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What Is a Literary Conflict?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 23, 2024
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A literary conflict is the core feature around which most fiction stories revolve, whether in novels, short stories, or other formats. It involves different points of view between characters in the story, or can also involve conflicts between characters and their environment, between forms of technology, conflicting views on reality, and more. These different points of view can be violently expressed in the story, but it is just as likely that they are ideological, and a way of defining for what the characters live. Literature uses literary conflict to give stories a sense of immediacy and excitement that they wouldn't otherwise have.

Unlike everyday life where most people go out of their way to avoid conflict, in the language of literature, it is an essential component that makes a story worth reading. This is because the use of literary conflict has a shorthand affect of displaying the characters and environment more sharply than ordinary events would. As the plot of the story and the intentions of the characters are revealed, literary conflict gives the reader an understanding of the motivations behind the narrative, dialogue, and action taking place. The reader gains a sense of what side he or she would stand in support as the conflict reveals the true nature of what is taking place.

Characters like the famous Sherlock Holmes detective, created by the English novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were defined by the conflicts that they faced on a routine basis. Not only was Holmes constantly facing off against ruthless criminals, but chief among them was his intellectual equal in the criminal mastermind of Moriarty. Moriarty's actions defined Holmes' as an archetype hero fighting for the rule of law in civilized society. Moriarty represented, through his vast criminal enterprise and ruthless desire to quickly put Holmes to rest, the more barbaric side of human nature.

Polarizing literary conflict between main characters in a story is an obvious example of the use of the literary device. Conflict between human beings is by no means the dominant method used by authors, however. The history of storytelling portrays a wide variety of literary conflict, from humanity's struggle against the gods in Greek and Roman times by characters, such as Hercules, to struggles against faceless political systems that arbitrarily define reality, as in George Orwell's famous novel, 1984.

The range of use for literary conflict can be quite surprising. Aside from characters acting against each other, nature, or vaguely defined political organizations, they can also be in direct conflict against themselves and the fears hidden within their own minds. One of the most prominent examples of this is Ebeneezer Scrooge, of 19th century English writer Charles Dickens' story, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge struggled against ghosts who clearly portrayed to him his greedy, self-centered life in exquisite detail. Dickens may have written the story with the intent for it to be a morality tale on living a compassionate, meaningful life instead of as a portrayal of actual visitation by spiritual entities. Several prominent misers of Dickens' day seem to have been used as character outlines for the description of Scrooge.

The subject of literary conflict can involve anything from elaborate tales about reanimated corpses such as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to a great white whale in Melville's Moby Dick, or the everyday challenge of kicking a football for Charlie Brown in Charles's Schultz's famous comic strip Peanuts. It can involve such common human traits as age, gender, or economic status, or struggles between human beings and machines, aliens, or magical creatures as is often featured in science fiction and fantasy novels. Literary conflict is important because it defines the uniqueness of characters and reveals their inner thinking. It reveals why they put their lives on the line for motivations that may otherwise appear on the surface to be foolish. Getting an intimate glimpse inside the motivations of a character by the use of literary conflict makes it possible to establish a profound connection and sympathy for the character, which, in the end, can transform a reader's life as well.

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