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The Conflict is Everything

We read to engage in the study of conflicts. Books are made interesting by the difficulties that characters overcome, or succumb to, and those obstacles are many and diverse.

This section will explore the different kinds of conflicts, how to write them and key points to focus on. 

FOr more on the drivers of conflict, read up on our villains, and subscribe for weekly content. 

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Types of Conflict

Over the next few weeks we are going to focus on different kind of conflicts, what we can learn from each of them, what they provide to our stories and if we have chosen the right kinds for the story we want to tell. 

When we are first constructing a story, or sometimes part way into a story we begin to have the question of what kind of conflicts we want. Many authors do not focus on the conflict as their first point of story generation. Perhaps world building, character arcs and character building are more important. Inside of character building we usually will see growth due to conflict but sometimes an author will say something like, “I want a person who is scared of everything to work toward becoming a little more extroverted, or at least not afraid of everyone.” This is a great story arc. It works for kids’ books, teen books and adult books alike.

Not all conflicts are grand epic battles, and most of the probably shouldn't be. 

Before we can answer, "Do you have the right kind of conflicts," we need to talk about what these types are. 

usually people describe five big conflicts that all conflict falls into.

1) Person versus self.

2) Person versus person.

3) Person versus society, or many persons.

4) Person versus god/higher sentient power.

5) Person versus nature.

You could walk the characters down any one of these trials and tribulations to learn how they will go from, let’s say a) terrified introvert, to b) functional unafraid introvert.

In this example, we aren’t trying to cure them of being an introvert, because there is nothing wrong with that. I am an introvert. We are, however, trying to have them find their own dragon to slay, so that they are more at peace with their place in the world. How would each of these play out?

Person versus self may take the shape of a story about a character wrestling with their own memories. Maybe they have a traumatic memory that made them fear people or certain kinds of interactions. We will get to see how that memory shaped them and how they perhaps break down that memory to enable them to interact with others. Likely we will see examples throughout the story where they want to act a certain way, but fear prevents it, and then they slowly manage to come to grips with that fear and overcome it.

Person versus person may take the form of a bully, or another individual in a position of relative social power over the protagonist. They will be the instrument in the world holding them down, perhaps always speaking negatively of them or always making fun of them to keep their self esteem low. Maybe it’s a boss, a coworker or someone else who talks over them all the time, contradicts their ideas or belittles every recommendation in underhanded ways. We might get to see them confront this person indirectly or directly.

Person versus society, or perhaps a local group of people will perhaps focus on the aspects of assumption in the local society. Maybe the character just switched schools and they are too shy to join the local popular team, or sport group. Perhaps it is a new job, where the expertise of the previous position doesn’t transfer and they find themselves slowly being left out because they do not know how to work with the group, and the cultural dynamic is different. Perhaps their previous company valued email correspondence and slow private thoughts being given to a team leader. The new company is all about fast stand-up meetings with people talking over one another, and her ideas are being left behind because she doesn’t like to speak up as much. How will they deal with these changes? Will they change the society or adapt to it?

Person versus nature, may perhaps take on the form of a science fiction story where the individual is trying experimental gene therapy, where they will be modified to become less introverted by nature. Maybe we explore this subtle shift over time as they become someone else. How will this impact their friendships, family and relationships? What if they don’t like what it does but also don’t want to go back?

Person Versus higher power could take on the same forms. Perhaps there is a literal fantasy or mythological element where an individual takes on a higher power directly in anger at the way they were made. We may instead see a religious tussle blending higher power with person versus self a they argue with priests, and their religions canon, pulling in society and others-based conflicts.

What I am trying to paint here, is an image that each conflict type is 1) not unique or stand alone. They will bleed into one another. 2) they are all going to show us different aspects of the struggle and will make for very different stories. For example, in person versus self in many ways the antagonist and protagonist can be different versions of the same person. In person versus person, it will likely be an external antagonist, who has their own desires wants and motivations. A villain if you will.

