An external conflict occurs when a character must overcome a challenge with another character, the forces of nature, technology, or society.
External conflict in a literary work takes place when the main character must overcome a challenge by outside forces in order to grow and mature or restore order to their world. External conflict can be broken down into four basic types of conflict: Character vs. Character, Character vs. Nature, Character vs. Society, and Character vs. Technology.
In Character vs. Character, two characters are pitted against each other in a battle, either literally or figuratively. In some instances, a character may have to physically battle or outwit another character and their forces; in other cases, the protagonist may have to overcome intimidation or other psychological tactics from the other character, such as bullying or sabotage. The character does not have to be human; if it exhibits the ability to think and reason, then the character could be a monster or mythical creature as well.
In Character vs. Nature, the main character usually must be victorious against the natural elements of the world like a storm, or dangerous animals. A character can also face challenges while lost in the wilderness and fighting for simple survival. Sometimes “Fate” is included in the Character vs. Nature category, where a character who is in denial of their path in life must ultimately answer the call to adventure. Nature can also refer to disease or plague.
In Character vs. Society, the main character is usually fighting against societal rules, a tyrannical government, or a mindset in their community. This conflict can include social justice causes, unfair laws, or simply changing the way the people around them view the world. Some of the most popular stories that involve a character versus their society is in dystopian fiction, where the character and/or people must rise up to change the status quo and regain their basic human rights.
In Character vs. Technology, the main character is usually struggling against technology run amok, like robots, or technology that has become too invasive and is used by a dystopian power for evil. A character can also be battling against the technological advances that he or she can’t keep up with, such as an innovator not being able to keep up with competitors’ products.
Boo and Bob Ewell fight in a showdown battle in order to save the lives of Jem and Scout in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird. This is an example of Character vs. Character, because as Bob was trying to stab the children in order to get revenge on Atticus for humiliating him in court, Boo heard their screams and came out to save them with a knife of his own. The result was that Bob Ewell died, and Boo saved the children from serious harm.
In the old English epic poem Beowulf, Beowulf has to battle several monsters in order to keep his homeland, Geatland, safe. First he battles a fearsome monster named Grendel, who hates the sounds of music and joy and seeks to destroy King Hrothgar’s men. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, he faces Grendel’s mother, and then he faces a dragon 50 years later, which he defeats but is mortally wounded in the fight. While these characters are monsters, they have the ability to reason, making Beowulf’s battles examples of Character vs. Character.
In the short story “The Interlopers” by Saki, Ulrich and Georg are forced to reconcile their families’ long-running feud over a strip of forest when they are both trapped by a tree that fell onto them in the middle of a stormy night. While they reconcile their differences, they call for their men in hopes that they would be found quickly; however, they are instead found by a pack of hungry wolves. The men face a two-fold threat in a Character vs. Nature situation in this story: the tree that traps them, and the wolves that likely will eat them.
King Prospero believes that he can his nobles can escape the Red Death that is ravaging his kingdom by hiding in his castle in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death”. Prospero even throws a party, an attempt to show that he was unafraid of death. However, he is unable to escape death, which arrives to the party in the costume of a plague victim, and kills everyone after revealing that there is no one beneath the costume. This is an example of a Character vs. Nature, trying to escape his Fate: ultimately, Prospero’s Fate finds him and his guests, even though they tried to escape.
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, Winston and Julia decide that they want to rebel against the tyrannical government and Big Brother, which controls every aspect of their lives, in a Character vs. Society conflict. After beginning an illicit and illegal affair, they come into contact with a man named O’Brien, who seems to be connected with the resistance. Winston and Julia read a book purportedly by the resistance, and begin questioning whether or not the proles can overthrow the government. Unfortunately, O’Brien’s book was a set-up and Winston and Julia are “re-educated” through torture. They give up on their dreams to overthrow an unjust society.
An example of Character vs. Technology can be found in Daniel Keyes’ novel Flowers for Algernon. A revolutionary breakthrough in medical research and procedures allows Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur to rapidly increase the IQ of a mouse named Algernon; they soon decide to try this advanced technology on Charlie, a man with an IQ of 68. While the operation is initially successful, Charlie notices that Algernon begins to regress, until he eventually dies. Charlie knows that it’s only a matter of time before the same thing happens to him, and so he tries to make use of the time he has with Alice and his sister Norma before he, too, regresses back to his low IQ.