Conflict (narrative)

Conflict (narrative)

Conflict is a concept in literary studies that seeks to analyze plots by finding their driving sources of conflict.

  • conflict-(Literary term) the struggle or battle in a narrative.

Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, literary critic and author, was first to classify plots as seven basic conflicts: Man against Man, Man against Nature, Man against Himself, Man against God, Man against Society, Man caught in the Middle, Man & Woman.

This has inspired a variety of similar lists, as follows:


Man v. Man

A Man vs. Man conflict can be described as a conflict arising between two or more characters of the same kind. An example of this might be a fist fight between two people. Such as the Protagonist (main character) vs. the Antagonist (villain or someone who's against the protagonist).

Man v. Nature

Man v. Nature is the theme in literature that places a character against forces of nature.[1] Many disaster films focus on this theme, which is predominant within many survival stories. It is also strong in stories about struggling for survival in remote locales, such as the novel Hatchet or Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" or "Survivor man".

Man v. Supernatural

Man v. Supernatural is a type of conflict in which the character is against elements outside of the natural realm. These include encounters with ghosts, extraterrestrials, external spiritual experiences, and other unexplained occurrences. The films The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project have elements of this form of conflict.

Man v. Machine/Technology

Man v. Machine/Technology is a conflict between the protagonist and mechanical antagonist or the mechanization of society in general. An example would be the Terminator movies.

Man v. Destiny

Man v. Destiny (or Fate) is a theme in which one attempts to break free of a predetermined path before him chosen without his knowledge. It can also be referred to as a conflict between fate and freewill. A common example is Shakespeare's Macbeth.


As with other literary terms, these have come about gradually as descriptions of common narrative structures. Conflict was first described in ancient Greek literature as the agon, or central contest in tragedy. According to Aristotle, in order to hold the interest, the hero must have a single conflict. The agon, or act of conflict, involves the protagonist (the "first fighter") and the antagonist (a more recent term), corresponding to the hero and villain. The outcome of the contest cannot be known in advance, and according to later critics such as Plutarch, the hero's struggle should be ennobling.

Even in contemporary, non-dramatic literature, critics have observed that the agon is the central unit of the plot. The easier it is for the protagonist to triumph, the less value there is in the drama. In internal and external conflict alike, the antagonist must act upon the protagonist and must seem at first to overmatch him or her. For example, in William Faulkner's The Bear, nature might be the antagonist. Even though it is an abstraction, natural creatures and the scenery oppose and resist the protagonist. In the same story, the young boy's doubts about himself provide an internal conflict, and they seem to overwhelm him.

Similarly, when godlike characters enter (e.g. Superman), correspondingly great villains have to be created, or natural weaknesses have to be invented, to allow the narrative to have drama. Alternatively, scenarios could be devised in which the character's godlike powers are constrained by some sort of code, or their respective antagonist.

See also


External links

  • Literary terms Dictionary Online. [1]
  • The "Basic" Plots In Literature. Information on the most common divisions of the basic plots from the Internet Public Library organization. [2]

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