Conflict: A Taxonomy

Conflict is an essential part of storytelling. Every story needs a conflict to drive it, even if that conflict is as simple as getting to the office on time. I’ve talked about conflict before from time to time but today it’s time to sit down and really dissect it. In literary terms there are four to eight types of conflict but in the writing tradition I learned from there are exactly seven and this is the system that I continue to use to this day. Without further ado, the seven kinds of conflict as I learned them are:

Character vs. Character 

In this conflict you have two people who cannot agree on something. Each character tries to get their own way and hijinks ensue. While this seems like a simple type of conflict it is really very deep, these conflicts tend to spread out of control as they exist almost any time two characters interact with each other. The vast majority of stories today have character vs. character as a major conflict, if not the major conflict. Luke’s story arc in the classic Star Wars trilogy is a great example of this kind of conflict, as is any Superman story with Lex Luthor in it.

Character vs. Self 

This conflict arises when a character is dissatisfied with some aspect of themselves and attempts to correct it. If you’ve ever tried to get in shape or break a bad habit you know how hard this can be. Stories focusing on this kind of conflict usually make a big deal of how the thing being changed effects the central character and the world around them, and how the attempts to change cause ripples in the character’s life. Groundhog’s Day or (oddly enough) Scott Pilgrim VS The World are great examples of this.

Character vs. Nature 

A struggle with nature arises any time impersonal laws of existence, like gravity or time, or forces of nature, like storms or earthquakes, or just wild animals threaten a character or prevent them from getting what they want. These kinds of struggles usually focus on the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of ingenuity in the face of mindless obstacles. The Old Man and the Sea is the quintessential example of this. The Perfect Storm is another good case study.

Character vs. The World (or Society) 

When a character desires something that just isn’t the way things are done, or social mores and strictures put entire groups of people against one person or one person just tries to march to his own rhythm and is discouraged by the ways he doesn’t fit in you have a character vs. the world. It’s much like character vs. character except it’s as much about the nature of the system the character is caught in than the wants and needs of the individual characters who oppose him. Romeo and Juliet does this on a small scale, 1984 on a large one.

Character vs. Fate 

This is much like character vs. self except all the character’s attempts to change are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control. It can also pertain to stories where characters attempt to thwart some prediction only to make it come true – usually because of some quirk of their own characters. Regardless, it hinges on how a character’s nature makes their actions ineffectual. And sometimes (rarely, to tell the truth) how they overcome those natures. Oedipus Rex is an example of this conflict.

Character vs. Machine 

This conflict is actually kind of new, but not at the same time. It’s a well known fact that changes in technology force people to adapt and the struggle to adapt to changing places in the world, or hold on to your place in the face of new tools or techniques, is a timeless one. But only in the modern era has it started to look like machines can actually replace people entirely and how people deal with that possibility is the center of this conflict. The Caves of Steel is a perfect example.

Character vs. gods/God 

Any time a character struggles against another character who is utterly beyond their abilities to comprehend that conflict is character vs. gods/God. What sets this apart is that the conflict is almost always one-sided. The human character does all the work, invests all the emotion and purpose and almost always fails to provoke any kind of reaction at all from the other party. These stories run a spectrum from The Call of Cthulu on one end to Till We Have Faces on the other.

So what function do these classifications serve?

Mostly, I find they help you think about your characters in a new light. Trying to classify your character’s central conflict can focus your narrative wonderfully, helping you fixate on and eliminate needless distractions and really hit the story where it lives.

For those of you following my Avengers Analyzed series, I employed this technique to help me narrow down the elements of each character’s own character growth and ignore their actions which were intended to advance the development of others. Which brings me to another important issue. Most every character in your cast should probably have a conflict of their own that they are dealing with. Working out what those conflicts are will help your characters’ actions and dialog to have purpose and make them more believable and sympathetic.

Conflict. It needs to be at the heart of your story so make it as clear as possible.

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