A gripping plot may keep readers turning the pages of a good book, but conflict is ultimately the spark that initiates this chain of events. In literature, a major conflict is the internal or external struggle between characters, settings and circumstances that provides the story's main source of tension.
Battling Opposing Characters
In person versus person conflicts, the story's main character, the protagonist, battles against a human antagonist, the character who stands in the way of the protagonist's main objective. The plot's series of events centers around the antagonist making various moves to oppose the main character's goal, as well as the main character's response, building toward a climactic event where one or the other will prevail. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, for example, is an ongoing battle between the main character, escaped convict Jean Valjean, and the antagonist, Javert, the tenacious police officer who is bent on bringing him to justice.
Braving the Elements
Sometimes, the protagonist's greatest opposition comes not in the form of a human antagonist, but a dangerous natural force. In person versus nature conflicts, the main character must battle for survival against natural disasters and environmental circumstances. In Susan Beth Pfeffer's novel Life as We Knew It, a teenage girl's world is thrown into chaos when an asteroid bumps the moon closer to the earth, causing tsunamis, earthquakes and volcano eruptions across the earth. While physical setting is most commonly the source of the conflict, person versus nature can also refer to battles against physical illness or the natural decay of the body through old age.
The protagonist in a person versus society conflict usually holds beliefs that are contrary to those of the rest of the community or is forced to take a stand for an unpopular position. In Markus Zuzak's The Book Thief, for example, the main character, Liesel, defies the Nazis by stealing books the government is trying to destroy and reading them. This type of conflict can also involve characters of different nationalities and religions who are struggling to fit in with a new culture, such as Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, about a young Bengali family dealing with the differences between India and America after immigrating to the U.S.
While environment, society or other characters frequently serve as the antagonists of different conflicts, the protagonist can often be his own worst enemy. Person versus self conflicts involve a character who is internally at war with different aspects of his personality, past, and mind, and often must make a challenging moral or personal choice. In Veronica Roth's Divergent series, the character Beatrice Prior must repeatedly choose between honoring loved ones and taking risks to keep her community from collapsing, and in Shakespeare's Hamlet, the title character wrestles with indecisiveness over how and when to expose his uncle for the murder of his father.