Kinds of Conflict

At the core of any good story lies conflict. Having likeable, believable characters is good too, but unless there’s something driving them to act, they’re not much more use than a hammer without nails.

There are essentially 4 types of conflict (as you learned in 8th grade English class). They are: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Self, and Man vs. Society. Of course, the ‘Man’ in question can just as easily be a woman, or even a non-human entity, but you get the point. I will go over each one of these in further detail here.

Man vs. Man

Probably the most common type of conflict used in stories of just about any age (perhaps because it’s the most common kind of conflict in the real world). Good examples of this abound, but some of my favorites are The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, and the Redwall series. Basically, it is what it sounds like: one person (or faction of persons) is pitted against another for some reason. It might be a small matter, or it might be so irreconcilable that the two sides (or more–there’s no set limit, really) go to war over it. In the end, one side usually comes out the victor (The Lord of the Rings), though mutual exhaustion or unification in order to deal with an even bigger threat are good choices too.

Man vs. Nature

This is the premise of your basic survival story right here. Jurassic Park and Jaws come to mind for me. Essentially, the characters involved come up against some sort of natural boundary, whether in the form of vicious animals or the elements themselves. More often a combination of these factors is involved, sometimes coupled with other secondary types of conflict.

Man vs. Self

This is a prime example of an internal conflict. Such tales don’t always have to be all-out psychodramas, though they sometimes are. It is a common form in moralistic tales where temptation to do evil (or in some cases, do nothing at all) is a big issue, but it is more frequently included as a set of smaller sub-conflicts within a bigger story. Usually it takes the form of a main character questioning himself or letting doubts get the better of him. Sometimes this leads to even bigger problems down the road; sometimes not. Certain episodes of Miami Vice showcase this pretty well.

Man vs. Society

The Plague Dogs is about two hapless dogs who pretty much get all of England chasing after them for reasons completely beyond their control, and the ‘lack of societal acceptance’ narrative is an overarching theme in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tales (whether the graphic novels, tv shows, or movies). In earlier forms of literature, this might also include a man’s conflicts with the deity or deities his society at large worships. Greek myths and Norse sagas are particularly rife with these latter scenarios.

There you have it: the 4 main kinds of conflict in storytelling. Some are more suited to or even expected in certain genres, of course. The Man vs. Nature narrative is a favorite in sci-fi, for instance, while Man vs. Self might be a more prominent theme in literary fiction. As always, the choice is up to you, but hopefully this will serve as at least a rough guide for classifying what kind of action your story is based around.

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is a writer, linguist, historian, and nature-lover from Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of the young adult series Sauragia and Knights of Aralia, as well as the 'Woodland Tales' anthology for children. Several of his shorter works have also appeared in various print and online periodicals over the years. In between writing and publishing, he likes to draw, spend long hours outdoors, and read. His favorite authors include M. I. McAllister, Brian Jacques, and Alexandre Dumas.

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