Writing AdviceWriting, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Decoding the Six Conflicts in Literature (With Examples)

Conflict is part of the narrative arc and does much to connect readers to a story or a story's characters. It involves problems or obstacles that arise within a story—both internal (or in a character's mind) and external (caused by other characters or forces). Since all readers are familiar with conflict in their own lives, it helps to deepen engagement with a story or character and provide deeper meaning to the story.

While there is some disagreement about how many types of conflict are evident in literature, the most commonly accepted number is six different types. These include: Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Technology, and Man vs. Fate (or the Supernatural.) It's important to point out that in these literary terms, "Man" insinuates "Human," so it isn't limited to the male gender.

Man vs. Self

Man vs. Self is the only example of internal conflict you'll see in literary works and involves a character experiencing conflict within his or her own mind. Hamlet is probably the most well-known literary character experiencing Man vs. Self conflict throughout much of the famous Shakespearian play. A good example of how Shakespeare uses this conflict for character building are the following lines:

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; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life.


Man vs. Self conflict is most often seen when a character faces mixed emotions over his or her actions, or a decision that has to be made/has been made. You can also see this conflict evident when a character is facing mental illness or is unable to forgive himself or herself over past actions.

Man vs. Man

Man vs. Man is commonly seen in literature and modern storytelling and is a type of external conflict. This conflict will most often play out between a protagonist and his or her antagonist, although it can also appear between friends or acquaintances, as well.

A famous example from literature of Man vs. Man conflict is in the opening paragraph of The Cask of Amontillado, a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe.

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

The Cask of Amontillado

In these opening lines, the narrator, Montresor, establishes his conflict with another man named Fortunato. This story also involves internal conflict (Montresor is what is known as an unreliable narrator, and the reader isn't quite sure how much of Montresor's claims they can trust).

Man vs. Society

This type of conflict is often seen in Science Fiction and is an external conflict that involves a protagonist at odds with a ruling body (which could be one's family), or social or cultural norms. For example, if the protagonist is fighting his or her government, or is accused of a crime he or she didn't commit, these would be examples of Man vs. Society as conflict. If a protagonist is going against the grain of what his or her society and people expect, this is also an example of Man vs. Society conflict.

An example of Man vs. Society conflict can be seen in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character, Hester Prynne, is shunned by her people, the Puritans, for having a baby with a man who was not her husband (who has been lost at sea). Below is a quote that summarizes this struggle:

No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

The Scarlet Letter

Man vs. Nature

If you've read a story or seen a movie where the main character must face some sort of storm or event that happens as a force of nature (such as an animal attack), you've seen the Man vs. Nature conflict in action. Natural disasters like tornadoes or a character who is lost at sea and trying to find land are examples of this conflict, as well. In these stories, the concept of human survival despite the forces of nature is highlighted and in many cases, you'll also find the internal conflict of Man vs. Self playing out simultaneously. A large reason for this is that nature can be significantly more powerful than humanity, so there is much self-doubt and struggle as the protagonist comes to terms with this fact.

A great example of the Man vs. Nature conflict from literature is Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

The Old Man and the Sea

Man vs. Technology

Another popular conflict seen in Science Fiction is Man vs. Technology, which is when a protagonist is facing machines or technology (such as mechanical failure or robots) and must prevail against it. In many cases, you'll see elements of Man vs. Society conflict happening within these same stories, as the technology is often used to enforce or maintain social and cultural norms.

A great example from literature of the Man vs. Technology conflict is Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a book which inspired the cult hit movie, Blade Runner. Here's a quote from it:

'Do you have information that there's an android in the cast? I'd be glad to help you, and if I were an android would I be glad to help you?' 'An android,' he said, 'doesn't care what happens to another android. That's one of the indications we look for.' 'Then,' Miss Luft said, 'you must be an android.'

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Man vs. Fate or the Supernatural

You'll find Man vs. Fate conflict often throughout ancient literature, particularly Greek myth and Arthurian lore. You'll even see it a lot in Shakespearean plays. Man vs. Fate or Man vs. the Supernatural is a conflict that occurs when the protagonist finds himself or herself pitted against a vengeful god or powerful supernatural force. As with other types of conflict, particularly Man vs. Nature, you'll often see this one combined with the Man vs. Self struggle. This is because the protagonist must come to terms with his or her own humanity and limitations when involved in a Man vs. Fate conflict.

A perfect example of this conflict from literature would be Homer's The Odyssey, in which Odysseus, on his way home from the Trojan War, encounters a range of supernatural forces and beings attempting to stall him. Here's a good quote:

Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone they say come all their miseries yes but they themselves with their own reckless ways compound their pains beyond their proper share.

The Odyssey
Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.