What Is Character vs. Character Conflict? Learn About the Literary Conflict with Examples, Plus Create a Character vs. Character Conflict in 4 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Jun 26, 2019 • 3 min read

In literature, a character vs. character conflict, also known as man vs. man conflict, involves two characters struggling against each other. The conflict can manifest in different ways, from a physical altercation to irreconcilable differences in morals or beliefs.


What Is a Character vs. Character Conflict?

In a character vs. character conflict, two characters have motivations, desires, needs, or beliefs that place them in opposition with each other. This type of literary conflict places characters in a situation where these motivations and beliefs are tested. While the conflict may be resolved with one character defeating another, it can also be resolved through persuasion or conversion.

A character vs. character conflict is an external conflict (rather than an internal one), meaning that characters face resistance from a force outside themselves.

What Are the 6 Types of Literary Conflicts?

There are six main types of literary conflicts, each serving a different purpose in a story:

  • Character vs. Self
  • Character vs. Character
  • Character vs. Nature
  • Character vs. Supernatural
  • Character vs. Technology
  • Character vs. Society

Learn more about the six types of conflict in our complete guide here.

3 Examples of Character vs. Character Conflict in Literature

The character vs. character conflict can be found in many literary genres, from ancient Greek literature to classic novels like Moby Dick. Here are three examples from well-known texts:

  1. Othello. In Shakespeare’s play, Othello is in conflict with his confidant, Iago. Iago believes that Othello is after his wife, a conflict that only deepens when Othello promotes another man over Iago. Slowly, Iago begins to take measures to destroy Othello.
  2. The Old Man and the Sea. In this classic Hemingway tale, the fisherman Santiago is having a streak of bad luck. He is so unlucky that his apprentice, Manolin, is forbidden by his parents to go fishing with Santiago. Although Santiago wants his apprentice to go fishing with him each day, Manolin needs to learn to fish from someone who is more successful.
  3. Robinson Crusoe. When the book’s titular character is marooned on an island after a shipwreck, he encounters the island’s locals, who are cannibals. Crusoe first wants to kill them but decides against it; his reasoning is that the cannibals don’t think that what they’re doing is wrong. In confronting a group of people with wildly different values and views from his own, Crusoe faces the ultimate character vs. character conflict.

How to Write a Character vs. Character Conflict in 4 Steps

A character vs. character conflict can provide tension in a story. This type of conflict can also be used to highlight or expose certain characters’ strengths, weaknesses, and deeply held beliefs. Use the following tips when creating a character vs. character conflict in your writing:

  1. Decide which two characters will be in conflict. Flesh out their desires, motivations, and the source of their conflict. Think about their lives and their histories. Write a detailed backstory for each character, and include factors like family, what they have lost in life, how they have been hurt, and what their most cherished memories are. This may seem like a lot of detail and it may not even come up in the story itself, but these characters’ full backgrounds will help you create a richer and more realistic conflict.
  2. Next, decide how your plot will lead these two characters into conflict. If your characters don’t know each other yet, create a scene in which they come together. If they already know each other well, think of how your story can bring the topic of their conflict to the forefront. Maybe one is keeping a secret from the other, for example, and the conflict will begin once the secret is revealed.
  3. Make your conflict matter. If your characters are arguing over ice cream flavors, it will be hard for the reader to get invested. Giving the conflict real stakes is what keeps readers interested and also allows you to create greater insight into your characters. You can continually escalate the stakes of the conflict throughout the story to create more tension before your final resolution.
  4. Consider combining your character vs. character conflict with other types of literary conflicts. Other types of external conflict can place your characters in conflict with nature, society, technology, or the supernatural. Perhaps you want to include a subplot in which your characters are in conflict with an external force; alternatively, you can also give your characters an internal conflict, in which they are struggling with their own beliefs or values.

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