We will spend the next few writing sections exploring these and considering the differences in how each conflict types has positives and negative, how they might thread into other conflicts, with examples from literature and movies.

What kind of conflicts are you thinking about? Start outlining, and keep writing!

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Person Versus Nature

Perhaps the furthest removed from our modern society, a person versus nature is still a wonderful read, and a very valid story structure.

Person versus nature at its core is a main character who is struggling against forces which are outside of their control. The Perfect Storm, portions of Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, The Martian, all have aspects of Person versus nature.

What do each of these stories remind us of when we think of them? Perhaps The Perfect Storm is the most self-evident tale of a boat full of sailors who are always in combat with nature, trying to catch enough fish to make the money they need for their life and family. One particular trip a storm, the embodiment of uncontrolled nature, is their opponent.

Robinson Crusoe is a tale about a man who is so desperate to take on nature by means of sailing he returns to sea after multiple shipwrecks. But this also brings an interesting point. Did he go to sea to challenge nature? Did he do it to explore an aspect of his own inner personality? Was it to spite his parents who wanted him to be a lawyer? Did the story even remain about man versus nature, as other characters are later introduced after the story of survival alone.

It is an excellent example that no story is ever just one kind of conflict.

For a similar example what about Lord of the Flies? Structured perhaps as a society versus nature, the characters of the marooned boys must survive against the unknown of the wilds, but they also must compete against their own instincts to become less civilized. AKA Person versus self. It asks the question what would a class full of adolescent boys do to survive without any adult supervision?

The Martian is perhaps one of the cleanest examples of modern writing for person versus nature. A man marooned alone on Mars must use his wits to survive while a rescue operation is mounted for him. In fact, it is an entire genre of exploration that we can considered represented here as conflict directly with nature.

How do you want that conflict to take place? Is nature presented as an indifferent thing, which the protagonist stepped into because of personal reasons? The Martian for example falls into this category. Is the tale something more akin to personification of nature like in The Perfect Storm? We even name storms, giving them a sense of nature as a sentient being run wild. Why did the protagonist go into the nature? How did they go there? Are they trying to tame it? Are they trying to live at one with it? Are they rescuing someone else? Are they simply passing through?

All of these will change the flavor of the story. Perhaps if you think nature is something that is right to be controlled, then a conquest of the new land is something good. If you think that nature is something that deserves equal footing with humanity, perhaps you think that the protagonist is the antagonist and nature is right to swat them aside. Perhaps the conflict with nature is just in the way and you want to see them succeed because they want to rescue their loved once, but you don’t want nature destroyed for the result. You could set up a conflict of what is more valuable, a single life or a local ecosystem?

Person verses nature sometimes sees its most direct fulfillment in fantasy and science fiction stories where nature might in fact be a personification. When we think of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, they are a kind of personification of nature. Death, a final act of all natural living things. Pestilence is a personification of one of humankind’s worse fears in the natural world. Again, these tread boundary lines. Is a conflict with death, personified, person versus nature or person versus deity?

The lines are never clean, and many times person versus nature can be the secondary story where you follow the rule of writing:

Person wants XYZ. Author places obstacle in the way of character. Character fails to get XYZ, and must grow, change, plan or take new action.

Nature is an excellent way to do this. Maybe the story has nothing to do with nature as a primary protagonist or antagonist. It is the barrier placed in the way of the protagonist to prevent their actions from being successful.

However, you chose to go about it, ask yourself the questions such as:

  • How do I want nature to read? Indifferent? Angry?

  • Is nature the protagonist here?

  • Why did the conflict with nature begin?

  • Is the conflict with nature avoidable?

  • Is the conflict with nature the primary conflict or secondary?

  • How will the resolution impact the characters in the long run?

Plan out how you want your conflict with nature to go, and always remember. Writers Write. So, get to it.

Person Vs. God/Deity/Gods etc...

As we continue down the road of conflicts we come next to person versus high powers.

