Conflict Definition

In literature, conflict is a literary element that involves a struggle between two opposing forces, usually a protagonist and an antagonist.

Internal Conflict

  1. Mind Vs. Body: One type of internal conflict that occurs in stories is mind versus body. It occurs when the protagonist or the main character fights against his bodily addiction such as in the case of some drug addict. Some may fight against the religious belief that has proved wrong or against political dogmas such as in Animal Farm.
  2. Mind Vs. Mind: The second internal conflict is mind versus mind which is the mental thinking conflict. It occurs when a person has desires but he also has to fulfill his responsibilities. He has to perform his duty as well as do his responsibility or commit suicide and die or struggle for his survival. This is called mind versus mind conflict as it happens in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  • Mind Vs. Reality: Some literary works present worlds that do not match with reality such as the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale created by Margret Atwood, the world of magical realism created by Garcia Marquez, or the world created by the superiority complex or right versus just people. This is called mind versus reality conflict.

External Conflict

  1. Conflict With Nature: It happens when a man comes into conflict with nature. It happens in Hardy’s novels as his protagonist comes into conflict with nature and loses such. Another example is Santiago of Hemingway in the Old Man and the Sea.
  2. Conflict With Another Person: This conflict happens with the thinking and subsequent actions of the people that do not match and create a conflict between them. Happens in Tess of D’Urberville by Thomas Hardy that she has a conflict with Alec and then with Angel.
  3. Conflict With Society: It happens with the main protagonist comes into conflict with the social setup, norms, traditions, and conventions. It happens in Tess of D’Urberville of Thomas Hardy that she breaks the social norms of those times.

Core Conflict

As a novel or a play has several characters, events, and situations, there are numerous conflicts at play. They also move side by side and keep the readers and audiences engaged. However, there is only one principal character or protagonist who comes into conflict with the outside world, society, or nature and creates maximum tension and suspense. This is called the core conflict whose resolution is central to the world of literary piece such as Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.

Character Conflict

This conflict occurs only due to the characters and their interactions. When one character does not find it easy to sync his interests with that of the others and faces obstacles, this creates a conflict between the characters. This is called character conflict. It happens in The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini.

Conflict and Plot

Conflict is one of the most important elements of the plot. As the plot is the larger world, conflict is its critical part. If there is no conflict, it means the plot has lost a critical component and may not have a good storyline. Missing conflict means missing the resolution. So, the readers would not be able to hold any interest in the plot or storyline having no conflict.

Elements of Conflict

  1. Misunderstandings: Conflict occurs due to misunderstanding between two parties or characters or man and nature, man and another person, or even man and society.
  2. Differences in Values and Beliefs: This entails both external as well as internal conflicts within a person or even between different persons. However, the major issues occur over values and beliefs.
  3. Differences in Interest: This occurs due to different interests and clashes between those interests. The characters come into conflict due to this clash.
  4. Interpersonal Differences: Interpersonal differences also cause a conflict between characters.
  5. Feelings and Emotions: This conflict occurs due to the differences between the feelings and emotions of different characters.

Function of External Conflict in Literature

The external conflict is mostly written as an outside narrative and has nothing to do with the internal conflict. It is relations of the characters that seriously impact the entire situation in the narrative. It acts as the foreign agent that impacts the protagonists, their thinking, their relations, and ultimately the results of their efforts. In case it comes into collusion with the antagonists, it hinders the efforts of the protagonists to come out of the existing conflicts or adverse situations.

Difference Between Conflict and Tension in Literature

Conflict is a serious tense situation between characters due to some dispute, squabble, or controversy. However, tension does not simply mean that it is due to some dispute. It is just an impending sense of something ominous that is about to happen but may not happen even until the end. It could be the fear of divorce, the sense of disclosure or some secret that may cause a rift among the characters, or even the discovery of something that continue to haunt the characters.

What does Conflict Mean in a Story?

Conflict in a story means that the characters are interacting with each other and one another and that they have good or bad relations to build their lives on. The existence of a conflict in the story means the progress of the story. It takes the story to the next level as it prompts the characters to do something and not sit idle. Therefore, conflict is as important in the story as characters, situations, and settings.

What is the Central Conflict or Core Conflict?

A story or a narrative could have several conflicts in case there are several characters or events. However, there is the main conflict that runs throughout the story until the end. This is called the central conflict or the core conflict upon which the success of the story hinges. Besides this conflict, there could be several small or minor conflicts going on between secondary characters, foils, or minor characters.

Examples of Conflict in Literature

Example #1: Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Hamlet’s internal conflict is the main driver in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.”  It decides his tragic downfall. He reveals his state of mind in the following lines from Act 3, Scene 1 of the play:

“To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep…”

The conflict here is that Hamlet wants to kill his father’s murderer, Claudius, but he also looks for proof to justify his action. This ultimately ruins his life and the lives of his loved ones. Due to his internal conflict, Hamlet spoils his relationship with his mother and sends Ophelia (Hamlet’s love interest) into such a state of despair that she commits suicide.

Hamlet’s indecisiveness almost got everyone killed at the end of the play. The resolution came when he killed Claudius by assuming fake madness so that he would not be asked for any justification. In the same play, we find Hamlet engaged in an external conflict with his uncle Claudius.

Example #2: Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Another example of an internal conflict is found in the character of Doctor Faustus in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Faustus has an ambitious nature. In spite of being a respected scholar, he sold his soul to Lucifer by signing a contract with his blood, in order to achieve ultimate power and limitless pleasure in this world. He learns the art of black magic and defies Christianity.

After the aforementioned action, we see Faustus suffering from an internal conflict where he thinks honestly about repenting, acting upon the advice of “the good angel,” but “the bad angel” or the evil inside him distracts him by saying it is all too late. In conclusion, the resolution comes when devils take his soul away to Hell, and he suffers eternal damnation because of his over-ambition.

Example #3: The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The most straightforward type of external conflict is when a character in a story struggles against another character physically. In William Golding’s novel The Lord of the Flies, for example, Ralph (the leader of the “good guys”) steadily comes into conflict with Jack – a bully who later forms a “tribe” of hunters. Jack and his tribe give in to their savage instinct and make attempts to hunt or kill the civilized batch of boys led by Ralph.

Example #4: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Another kind of external conflict sets a character against the evil that dominates society. In this case, a character may confront a dominant group with opposing priorities. For instance, in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, an honest lawyer, Atticus Finch, goes up against the racist society in which he lives. Atticus has the courage to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused of rape. Though Atticus has the support of a few like-minded people, most of the townspeople express their disapproval of his defense of a black man.

Function of Conflict

Both internal and external conflicts are essential elements of a storyline. It is essential for a writer to introduce and develop them, whether internal, external, or both, in his storyline in order to achieve the story’s goal. Resolution of the conflict entertains the readers.

Synonyms of Conflict

Conflict has its own specifics and is used as a common word. Some of the words close in meaning are dispute, quarrel, squabble, disagreement, dissension, discord, friction, strife, antagonism, antipathy, ill will, bad blood, tussle, exchange, wrangle, affray, fracas, feud, and schism.

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