Types of Conflict in Literature

The plot of any story requires conflict to drive it forward. Whenever a protagonist struggles against a force beyond his or her control, conflict arises, adding complexity – and interest – to the story. You can find examples of the seven types of conflict in both classic and modern stories.

Odysseus with companions and cyclops Polyphemu Odysseus with companions and cyclops Polyphemu
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Common Types of Conflict

Whether you’re reading a drama or comedy, these types of conflict are easy to spot in both classic and modern literature.

Man vs. Man

The main character fights against another person, the antagonist, to achieve victory. The adversarial relationship can be expressed physically, emotionally, intellectually or in other ways.

  • Classic Example: Romeo duels Paris to avenge Mercutio’s death in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
  • Modern Example: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr disagree politically and interpersonally in the Broadway musical Hamilton.

Man vs. Nature

The natural world turns against the protagonist, forcing him or her to fight against the elements and overcome adversity.

  • Classic Example: Santiago fights a group of sharks who devour the marlin he has finally caught in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
  • Modern Example: In the 1993 film Jurassic Park, Drs. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler flee an escaped Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Man vs. Self

Also known as an internal conflict, a Man vs. Self conflict involves the protagonist facing his or her own fears, flaws, and emotions. The story may surround a difficult decision the central character has to make.

  • Classic Example: Throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet struggles with his loyalty to his mother, his duty to avenge his father, and his own sanity.
  • Modern Example: Tara Westover begins to doubt her own memories and experiences after asserting her independence in her memoir Educated.

Genre-Specific Types of Conflict

If you’re reading genres such as science fiction, fantasy, political satire, horror, or ghost stories, you may find characters struggling against different types of forces altogether.

Man vs. Society

A character battling against the norms of his or her society is a common form of conflict in political satire and dystopian stories. The society depicted in these stories is often oppressive or unjust in some way.

  • Classic Example: Harrison Bergeron defies the restraints of his oppressive society by casting off his handicaps and dancing on television in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.”
  • Modern Example: Katniss survives the Hunger Games and becomes the symbol of rebellion in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
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Man vs. Machine

A popular conflict in science fiction, Man vs. Machine conflicts test a protagonist’s humanity and ingenuity over the intelligence and strength of technology.

  • Classic Example: Dr. Frankenstein creates – and then attempts to overpower – his scientific creation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
  • Modern Example: Liberated humans battle their mechanical overlords in the 1999 film The Matrix.

Man vs. Fate/Deity

This conflict is common in Greek tragedies, in which the hero is punished or rewarded by the gods. You’ll also find it frequently in fantasy stories, in which a character is forced to accept a predetermined fate.

  • Classic Example: Poseidon punishes Odysseus by forcing him to wander from disaster to disaster in Homer’s The Odyssey.
  • Modern Example: Wicked’s Elphaba longs to establish her own identity, but must accept her fate as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Man vs. Supernatural/Unknown

The horror genre is full of ghost stories that pit an unsuspecting character against forces not of this world.

  • Classic Example: The protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” cannot tell whether the raven tormenting him is a supernatural visitation or a product of his own tormented mind.
  • Modern Example: The haunted Overlook Hotel drives Jack Torrance to insanity in Stephen King’s The Shining.


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Conflict Drives Characterization

Most enduring stories contain more than one of these types of conflict, and one conflict can develop into another during a character’s journey. It’s important to understand your character’s traits, as well as what type of literary character he or she is, to comprehend more about any particular conflict.