Monday, October 12, 2015

Writing Basics: Types of External Conflict

Following up on my post from yesterday featuring the awesome conflict infographic* by Grant Snider, below are the various types of external conflict explained (look out for a later post on internal conflict, i.e. "man vs. self").

*Okay, okay. It is more of a comic than an infographic, but the term still applies.

Snider breaks the types of conflict into three literary movements: Classical, Modern, and Postmodern. I am going to be relying on two sources for the discussion of these three movements: the University of Idaho's Engl 258 lecture notes and Dr. L. Kip Wheeler's webpage at Carson-Newman University.

Conflicts in Classical Literature

Classical literature is that which is seen by scholars as having "outstanding or enduring qualities" (Wheeler). However, the distinction given to the term varies slightly depending on the type of scholar you are reading and the originating country of the author. For example, both England and America are relatively young countries, and the literary community sees texts like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as "classic." The classification of a classic in older countries/cultures like Greek and Hebrew refer to ancient texts, e.g. Homer's The Odyssey.

Snider references three types of external conflict in Classic Literature: Man v. Nature, Man v. Man, and Man v. God.

Man v. Nature

This type of conflict is characterized by Man's struggle against nature. In other words, nature is the primary force pushing against Man's actions and halting Man's progress.

Example from literature is Homer's The Odyssey:
As Odysseus returns home from the Trojan War, a variety of natural calamities thwart his journey: a storm at sea sets Odysseus's ship off course; a whirlpool drowns Odysseus's men; a bag of wind later blows him off course. (Bear in mind that, because all of these events were orchestrated by the gods, Odysseus's journey could also be seen as Man v. God.)
Man v. Man
This type of conflict involves Man's struggle against another man (or woman). We often see this type of conflict manifest itself in a "hero v. villain" manner.

Example from literature is Poe's The Cask of Amontillado:
During Carnivale in Italy, Montresor lures his enemy, Fortunato, into the catacombs on the promise of sampling a rare cask of wine. Once underground, Montresor shackles Fortunato within a recess in the wall and buries him alive.
Man v. God

This type of conflict features a struggle between Man and a deity or supernatural force of some sort, i.e. gods and goddesses, aliens, demons, etc.

Example from literature is Homer's The Odyssey:
The whirlpool that kills Odysseus's men and stalls his journey was sent by the sea god Poseidon.
Conflicts in Modern Texts

Also referred to as "neo-classical" or "enlightenment humanism," modernism and modernistic literature is that which claims science and reason are the objective, accurate, reliable foundation of true knowledge (University of Idaho).

Of the three types of conflict Snider references as "Modern," two are external: Man v. Society and Man v. No God.

Man v. Society

This type of conflict exists when Man is struggling against the parameters and restrictions of a given society. You can consider a lot of dystopian fiction to have this type of conflict.

Example is Lowry's The Giver:
Jonas and other members at his level of society are completely controlled by the rules and regulations of society at large, e.g. take medications to control behavior; who wears what clothing; what job someone can have; etc.
Man v. No God

This type of conflict is characterized by Man's lack of connection with the divine. Often, you can clearly identify this type of conflict because the character afflicted by it is very verbal about the absence of divinity. This type of conflict can also be seen as a struggle with faith.

Example is Wiesel's Night:
Eliezer goes from being an absolute believer in God to a doubter because of his experiences during the Holocaust and his belief that God has abandoned him. The entirety of the novel focuses on Eliezer's conflicted feelings about the presence and nature of God.
Conflicts in Postmodern Texts

Postmodern texts are defined by the notion that reason and science are simply myths created by mankind. Postmodernists also see reason and science as ideological in the Marxist sense (University of Idaho).

Snider mentions three types of external conflict in Postmodern Literature: Man* v. Technology, Man v. Reality, and Man v. Author.
*The postmodern movement also emphasizes that the concepts of male/female
and masculine/feminine are ideological societal constructs, 
preferring to use the term "person" instead of "man."
In relation to this discussion of types of conflict, I am going to supersede
the postmodern semantic distinction of "person" with "man."
Man v. Technology

This type of conflict involves the struggle of Man with his technological creations. We often see this type of conflict in the form of AI technology wanting to supplant mankind in the global power hierarchy. In whatever form it manifests, this type of conflict will focus on humans battling (in some sense of the word) some aspect of technology.

Example is Wachowski's The Matrix:
Neo Anderson is a computer hacker who realizes everything he knows and has ever experienced is a virtual construction by the Matrix, a sophisticated and evolved computer "species" that is using human bodies as "batteries" to power itself.
Man v. Reality

This type of conflict is characterized by Man's struggle with the concept of what is "real." Much like the above example of The Matrix, the Man v. Reality conflict focuses on Man's journey to discover what is "real" and how to manipulate that reality.

Example is Sternbergh's Near Enemy (read my review of it here):
Spademan is an ex-junkie who must solve a murder mystery or risk allowing a third Islamic Extremist terror strike on New York City. Spademan must seek clues in the limnosphere, a virtual reality "dreamland" where sleepers can become who- or whatever they want. The catch is that being injured in the limnosphere can mentally damage sleepers in the waking world.
Man v. Author

This type of conflict is exceptional in that it gives Man the opportunity to interact with his literal creator, the Author. This conflict manifests itself in the characters' desire to chose their own destiny by thwarting the creation attempts of the author.

Example is Plascencia's The People of Paper:
Narrated by over a dozen characters, this book focuses on the characters' declaration of war on the planet Saturn, which turns out to be the author Plascencia. One of the characters' many war tactics is filling the book page with giant blocks of ink to prevent the author and readers alike from viewing their private lives.
Another example of the Man v. Author conflict is the film Stranger than Fiction. Watch the trailer below.

It is important to note here that many of these external conflicts can also be seen as themes within their respective texts. Keep that in mind if you are using any of these conflicts as a basis for writing your own stories.

Which of these types of conflict do you prefer to read?
Do you have a preferred conflict you like to feature in your own writing?


Han Hills said...

Terrific, and highly thought provoking, summary.
One can only wonder about the conflict paradigms that will appear as culture moves ever forward from today.
Thank you so much for writing!

Majesta Miles said...

Glad you enjoyed it!