These can show up in many forms and are very classical literature.

An extension of person versus nature can be found very immediately in person versus deity. Maybe there is a good reason to show that nature has a will of its own. It is not random or circumstance but a conscious effort on the part of the creator to oppose the human element.

Perhaps you have a mythological structure. Some of the greatest stories of mythology are fundamentally person versus gods. Odysseus and the Odyssey, the Labors of Hercules, The Monkey King, Gilgamesh, all involve stories of greater powers interfering with humanity. Modern Fantasy tales similarly deal with these kinds of issues in stories from DragonlanceThe Kingkiller Chronicles, or American Gods.

In every case the fate of the protagonist or friends are controlled by the higher powers.

When dealing with this type of conflict there are several important questions which must be answered which do not show up in person versus nature. Nature is indifferent, and neutral. The conflict may have good and bad sides, but there is usually only one sentient side. When the opposition is given sentience, the opposition must also be given reasons for their actions.

Why are the gods messing with the person in question? Is it personal? Is it a contest between the gods and the person is inconsequential? Is it a vendetta? Hera versus Hercules comes to mind. Did the protagonist ask for it? Many religious structures are literally humanity wrestling with god, the rules of the god, and how they want to obey or disobey them. Where did the god come from?

These are starting questions, but I would argue for the sake of verisimilitude, the most important question is this: Why is there a contest at all? What threat is there from the protagonist to the god? Why does the god / being not just immediately crush the protagonist and have done with it? If you do not have an answer to this question, it is a glaring issue that will likely break the readers ability to follow you to the end of the tale.

There are many good answers. Maybe the gods are not that powerful. They can influence events but can’t outright kill. Maybe gods keep one another in check, and they are not allowed to perform certain actions. Perhaps they are indifferent, and the character is not specifically under attack but they are under attack by proxy for other actions.

In addition to knowing why the god can or doesn’t just smoosh the protagonist, you must understand what is the leverage the protagonist has over the god? This can be determined by the scale of the conflict. Maybe the character is just battling for their own soul, their own freedom, or their own desires. Maybe they have nothing on the deity other than the ability to ignore them. Scaling up from there, perhaps they are combating a local deity for the rights of a village, or a law passed down from a religious order. Perhaps they have no ability to impact the gods, but they can damage their church, or their followers. Maybe you have entered high fantasy and you know that the protagonist can in fact harm the mightiest powers.

In all these cases the mechanics for how they are going about trying to achieve their goals must be clear to you.

As we depart from person versus nature and we begin to have sides to stories it becomes more important than ever to have clear reasons for actions, specific goals in mind for the characters, and motivations for those goals.

When dealing with higher powers remember they are also not always gods. In science fiction the higher power can take the form of an artificial intelligence. Sometimes they are formed like comic books where super powered creatures are allegorical stand ins for god. 

Batman Vs Superman

As we slip into things like nameless bureaucracy or governments as the powerful beings we begin to move toward person versus society. This again shows that these blocks of delineation are artificial and fray at the edges between types. If you however have a single unexplainable entity with more power than the protagonist can really ever have, you have started to enter into the realm of deities.

As you flesh out these conflicts, remember to keep a writers bible. Pun intended. Keep a written record of these motivations, powers, goals and conflicts to have as quick references on your writing journey.

Go forth, and generate conflict, because writers write.

Person Vs. Society

For me, in many ways, person verses society is the scariest of the conflicts. Gods you are pretty much stuck, if they want to fight you it’s not going to work out. (IMO) Nature is hard to change, its relentless and you will lose eventually. Everyone dies right? And conflicts with yourself and individual people are somehow more tractable. The scope is finite.

Person versus society is a story about how you don’t fit. Books which land into this group are classics like Lord of the Flies, or To Kill a Mockingbird. More recent stories are items like Divergent.

When you are building the scope of your conflict remember how being annoyed actually works. It’s usually the small things which add up.

Imagine if you will, that you want to go food shopping tomorrow. You walk to the store. You go in the front door and a clerk greets you and says “Would you like to pledge 1 dollar to cause XYZ…” You say "No." You go about your food shop, and you get to check out. The cashier asks, “Would you like to pledge 1 dollar to cause XYZ?” Again, you say "No," and go on about your day. There is a light tension that society wants to have you do a thing, but maybe you don’t believe in the cause, maybe you just don’t have the money.

This keeps up for several weeks. Then you find that there is a toll at the front door, which says you must contribute 50 cents, or you are not allowed to shop here. You can’t easily get to another store, this one is closest, so you agree against your better judgement, and you shop. A few months later the cost has gone up to 2$. Then 5$. You try to find yourself another place to shop but you can’t. Everywhere else has already done the same and now you find yourself nested in a society that you do not agree with and can’t afford to fight.

This is a very small thing relative to how twisted society can get and serves as one example of how to show the conflict against the broader whole. Often the individual in the conflict has no recourse available to them. The tension is often built on the helplessness.

Being the minority in the story does not inherently make the character in the right. There are cases where the minority can be wrong as well. But as you consider how to craft person versus society plots think about what you don’t like. Start small and scratch at the itch. Grow the annoyance to show that small thing is just one symptom of a much larger issue that is systemic in the system. You can go down the rabbit hole here. Maybe the protagonist isn’t even right. They might perceive much greater faults that are being perpetrated against them.

How do laws work? How do relationships work? Where are you allowed to go? Who are you allowed to talk to? Who can you date? Where can you work?
Specifically in America we tend to have a strong sense of freedom. When someone begins to limit these things, we get upset.

What about a clash of cultures? What if you have a culture that does not value those freedoms, and the character is thrust into it, from a society that used to? Or what if multiple characters are, structuring it as society versus society?

What if you could ask the question how far are people willing to go to fight an unjust society? If lies are ok is theft? If theft is ok, is murder? If murder is ok, is genocide? Person versus society is an excellent opportunity to make people feel helpless. Not just the characters, also the reader will feel helpless along with them. Just like other stories and conflicts we have discussed, the society based conflict does not need to take center stage. It can be used to play up a devious character. It could even be used to give an otherwise evil character a sympathetic out. They are who and what they are because the society made them that way.

Go make your dystopia, your twisted high school, or your strange family unit. The size of the society doesn’t need to be everyone and the stakes don’t need to be everything. But make sure it’s a place your readers will be intensely annoyed to be thrust into.

Person Vs. Person

Enter the villain. The antagonist. The counter to the heroes and heroines. The bad one.

Something becomes relatable and visceral when we introduce person versus person stories, because we recognize the villains in our own lives. They are less abstract than person versus nature or deities. We know what annoys us. We know the kinds of people, situations and personalities that rub us the wrong way. We have a collection of stories from friends and family when they have been rubbed the wrong way, mistreated or belittled.

Iron Man Vs Captain America

Villains make us squirm, because often there is little we can do about them in our real lives. THAT is the kind of unpleasantness we should want to take onto the page with us.

Evil landlord? Terrible tenant? Evil boss? Lazy worker? Manipulative significant other? Schoolyard bully? Thief or mugger? We can all call to mind the person that sets our blood to boil. They are villains in our life story, just as we might be villains in someone else’s.

In literature the antagonists are often broken into two broad camps. The first is an antagonist who is relatable. They think they are the hero of the story, and they are not trying to be bad, they just stand in the way of the hero for some reason. The second kind is a true villain. Someone who is duplicitous, evil and in the way, because that is what they enjoy doing and for little other reason. To be clear, both of these are valid forms of villain.


Modern writing and modern movie making has in my opinion moved strongly in the direction of not evil, so much as misunderstood, and while this was an underexplored aspect, the evil for evil sake still works. Readers love to hate a villain. This is not the same as a simple-minded villain or a villain without motivation. The evil villain can have clear selfish motivations and engage in getting them in the most heinous ways. They can be crafty and intelligent and difficult to defeat without being an ounce relatable.


Just so a relatable villain doesn’t need to be decent in their methods. Humanity is replete with examples of people who have done terrible things in the name of ideology. A less common old school thought experiment is called the Auschwitz Guard Dilemma. In it you would imagine what it takes to be a guard in one of the prison camps such as Auschwitz. What kind of mental gymnastics must you do to justify your day job throughout the rest of your life? Previously perfectly normal people served as guards at these camps. Outside of this context many of them were good parents, or good friends to their neighbors. They were clearly the villain in someone else’s story, many millions, and committed terrible crimes. But they were not necessarily evil for the sake of itself.


As you create your villains, think about which kind of villain you want. Why do they stand in the way of the protagonist? What can they do to stop the protagonist? What is their motivation?


Go create your antagonists, but always remember, endeavor to never be the villain in someone else’s story.

Person vs. Self

Look inside yourself. What don’t you like? Don’t berate yourself, but find something. At the heart of every character and their development is a question of person vs. self.

What has stopped you from changing yourself? What created this trait you don’t like?

When we begin to look into these kinds of conflicts, we are looking at the building of a character from the ground up. How the conflict of a character with themselves will shape up is sometimes predicated on the source of the trait in question. No particular character trait must have a single origin, and the origins do not need to be dramatic.

For example, why are we sometimes shy? We may have had a terrible traumatic bully who impacted us in our youth, now long-gone from our lives, who left us with unresolved issues. Perhaps we were constantly shushed by parents, and grandparents and becoming quiet was just a way of life at home. Maybe, we just don’t like to speak and there is no reason. Maybe we are introverted and it takes energy for us to interact with crowds more than one or two. The reasons are varied, but how they play out on a page may be impacted by these origins. Perhaps if we were bullied, we need to have an experience of standing up to a current day perceived bully, and the tale is about how to get up the strength to do that.

If a character needs to change their stripes and learn that being comfortable is not always the most important thing, then maybe they need to sometimes sacrifice comfort for publicly speaking, to make the world a better place. The way that they will find that motivation might be very different than standing up to one specific person.

The range of traits you want to address for a character can be big or small. Minor personality traits like introversion, or perhaps arrogant extroversion, or fear of heights, fear of open spaces, fear of flying, fear of speaking out against parents, fear of speaking out against society (blending toward person vs. society,) and a multitude of others exist.

What is at stake can be widely varied as well. Maybe getting on a plane is the key to their new dream job or maybe they need to visit a relative in distant lands who is ill. Maybe the ability to stand up to a bully changes the course of a local election and thereby the course of an entire town. Maybe by finding their courage they meet a new significant other and find their happily ever after.

When we are considering the use of internal conflicts, they do not have to remain confined to a character’s head, and most often should not. The conflict that rages inside should drive action in the world, and these conflicting motivations should get in the way of the character’s goals and ambitions until they resolve them. The more central to the main story they are the more obvious they should be, but it is useful if every character has a flaw and conflict inside, including secondary and tertiary characters.

We are all familiar with person versus self in exaggerated examples. What else is Batman but person versus self? Two aspects of one man at war. What else is the entire conflict of the light and the dark side of the force in Star Wars, but each jedi coming to grips with their conflicting sides? Fantasy and science fiction are replete with examples, once we know to look for them.

Consider carefully the questions:

What is the conflict in the character?

What do they want that they can’t have about themselves?

What is the source of the conflict?

What prevents them from “just,” being different?

How does the internal conflict show on the page to others?

How does the character resolve the internal conflict?

What actions will they need to take to realize their change?

How do these internal conflicts relate to the larger plot, or are they the plot around which the story revolves?


If you have enjoyed this series, remember to subscribe, and to look out for the next series where we will be discussing settings. Always remember, writers write.

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