Writing

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

Written by MasterClass

May 14, 2019 • 3 min read

Character vs. technology conflict is the hallmark of science fiction, which often explores the problems that arise when technology grows beyond its intended use. At its best, character vs. technology conflict raises poignant questions for the characters and readers alike about what it means to be human, and what sets us apart from machines.

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What Is a Character vs. Technology Conflict?

In character vs. technology conflict, a character is in conflict with some kind of technology. Think of the tale of John Henry, the African American folk hero. In American folklore, Henry was a former slave who worked as a steel-driver on the rail line. To prove his superiority over new technology, he raced a steam-powered rock drilling machine and won. However, he suffered a heart attack after winning the race.

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. Technology Conflict in Literature

A common trope in science fiction is when humans develop technology that is intended to be benevolent, but it becomes sentient and outsmarts or rebels against humanity. Here are some popular examples of character vs. technology conflict in literature and film:

  • Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic example of the character versus technology genre. In this much-studied novel, Dr. Frankenstein brings a being to life by sewing together body parts from a graveyard. Despite having good intentions, the monster he creates frightens all he encounters and comes after Dr. Frankenstein, blaming the doctor for his miserable existence.
  • The Giver. This novel by Lois Lowry takes place in a dystopian society where everyone’s major life decisions are determined by a council of Elders. The Giver holds the society’s memories, and passes them on the main character Jonas. This is a type of technology that Jonas struggles with. He has both an internal struggle, and an external struggle.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey. This classic Stanley Kubrick film tells the story of a group of astronauts on a mission to Jupiter, accompanied by the computer HAL 9000, which they refer to as Hal. Hal has a human personality and claims to be incapable of error or miscalculation. When Hal incorrectly reports a failed circuit to the crew, however, they start to wonder whether they should unplug him. Hal’s behavior turns malignant, and he begins to cut off the oxygen supply to crew members. Finally, the crew is able to turn him off and destroy him. The film, made in the sixties, explores humanity’s relationship to artificial intelligence.
  • The Terminator. The original eighties blockbuster that kicked off the Terminator franchise was a classic character vs. technology story. The Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a cyborg assassin sent from the future to kill a human soldier. The Terminator has been sent by Skynet, an artificial intelligence defense network that has achieved self-awareness. The human soldier must kill the Terminator to prevent a future war between man and machine. Like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, humanity struggles to define what makes them human in the face of a technological threat.
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This enduring science fiction novel (which is the basis for the film Blade Runner) by Philip K. Dick explores a world in which androids have become so advanced that they are nearly indistinguishable from humans. The novel explores not just humanity’s relationship with technology, but also the internal struggles we face to define what it is that makes us human.

How to Develop Character vs. Technology Conflict in 4 Steps

Developing immersive, believable character vs. technology requires a thoughtful writing process. Follow the four steps below as you shape your conflict.

  • Outline the premise of the technology that will drive the conflict. What purpose is it designed for initially? How does it fit into the lives of your characters? How does it turn bad? Will humans be able to regain control?
  • Research. Once you determine what kind of technology will cause the conflict in your story, educate yourself about the technology of that nature that currently exists, and technologies that are in development.
  • Build the world. Does your conflict occur in a seemingly normal world? Or is the world already a technological dystopia?
  • Ask existential questions. Conflict with technology often forces humans to examine what it means to be human—what facets of human consciousness and life cannot be replaced by technology. This existential crisis may also provoke an internal conflict in the characters—what aspects of life have they taken for granted? What impulse got them into this conflict with technology in the first place?