In many ways, conflict powers the plot of a story, novel or screenplay. Narratives move forward due to the tension and suspense created by conflict, and most narratives have at least one central conflict and one or more ancillary conflicts. Well-developed characters will often experience a conflict in a story in a variety of ways, struggling with both internal and external challenges and forces. Even though four primary types of conflict can be identified, these conflicts will often overlap and blend in any given narrative.
Cosmic, or classical, conflict is a type of external conflict where characters struggle against circumstantial or supernatural forces. Characters may wrestle under the circumstances of life or within the limitations imposed by destiny, fate or God. Cosmic conflict reveals the frailty and vulnerability of human beings, and often questions the power of an individual to change her or his life circumstances. Within cosmic conflict, characters may wrestle under catastrophic losses or may unsuccessfully seek to achieve a goal. Classic examples of cosmic conflict include Jude Fawley’s unsuccessful struggle against fate in Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure,” and the protagonist’s suffering under and struggle with tragic life events in Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome.”
Physical conflict is a type of external conflict that occurs in a story when individual characters struggle against other external forces. A character may struggle against other characters, animals or even natural forces. Physical conflict may manifest itself as problems with physical shelter or safety, or it may be reflected through fights between friends, family members or lovers. Physical conflict occurs, as well, when characters struggle with machines and technology, such as aliens or robots, or under natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. Classic examples of physical conflict can be seen in Captain Ahab’s struggle with the whale in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” and the castaway’s struggle to survive on a remote island in Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.”
Social conflict is a type of external conflict, where characters struggle against the ideologies, customs or habits of other people or groups of people. In social conflict, characters may even struggle against whole cultures and societies, such as immigrants struggling to assimilate in a new country. Social conflict can manifest itself as a child struggling against the values and norms of parents, or as a group of people struggling against the injustice and oppression of another group. Classic examples of social conflict include the Joad family seeking to find a new life in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” and the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” struggling against racial prejudices and stereotypes in New York City.
A type of internal conflict, psychological conflict, occurs when a character experiences inner unrest and discord, essentially struggling within himself. Characters may struggle with themselves in various ways, including wrestling with ideas of good and evil, struggling with weaknesses and grappling with decisions. Psychological conflict may reveal itself as an individual wrestling with a moral decision or trying to overcome a handicap. Characters who suffer from addictions or who make self-destructive choices may also be manifesting psychological conflict. Classic examples of psychological conflict include Philip Carey seeking to overcome a physical handicap in W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” and the protagonist’s struggle to lose himself in New York City’s nightlife in Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City.”