Friday, April 12, 2019

What's the Problem? The Four Classic Conflict Types

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Your novel's conflict—and the antagonist—can come from any number of places. 

Conflict is vital to any story, but it isn't always between people, which can be a bit confusing for writers looking for their antagonist. Some stories pit the protagonist against society, or a natural disaster. Others have the traditional hero vs. villain setup.

No matter the genre though, there will be conflict in the story, and understanding what's at the heart of yours will make it easier to write. For example, if you have a person vs. self conflict, you'll know your protagonist will act in ways that are personally harmful, and the plot will show how he or she overcomes that trait or flaw causing trouble in his or her life.

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 Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

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?

*Originally published September 2010. Last updated April 2019.

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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. Thank you so much, Janice!

  4. 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.

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

  6. Sasha Anderson6/11/2020 6:12 PM

    I was just reading something about differences between Western and Eastern storytelling, and I learned about a plot structure called Kishōtenketsu, which apparently has no conflict built into it. Of course, this goes against everything I thought I knew - I always assumed that conflict was crucial, and all the writing advice I've read agrees. But now I'm intrigued by this idea, so I wondered whether you've ever heard of this structure and whether you think it works?

    1. Conflict is crucial in Western storytelling, but as you saw, not necessarily in other cultures. A friend of mine (who studied Japanese and lived in Japan) described it as, American movies tell a story, Japanese movies tell a haiku (I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it)

      I'm sure it works for Eastern readers, even if I don't know the structure. I doubt it would work as well for an American reader who is accustomed to our type of storytelling, however...

      Anime is hugely popular in the US, and so is manga, so it might work for Western readers who also enjoy those. If your target audience is readers who watch anime and read manga, a book using that structure could potentially work for them.

      Also keep in mind that book styles differ and evolve. Novels written 100 years ago are vastly different from those published now. Think about movies from the 50s, 70s, 90s and compare them to films released now. Some of them still hold up, but a lot of them don't. Same thing happens in books.

      Of course, if you want to try it, by all means go for it. Inspiration comes from everywhere, and who knows what this might influence your own storytelling and process.

    2. Sasha Anderson6/12/2020 7:35 AM

      Thanks - it's really interesting to hear your thoughts and your friend's description! :)