7 Types of Narrative Conflict

By Mark Nichol

Every work of literature, and much nonfiction narrative, is based on at least one of the following conflicts. When you write a story or a biography, or relate a true event or series of events, you need not focus on such themes, and there’s no reason to state them explicitly (except in passing, perhaps, to provide insight about a biographical subject), but you’re wise to identify the conflicts inherent in your composition and apply them as you write.

1. Person vs. Fate/God
This category could be considered part of conflict with self or with society (many people count only four types of conflict, including those two and conflict with another person or with nature). That’s a valid argument, as one confronts fate as part of an internal struggle and religion is a construct of society, but explicitly naming fate (Oedipus Rex) or God — or the gods (The Odyssey) — as the antagonist is a useful distinction.

2. Person vs. Self
A person’s struggle with his or her own prejudices or doubts or character flaws constitutes this type of conflict (Hamlet).

3. Person vs. Person
Any story featuring a hero and a villain or villains (The Count of Monte Cristo) represents this type of conflict, though the villain(s) is/are often representative of another antagonist in this list, whether a villain is in essence an alter ego of the protagonist (thus representing the conflict of person versus self) or stands in for society.

4. Person vs. Society
When the protagonist’s conflict extends to confronting institutions, traditions, or laws of his or her culture, he or she struggles to overcome them, either triumphing over a corrupt society (I draw a blank here), rejecting it (Fahrenheit 451), or succumbing to it (1984).

5. Person vs. Nature
In this conflict, the protagonist is pitted against nature (Robinson Crusoe) or a representation of it, often in the form of an animal (Moby Dick).

6. Person vs. Supernatural
Superficially, conflict with the supernatural may seem equivalent to conflict with fate or God, or representative of a struggle with an evocation of self (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) or nature (The Birds). But this category stands on its own feet as well.

7. Person vs. Technology
Humanity’s innate skepticism about the wonders of technology has resulted in many stories in which antagonists use technology to gain power or in which technology takes over or becomes a malign influence on society (Brave New World).

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


17 Responses to “7 Types of Narrative Conflict”

  • Kimberly

    Today’s post, “7 Types of Narrative Conflict,” might use “Atlas Shrugged” as an example for number four, Person vs. Society.

  • Eliza Lynn Taylor

    Examples of Person vs. Society could be The Hunger Games perhaps, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. What do you think?

  • Mark Nichol

    A couple of readers suggested the Hunger Games series as an example of an individual triumphing over a corrupt society. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know the details, but the example is not apt unless the society is actually overturned, rather than merely challenged. However, this example, and that of the novel Gentleman’s Agreement (about a journalist’s crusade against anti-Semitism), which another reader suggested, revealed to me that striking a blow against society is another possible outcome of the individual’s struggle.

  • ayumilove

    How about person vs fantasy? Alice in Wonderland perhaps?

  • Precise Edit

    #4– Against corrupt society

    Les Miserables?

  • Margot

    And what about Polti’s dramatic situations? There are many more than 7. The book explains how the dramatic situations cause conflict. Worth reading.

  • Mark Nichol

    Margot:

    I refer to Georges Polti’s list and those of several others in this post.

  • Quinn

    Mark, in The Hunger Games the corrupt society is most certainly overturned.

  • Brad

    Moby Dick is Person vs. Fate more so than it is Person vs. Nature.

    “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time”

  • Maria

    Person vs Supernatural? Is this the politically correct (and therefore awkward and self-conscious and distracting) way to state Man Vs God?

    Man is Mankind! The context lets you know. When one says look at those cows .. one does not say “all I see is a field of bulls”. In the context cow means Cow-kind, we are not talking about gender. Please grow up here at writingtips!!

  • Maria

    Additional note .. “person” is not more gender neutral than “man” .. per son derives from “each son of man” or “per son of man” or “per son”.

  • amy

    Maria…I believe Man vs Supernatural. ..it is more of a reference to vampires, werewolves etc. One might also include magic.

    I believe, the first type of conflicted stated was Man/Person vs God/Fate. Where as supernatural was the last…so there is two distinct categories mentioned.

  • Max

    I think that Man vs. Supernatural could actually count in the story Alice and Wonderland, because the situation cannot be explained, so it is technically supernatural. I don’t think there can be a fantasy category because it includes everything in the supernatural category.

  • John

    I want to jump in too! Man vs. Supernatural is really man vs. self or man vs. villian (Good Vs Evil). Just because your Villian has supernatural powers doesn’t make the villian worthy of a seperate category. If it is just a villian without supernatural powers, then that villian’s super power is thier capacity for evil. Alice in wonderland is coming of age, which makes it vs. society, think Holden Cofield. And where does romance lay? Vs nature? destiny/fate? God? Vs. person? How about vs. Lonliess?

  • Christina Reiner

    For #4- against corrupt society-
    Anna Karenina?

  • Lee Diogeneia

    This article is pretty dated, but still useful. How about an update?

    For #4. Person vs. Society “When the protagonist’s conflict extends to confronting institutions, traditions, or laws of his or her culture, he or she struggles to overcome them, either triumphing over a corrupt society (I draw a blank here)…”

    Could you fill in the blank with Hunger Games, the Divergent series or, to go a little older, Logan’s Run?

    Although, I view person vs society as different than person vs. government. Society covers social and cultural belief systems, while government covers authoritarian control, institutional corruption, etc. Governments do not always represent the belief systems of the society or culture they govern.

  • Katrina

    I think one could use the Uglies series for triumphing over a corrupt society for #4.

Leave a comment: