Breaking Down The Four Main Types of External Conflict
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Conflict drives narrative.
As humans, our curiosity piques when two forces oppose one another. “What is happening?” we ask. Why are these two forces at odds? How will the conflict play out? Who will win? What would I do if I were in that situation?
These are the questions readers ask, more or less subconsciously, as they read. Which means they’re also exactly the kinds of questions writers should ask themselves when crafting plots for their stories.
In stories, as in life, there are two types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflicts are the mental, emotional, or spiritual struggles a person faces — Character vs. Self — which we’ll talk about in a new blog post soon! Today, however, we’re going to focus on the second type of struggle: external conflict. Shall we dive right into the breakdown?
The Four Main Types of External Conflict…
External conflict is the struggle a character faces against an outside force. That force, however, isn’t limited to just a simple antagonist. External conflict can actually be categorized into four main types, which we'll break down below.
1. Character vs. Character
In this type of external conflict, one character struggles against another, though the source of this struggle can vary. For example:
- Both characters may want the same goal. (Example: To survive the Hunger Games...)
- Both characters may want different goals, but one or both stand in the way of the other’s success. (Example: Laia is a slave spying on the woman who enforces martial rule in An Ember in the Ashes...)
- One character may wish to prevent the other from wreaking havoc or destruction. (Example: Kell fights cold-hearted usurpers in A Darker Shade of Magic...)
- One character may wish to harm the other out of hatred, spite, or greed. (Example: Bonzo tries to hurt Ender for embarrassing him in Ender's Game...)
- One character may simply want what the other character has. (Example: Renly tries to usurp the throne from Joffrey in A Clash of Kings...)
This conflict can be motivated by survival, by pride, love, morality or duty, or number of other factors.
The key to a strong Character vs. Character conflict, however, is that both parties are developed equally, each having strong goals, solid motivations for wanting to achieve those goals, the agency to take their own action, and the humanity to accurately portray such a personal conflict.
If you’re looking for a resource to help you develop these elements, may I suggest checking out Well-Storied’s most popular workbook? The guided questions in The Pre-Write Project are great for helping you lay out the external conflict in your story with ease.
2. Character vs. Society
In this type of conflict, a character struggles against some element of society, whether it be a corrupt government, a religious system, socialized mindsets (e.g. homophobia, misogyny, racism), economic issues (e.g. recessions, layoffs, bankruptcy), inequality, or societal expectations.
Many desires — including survival, stability, human rights, happiness, freedom, justice, and morality — may motivate a character to take action against their society in this style of story. It’s also worth noting that many stories that feature a Character vs. Society conflict also have strong internal conflicts that are intricately and inherently tied to the main character’s external struggle.
Examples of stories that feature strong Character vs. Society conflicts include:
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
3. Character vs. Nature
Perhaps the simplest of all types of external conflict, in stories that feature a Character vs. Nature storyline, the main character struggles against an animal, the weather, or the terrain, most often motivated by simple survival.
Just like Character vs. Society conflicts, this type of struggle is often accompanied by strong internal conflict that forces the main character to confront personal issues and beliefs while fighting to survive in their physical landscape.
Examples of popular stories that feature a Character vs. Nature conflict include:
- The Martian by Andy Weir
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- Jaws by Peter Benchly
4. Character vs. Technology
In this final type of external conflict, a character must fight against some element of technology, most often motivated by the will to survive or protect others in danger.
In most Character vs. Technology stories, the struggle between the main character and the opposing technology highlights human imperfection, greed, and fragility, utilizing strong internal conflict that showcases technology’s affect on society and/or the human mind.
Examples of popular books that feature a Character vs. Technology plot line include:
- The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
- iRobot by Isaac Asimov
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (the basis for the film Blade Runner)
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (with the monster created as a result of Frankenstein's experiments)
Most stories feature a core conflict built around one specific type of external conflict, but that doesn’t mean that other types of conflict can’t appear in individual scenes or sequences throughout your book.
It’s also not uncommon for secondary characters to have their own arcs that feature a separate type of conflict. The key is to make sure that both conflicts tie together for a cohesive story.
How do we weave external conflict into our stories?
Remember, conflict is the crux of any good story. A story’s core arc can either feature an external or an internal conflict. This is what defines whether a story is plot- or character-driven, but it’s not at all uncommon for a single story to contain both types of conflict. In fact, I encourage it, as external and internal conflict provokes consequences that are inextricably tied.
We’ll talk more about why this is the case in our next article here on the blog, but let’s focus back on external arcs for now. Specifically, how do we build and weave external conflict into a strong plot for our stories?
The key lies in mapping out some of the elements we talked about earlier in our post. Begin by asking yourself these questions:
1. What does my main character want? In other words, what is their story goal?
2. Why do they want to achieve this goal? What motivates them to take action?
3. Who or what opposes my main character as they work to achieve their goal?
4. Why does the antagonist or antagonistic force oppose my main character?
5. What steps will both parties take to work toward achieving their goals? If my story features an antagonistic force rather than an antagonist, how will that force actively present problems my main character must overcome?
6. How will this ongoing conflict end? In other words, how will the climax of my story play out?
7. Which force comes out on top? Is there a clear winner that emerges from this conflict?
Once you’ve mapped out the answers to these questions, it’s easy to continue laying out your character arcs (a.k.a. internal conflicts), themes and thematic statements, and other important story elements. But more on these topics another day!