4 Types of External and Internal Conflict in Literature

Whether you're reading a dramatic family saga, an action-packed epic or a creepy horror story, conflict is the source of tension that drives all works of literature. While conflict is a key element of stories, though, not all conflicts take the same shape, occurring both outside and inside a character's consciousness. From disastrous battles with nature to fights against evil villains to moral dilemmas, internal and external conflict provide the templates for a variety of fascinating stories.

Battling Inner Demons: Person Vs. Self

Also known as internal conflict, person vs. self focuses on a character wrestling with a major decision. According to English teacher Lisa Thibodeaux, internal conflicts can involve an emotional decision, such as who to pursue a relationship with, an intellectual choice, such as choosing to believe or reject a truth a character was raised with or a moral dilemma, which requires a character to choose whether or not to compromise his ethical standards. In William Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Hamlet struggles with when and how to carry out his father's ghost's order to kill his uncle, who has married Hamlet's mother and usurped his father's position as king.

Only One Can Win: Person Vs. Person

Person vs. person is the classic showdown between the protagonist, the main character of the story, and the antagonist, the character who tries to bring about his downfall. Throughout the story, the two characters attempt to outsmart, outdo and outfox each other, resulting in momentary victories for them both. By the conclusion, though, one must emerge from the battle as the winner. This external conflict is seen in the "Harry Potter" books, as Harry engages in an ongoing battle against Lord Voldemort, who has sworn to kill him because of a prophecy that he will lead to Voldemort's downfall.

Braving the Elements: Person Vs. Nature

Person vs. nature finds the story's characters in a struggle against their external environment. This can involve adverse weather events like floods or blizzards, supernatural phenomena, disease outbreaks or isolated locations like deserted islands or remote mountains. Throughout the story, the characters are often fighting for their lives against these conditions, and the survivors typically experience drastic changes in their views of life.

For example, Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" chronicles the exploits of an unnamed narrator and his dog as they travel the wilderness of the Yukon Trail.

Sticking It to the Man: Person Vs. Society

From Sophocles' "Antigone" to Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," literature is full of characters who stand up for their convictions by publicly taking a stand against external social forces. In person vs. society conflict, the protagonist is at odds with a particular ideology or group. Willing to advocate what's right rather than what's popular, he often must suffer consequences from his position as he works to change the status quo. In the play "12 Angry Men," Juror Eight chooses to be the sole person to advocate a not guilty verdict in a murder trial, and faces the task of changing his 11 opponents' minds.

Cite this Article