Stories without conflict, where the main character faces zero opposition, fail because they bore readers.
In real life, harmony and agreement are worthy goals that produce a harmonious existence. But such is no recipe for stories that captivate readers.
Readers love conflict. It’s the engine of compelling fiction.
Conflict creates tension, and tension keeps readers turning the pages.
Internal and External Conflict
At the risk of insulting your intelligence, these definitions are self-explanatory. Internal conflict is your main character’s battle with his* own demons, self-doubt, etc.
[*Note: I use male pronouns to refer to both heroes and heroines.]
For instance, he might struggle with desiring independence while fearing stepping into the world alone.
External conflict is simply the obstacle or challenge your character faces. What does he want or need, what are the stakes, and what stands in his way?
Internal and external conflict work together. Your character’s fears, doubts, or false beliefs often arise from outside forces and in turn make it tougher for him to overcome them.
6 Types of Conflict
Man vs. Self
This type of conflict is usually caused by something external — but the battle itself takes place within. Your character might fight opposing desires — such as whether to violate his moral principles in the pursuit of self-gain.
Internal conflict can manifest itself in dialogue, through action or inaction, in thoughts, or even through dreams, nightmares, or hallucinations.
Example: The Narrator in Fight Club conflicts with society (which he finds empty and consumeristic), with his boss, and with others, but the story is ultimately about the internal conflict between two halves of his personality.
Man vs. Man
Don’t make the mistake of assuming this type of conflict requires physical fighting or even an argument — though, of course, those also fit the definition. Conflict between the hero and villain is common.
But a character might also oppose your protagonist with his best interest in mind. For instance, a father might try to keep his teenager close, conflicting with the teen’s desire for independence.
Example: The conflict in Iron Man is a power struggle for the future of Stark Industries — between Tony Stark and his former mentor, Obadiah Stane.
Man vs. Nature
When a character struggles to survive in a hostile environment — such as on a mountain, or in a desert, ocean, or jungle — he might face extreme cold or heat, dangerous animals, or other threats to his life.
This is one of the conflict types often present in dystopian stories where the world has been devastated by a cataclysmic event like a plague or a nuclear apocalypse.
Example: The conflict between humans and dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
Man vs. Society
This type of conflict pits a character against his government, the police, the military, or some other powerful force — including social norms. It’s usually most effective when Society is personified by a specific villain.
Example: Atticus Finch defending a black man in To Kill a Mockingbird, despite the pervasive racism of the time.
Man vs. Supernatural
Characters fighting vampires, werewolves, aliens, or wizards usually occurs in science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels.
Example: Buffy (and her friends) taking on vampires and demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
How to Create Conflict in a Story
The best stories involve layers of conflict. Your hero might fight the villain — and his own self-doubt. Or your hero might struggle against both society and nature, perhaps thrown out of his community to survive in the wilderness.
The more types of conflict you inject in your story, the more compelling readers are likely to find it… and the more powerful your ending will be.
Stories Need Conflict — and Plenty of It
If you’ve stalled halfway through your writing because scenes seem to fall flat, do whatever you need to to inject conflict. Is it sarcasm, a character flying off the handle for seemingly no reason, a friend all of a sudden in your character’s face?
As soon as that conflict is inserted, you (and your characters) must scramble to deal with it. And that creates page-turning tension. What’s going on?
Trust your gut, and your characters to the challenge.