Friday, April 1

What's the Problem? The Four Classic Conflict Types

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's refresher Friday takes an updated look at the classic conflict types. Enjoy!

Conflict is vital to any story, but it isn't always between people. Some stories pit the protagonist against society, or a natural disaster. Others have the traditional hero vs. villain setup.

Let's look at the four classic story conflict types and how they define the basic conflict structure.

Person vs. Person

This is the most common type of conflict found—the classic character against another character, people vs. people, even if those people are non-human. They're still a "character" like any other. A wizard wants to kill the hero and enslave the world. A scientist needs to find the cure and stop the madman with the virus. An orphan girl needs to save her sister from bad men. The person standing in the way of your protagonist is another person.

These conflicts are useful for stories that revolve around competing goals, the need to stop something from happening (or cause something to happen), or the need to triumph over another person or group (to name a few). If your protagonist is “battling it out” against another person, odds are you have a person vs. person conflict.

(Here’s more on person vs. person conflicts)

Person vs. Self

This is when the character is at odds with themselves and fighting something personal and internal. Overcoming a drug problem, dealing with betrayal, etc. The person standing in the way of your protagonist is themselves. These conflicts are typically very personal and follow a strong character arc and the protagonist grows from the experience. It’s common to see another character representing what’s wrong with the protagonist so there’s someone to “battle” against in the plot.

Person vs. self conflicts are great for emotional journeys and stories about personal change. The protagonist’s struggle is within. If your protagonist is their own worst enemy, odds are you have a person vs. self conflict.

(Here's more on person vs. self conflicts)

Person vs. Society

In this conflict, the character has a problem with something that is status quo in their world. It's not any one person who is causing trouble, it's how things are being done. A man tries to change an unfair law. A girl rebels against a tyrannical society that forces kids to fight to the death. A woman questions why she can't go to school like her brother. Everyone is standing in the protagonist's way, but not everyone is at fault. It’s also common to see a neutral member of society stand in symbolically as the antagonist in these conflicts. It’s not personal, they’re just doing their job.

These conflicts revolve around how societal rules or norms affect the protagonist. They’re usually unfair and put the protagonist in a desperate or untenable position. Either they have no recourse but to fight back to survive, or they’re so angry they strike back in defiance. If your protagonist is battling something unfair or unjust about the world they live in, odds are you have a person vs. society conflict.

(Here's more on person vs. society conflicts)

Person vs. Nature

This is just what it sounds like—a character is up against nature, and that's what's keeping them from their goal. A guy is trapped in a blizzard and has to survive. A city manager fights an unexpected volcano erupting in downtown. A crew battles a killer storm on the open sea. There is no person standing in your protagonist's way, it's nature herself.

Person vs. nature conflicts differ from the others because there is no villain to defeat or overcome. Nature conflicts often must be endured and survived, forcing the characters to use their wits, intelligence, and creativity to win. If your protagonist is fighting against nature, odds are you have a person vs. nature conflict.

(Here's more on person vs. nature conflicts)

Whatever conflict you use, the key thing to remember is that no matter who or what is in your protagonist's way, they/it make(s) it harder for the protagonist to resolve the problem. Take out that antagonist and your protagonist can just waltz in and win with no struggle. No evil wizard, no one to fight. No drug problem, nothing to overcome. No blizzard, nothing to survive. No unfair law, no reason to protest.

Something should always be standing in the way of what the protagonist wants.

What conflict type do you use in your novel?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those    with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter(Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. awesome post. This is really useful :)


  2. No conflict = no story. Internal, external or both, there's got to be some barrier(s) to overcome. Well done.

  3. Hm. I'd never really thought about there being a Man vs. Self type of plot, but I realize now that I think about it that a few stories I've read but couldn't pinpoint why I didn't care for them would qualify as that type. The antagonist was mental illness or insanity.

    That's good to know.

  4. Most welcome all. It was a good reminder for me, too. I'll have to remember to address all types of antags :)