Writing

What Is Character vs. Supernatural Conflict? Learn About The Literary Conflict with Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 9, 2019 • 3 min read

Pitting characters against phenomena like ghosts, or monsters raises the stakes of a conflict by creating an unequal playing field. Supernatural conflict is usually reserved for genre writing, however these otherworldly characters are also memorable foils in literary fiction.

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What Is a Character vs. Supernatural Conflict?

A character vs. supernatural conflict occurs when a character faces resistance from a supernatural force, such as fate, magical forces, otherworldly beings, religion, or dieties. (Though bear in mind that character vs. God can be its own type of conflict—when God is a prevailing force that shapes a character’s journey, forcing him or her to reckon with personally held religious beliefs.)

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

Examples of Character vs. Supernatural Conflict in Literature

Here are some popular examples of a character vs. supernatural conflict. Even when they feature magic and supernatural elements, many stories with this type of conflict still center on highly realistic human struggles with personal beliefs.

  • In the Harry Potter series, the supernatural takes the form of wizardry. Harry battles Lord Voldemort with wits and magical powers in a classic good vs. evil story. Harry also battles with his own relationship to magic. This is a combination of two literary conflicts: character vs. supernatural, and character vs. self. The combination of these two types of conflict is common in literature: characters who struggle with fate, religion, or the supernatural are likely to also wrestle with the confines of being human in the face of the supernatural.
  • In Moby Dick, the character Ishmael joins a whaling voyage aboard a ship named the Pequod, whose obsessive captain, Captain Ahab, is on the hunt for Moby Dick in a quest to fulfill his ultimate fate.
  • In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the main character Billy Pilgrim struggles with his relationship to fate, Christianity, and free will. The book is a 1969 anti-war tale with science fiction elements, which Vonnegut uses to explore man’s relationship to fate.
  • In Robinson Crusoe, the eighteenth-century English novel by Daniel Defoe, the titular main character faces a crisis of religion when he finds himself shipwrecked and fighting for his survival. Crusoe becomes religious while reading the Bible in his improvised shelter.

3 Tips for Writing a Character vs. Supernatural Conflict in Writing

  1. Determine if it’s internal or external conflict. Is your character going to clash with a supernatural villain? That's an external conflict. Is your character going to have an internal struggle about their relationship with God, fate, or free will? That's an internal conflict, and you'll need to spend more time exploring your character's inner turmoil. (Learn more about the difference between internal and external conflict in our complete guide here.)
  2. Decide if your character has agency against the story’s supernatural force. A common trope in character vs. supernatural conflict is that a character is often grappling with the fact that their destiny is sealed by fate, and there is nothing they can do to change it. Will your character have the power to shape the outcome of the story, or have is the outcome predetermined? Let that guide your story development and use of literary devices like foreshadowing.
  3. Set the rules for the the supernatural elements in your story. Are they characters—like ghosts, monsters, or supernaturally-charged villains—or are they forces, like fate? What are their powers? What human rules do they abide by, and what human rules do they break? What is the unique set of rules that govern them? (Even supernatural forces have to be governed by some presiding rule or principle.) Neil Gaiman elaborates on this concept below.

Learn more about developing supernatural conflict in your writing from Neil Gaiman in his MasterClass on storytelling.