes tension, suspense and conflict.

    Prejudice

    Prejudice towards other people or groups can be a central cause of conflict. Due to the character’s negative assumptions of others, tension arises whenever the two groups must communicate or meet.

    In To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee, Atticus Finch’s attitude towards black people (in his fair treatment of them) that was unlike the usual attitude of white people towards black people is a cause for conflict as he goes against the conventions of society.

    Types of conflict in literature

    Internal conflict and external conflict can be further broken down into the following types of conflicts in literature:

    Character vs. self

    In the character vs. self conflict, the protagonist must come to terms with their inner struggles and must overcome this to reach their final goal. Examples of some forms of inner conflict that characters can have include moral and religious conflict, political conflict, and conflict connected to love.

    In Macbeth (1623) by William Shakespeare, Macbeth is influenced by Lady Macbeth to gain further power through murder. However, Macbeth struggles with the decision to murder King Duncan.

    Character vs. character

    Character vs. character conflict occurs when two characters hold opposing views to each other.

    An example of character vs. character conflict is presented when Romeo fights Paris to avenge his best friend Mercutio’s death in Romeo and Juliet (1597) by William Shakespeare.

    Character vs. society

    Instead of the protagonist going against another character, this conflict involves the protagonist going against society (e.g. societal conventions, norms, customs, values etc.)

    In this case, society can be personified through specific characters who are symbolic of a higher system.

    In The Hunger Games (2011) by Suzanne Collins, Katniss must survive the Hunger Games that have been created by the upper-class society. She eventually becomes the symbol of revolution.

    Character vs. nature

    Natural forces threaten characters or force them to stay apart in this conflict. The natural forces can be anything from a strong animal to a natural disaster.

    As nature is a silent opposition, characters must navigate this conflict by reflecting on their life and accepting themselves for who they are or even accepting the possibility of death.

    In Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe’s ship is destroyed and he is swept up on a deserted island. The novel follows his life of hardship and describes how he battles with the elements to stay alive.

    Character vs. the supernatural

    By putting characters against supernatural forces such as monsters and ghosts great tension can be created due to the unequal positions (with the character being weaker).

    In Homer’s Odyssey (725 BCE), Odysseus must face witches, monsters and other supernatural creatures after he angers the god Poseidon and is not allowed to go home for ten years because of Poseidon’s curse. Eventually, Odysseus defeats all these supernatural forces and returns home.

    Character vs. technology

    In this type of conflict, characters are faced with technology; this conflict is further heightened as technology is incomprehensible due to its lack of human qualities.

    However, as technology is made by humans, it serves as a setting to analyse human behaviours and examine humam existence.

    The character vs. technology conflict is presented in Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley in which Dr Frankenstein creates and tries to control his creation.

    Conflict, person sitting in front of computer and laptop, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Often in fiction, characters question technology's influence over their lives.

    Character vs. God

    Whether it be fate or God, these two forces are what controls a character's life and quest. However, in this conflict characters fight with their destiny to create the life they want.

    The character vs. God conflict is widely used in Greek tragedies such as in Antigone (441 B.C.) by Sophocles.

    Conflict in literature – examples

    Now we will explore some examples of internal and external conflict in literature.

    Internal conflict in literature example

    One of the most well-known examples of an internal conflict in literature is the drama Hamlet (1603) by William Shakespeare. Hamlet is given a great task when the ghost of his father tells him that he was killed by someone and that Hamlet has to avenge him. This leads to Hamlet feeling conflicted about the truth of his father’s death and confused on how to avenge his father nobly.

    Hamlet’s famous soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’, in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play, demonstrates his great distress and the internal conflict he is struggling with.

    A soliloquy is a type of monologue (a long speech given by a character) in which a character speaks to themselves when they are alone (it can involve the actor who is portraying the character speaking directly to the audience).

    External conflict in literature examples

    The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood is a well-known example of an external conflict in literature. In the totalitarian state of Gilead where extremism, xenophobia and oppression are present in society, handmaids are forcefully given to infertile couples to produce their babies. Offred is a handmaid that goes against the rules of society (the external conflict).

    Another famous literary example of an external conflict can be found in the Harry Potter series (1997 – 2007) by J.K. Rowling. The character vs. character conflict in all seven books leads to the final battle between Harry Potter (the protagonist) and Voldemort (the antagonist), and the characters must choose which side they want to be on.

    Conflict - Key takeaways

    • A conflict is a literary device that presents the struggle between two sides due to a disagreement in values, desires, motivations etc.
    • In a novel, a conflict can present new sides of a character and the plot, establish the main action, create tension, and lead to the resolution.
    • Some causes of conflict in narratives include ignorance, fear, dilemma and prejudice.
    • Conflict can be either internal (within the character) or external (between characters or other external forces).
    • Some types of conflict in literature include: character vs. self, character vs. character, character vs. nature, character vs. the supernatural, character vs. society, character vs. technology, character vs. God.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Conflict

    What is conflict in literature with examples?

    A conflict is a literary device that presents the struggle between two sides due to a disagreement in values, desires, motivations etc. 

    The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood is an example of an external conflict of character vs. society. Another example is Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603) which follows an internal conflict of character vs. self.

    What is conflict in a story?

    Conflict is the driving force of a story that moves its plot forward.

    What are the 3 types of conflict in literature?

    There are two main forms of conflict in literature - internal and external. Additionally, there are more than 3 types of conflict: character vs. self, character vs. character, character vs. nature, character vs. the supernatural, character vs. society, character vs. technology, and character vs. God.

    How do you identify conflict in literature?

    If there is something that stands between the protagonist and their goal, this is the conflict.

    What is the main conflict in a story called?

    The main conflict in a story is also referred to as the central conflict or the primary conflict.

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