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Elements of Conflict in Literature


In literature, conflict arises when there’s a struggle between two opposing forces, according to the Hunter College Reading/Writing Center. One of the forces may be an idea, community, environment or supporting character. Conflict, whether it’s external or internal, is the central action that gives a story a plot. Without it, a work may not be of much interest to an audience.

Conflict With Another Character

A work presents an external conflict when the main character struggles against another character or a group. This makes the main character the protagonist and the opposing character the antagonist, creating a “good guy” versus “bad guy” situation, according to Concord-Carlisle High School's Handbook of Literary Terms. An example of a character who struggles with another character is in the story of “Snow White” by the Grimm brothers. Snow White is the protagonist who must overcome the wicked ways of the evil queen, the antagonist.

Conflict With Nature

A character struggling with a force of nature is an example of an external conflict in a literary work. Forces of nature can include inclement weather, desolation in a land, a wild animal or a struggle to survive. An example of a character struggling against nature is in the classic book “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway. In the story, a large marlin poses a challenge to Santiago, the main character. In the book “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen, young Brian Robeson must learn to survive in the wilderness with nothing more than a hatchet and his ingenuity.

Conflict With Society

When a main character battles society, he has an external conflict with a group of people or an element of the community. Examples of societal elements include a town, school, rule, law, tradition, right or cause. In this type of conflict, society itself may become a character. An instance when a character struggles with society is in the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. In the novel, Atticus Finch must contend with a racist society as he defends Tom Robins, a black man falsely accused of murder.

Character Versus Self

When the main character in a literary work struggles against herself, she experiences an internal conflict. The struggle takes place in the character’s mind as she tries to decide the right choice to make between good and evil or emotions and logic. Alternatively, the conflict may come in the form of an addiction or a personal flaw, like a phobia. It’s common for the internal conflict in a work to relate with one that’s external. In “Bridget Jones’s Diary” by Helen Fielding, for example, Bridget Jones must overcome her self-doubts and obsessions to find love and happiness.

Character versus Fate

When a character battles fate, she faces an internal conflict with a problem that seems uncontrollable, according to Concord-Carlisle High School's Handbook of Literary Terms. With this element of conflict, the character may fight her destiny or follow an unknown destiny. Sometimes the problem presents itself as unusual or unbelievable coincidences. An example of a character confronting fate is Katniss Everdeen in the book “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. In the novel, Katniss assumes her sister’s fate and takes her place in the Hunger Games, which the Capitol city controls.

About the Author

Flora Richards-Gustafson has been writing professionally since 2003. She creates copy for websites, marketing materials and printed publications. Richards-Gustafson specializes in SEO and writing about small-business strategies, health and beauty, interior design, emergency preparedness and education. Richards-Gustafson received a Bachelor of Arts from George Fox University in 2003 and was recognized by Cambridge's "Who's Who" in 2009 as a leading woman entrepreneur.

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