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A literary conflict is a challenge the main character must face in order to progress through the plot of a story. Usually, a character must overcome this conflict in order to restore order to their world, or to grow and mature as a person.

Literary Conflict

Literary conflicts are what make a story interesting; after all, a story about a character walking through life without a problem in the world does not make for a very compelling or exciting narrative. Literary conflicts come in many shapes and forms, can challenge many different characters, and include different types of irony. There are two types of literary conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict, also known as Character vs. Self, involves a choice or an inner battle that the main character must overcome. Sometimes this inner battle is emotions, such as grief, jealousy, unhappiness, anger, etc. It can also be an important choice, such as whether or not to move to a new city, or deciding whether work or family is more important.

The other kind of literary conflict is called external conflict. External conflict can be broken down into four basic categories: 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 Character vs. Nature, the main character usually must be victorious against the natural elements of the world like a storm, disease, or dangerous animals.

In Character vs. Society, the main character is usually fighting against societal rules, a dystopian government, or a mindset in their community.

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.

In the plot of a story, the primary literary conflict is usually revealed between the Exposition and Rising Action of the story, although many different conflicts can be revealed at any time throughout longer pieces of fiction. The Climax of a narrative usually features the ultimate showdown of the literary conflict, and reveals who the victor will be. The Falling Action and Resolution reveal the after-effects of this conflict on the characters and their world-- and sometimes, their future.

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Literary Conflict Examples

In the novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pip’s primary conflict at the beginning of the story is internal. He wants to become a gentleman in order to win Estella’s love; however, he is doomed to be a lowly blacksmith.

In Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, Abigail Williams’ jealousy and scorn from being rejected by John Proctor leads her to accuse his wife Elizabeth of witchcraft in the hopes that his wife will be hanged.

In John Smith’s narrative The General History of Virginia, one of the primary conflicts the settlers had to face was a harsh winter and lack of food. The cold and starvation of the first winter killed half of the settlers.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins outlines a society that has different districts that each selects a “tribute”, or child, to fight to the death for the entertainment of the Capitol. The story reveals a broken system and society that has lost its way, and must be stopped.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron”, the technology has been developed to create handicaps so that everyone in the society is painfully equal.

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