Literary Term| Conflict


When we hear the word conflict what comes to mind is dispute, war, disagreement, opposition and to be honest, no one wants to meet such in real life. But certain situations bring us face to face with conflict.

In Literature, conflict is any struggle between opposing forces; usually the main character struggles against some other forces in the story.

Every story has one or more conflicts without which the story will be bland and uninteresting. So a writer employs this device in a story to keep the storyline tense and exciting as well.


In narratives, conflict is what drives the protagonist to seek resolution. The main character has to confront and overcome several difficult challenges to resolve the conflict and once it’s resolved, the story ends for the reader.

The main purpose of this literary device is to formulate tension in the story. This tension keeps the reader in a state of uncertainty. It keeps the reader motivated and interested in finding out what happens in the end.


1. Internal Conflict

This kind of conflict happens within a character, who has to fight to overcome self. An example for this is character against self.

  • Character against self

In this conflict, a character must overcome his nature, which could be virtue or vice, good or evil within the which. This makes the character pass through a mental affliction as he tries to overcome self.

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Hamlet wants to kill his father’s murderer Claudius but also looks for proof to justify his action. This ruins his life and the life of his loved ones. His hesitation almost got everyone kill at the end of the story

2. External Conflict

When the characters in a story are against each other, it is called external conflict. This could be character against charaacter, character against nature, character against society, character against technology and character against the supernatural.

  • Character against character

When two characters in a story are against each other either in direct combat or due to the ambition of two or more characters; this one thing they desire forces them against each other.

Example of man against man conflict can be seen in Lord of Flies by William Golding, Ralph repeatedly comes into conflict with Jack and his savage “tribe” of hunters who make efforts to kill the civilized lot led by Ralgh.

  • Character against society

This is an external conflict in which a character stands against society or an institution.

Example of character against society can be seen in Charlotte’s Web by E. B White where the pig Wilbur struggles for his survival against a society that rears pig for food.

  • Character against nature

Sometimes a character in a story is comes face to face with a natural opposition such as a fiery animal or opposing force of nature like, tornado and storms.

You are likely to discover this kind of conflict in adventures such as Man vs the Wild; a survival TV series hosted by Bear Grylls on Discovery Channels.

Also in Old Man And The Sea by Enerst Hemingway, Sandiego, the main character has to fend off sharks who are aiming at the fish which takes him months to catch. He is left with the carcass of the fish when the sharks finally eat the fish.

  • Character against Technology

In this type of conflict, a character or a group of people fight against a machine like robots. These machines are made and controlled by these men, but suddenly believe they no longer need humans to function. They might become destructive and man has to fight them to either destroy them or bring them under control.

In A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, astronaut Dave Bowman comes against a super-intelligent machine which believes he should be removed from the mission due to his imperfections as human.

Another example can be seen in an American folklore; The Legend of John Henry; To prove his superiority over a new technology Henry raced against a steam-powered rock drilling machine. He won, even though he had a heart attack and died with hammer in hand.

  • Character against the supernatural

Here, characters are pit against some supernatural elements like ghosts, omen, superstition, monsters.

In Julius Ceasar by William Shakespeare, the soothsayer warns Ceasar that he is doomed. Caesar does not pay attention even though that is coming on a particular day when he should beware.

A Story Can Contain Multiple Conflicts

A character can be exposed to more than one conflict in a single story and it’s likely to have more than one character meeting some minor to major individual conflicts as they try to overcome opposing forces in the story.

The Outcome Of Main Conflict Should Remain Hidden Untill Towards The End Of The Story

In order to prevent the readers from guessing the outcome of a conflict, a story writer tries very hard to prevent the main character from resolving the main conflict anywhere but towards the of the story.

However, the minor conflicts are resolved at anywhere in the story.

Sometimes the main conflict is not resolved at all in some stories but the reader at this point should be able to decide how the conflict is resolved by themselves – this kind of story is called an open ending story.

When the end is confusing and the conflict resolution is hard for the reader to guess in a supposedly open ending story, the reader is dissatisfied.

On the other hand, if the resolution to the conflict is exposed or revealed anywhere within the story, either by spontaneous lending of hints or clues, the reader is disappointed because at this point, the reader is forced to lose interest in the story. This is the reason why the writer keeps the outcome of the conflict or its resolution a ‘tight secret’ and allows it to naturally unravel gradually at the end of the story where it is finally uncovered.

4 thoughts on “Literary Term| Conflict”

  1. Feels like I’m back in my undergrad literature class. You really did justice to the subject. I even got to add something new to my literary lexicon. Thanks for the well-researched write-up.

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