7 Types of Literary Conflict in Films

Conflict is one of the most integral parts of a story. It is a literary and film device that drives the story forward, revealing the characters’ motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. As the conflict develops characters, it improves the plot, allowing the reader or viewer to become more interested. Through it, the story’s dramatic structure is made more interesting, providing the characters with struggles that they need to face.

Conflict, whether used in books or film, is about two opposing forces. It does not just mean two people fighting, battles, or wars—it is also about a character’s psyche and internal struggle. When used correctly, it becomes a powerful storytelling tool that strengthens the events of the plot, creating tension and excitement.

On this site, we’ve covered this literary tool extensively. We have articles devoted to different styles of conflict used in filmmaking, such as Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, and Person vs. Technology. Below, we’ll talk about each type, give a background on the film’s stories, and provide links to their respective articles on the site.

We’ll also zero in on films that use this storytelling tool best—like James Cameron’s Titanic, an excellent example of Person vs. Nature, or the 80s hit The Terminator featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays a character going against a Machine.

Types of  Conflict in Films

Person vs. Person

We’ll start off with one of the most common types of literary conflict, the Person vs. Person or Character vs. Character. A story that uses this technique pits two characters—often the protagonist and the antagonist—against each other.

Some of the most common Person vs. Person conflicts involve a hero and a villain, so this type is common in superhero movies. An excellent example is Star Wars series—In Star Wars: A New Hope, it’s a conflict between protagonist Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) and antagonist Darth Vader (David Prowse). Darth Vader orders the Imperial Forces to hold Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) hostage as Luke and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) rescue her and restore freedom to the Galaxy.

There’s also The Dark Knight, where Batman faces The Joker. The film is directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Cane, and Gary Oldman. Lt. Jim Gordon (Oldman) and Harvey Dent (Eckhart) help Bruce Wayne (Bale) in keeping Gotham City crime-free, as a deranged psychopath and criminal named Joker causes destruction in the city. The Batman faces off with one of the most difficult threats yet.

This isn’t just for superhero movies, however. A comedy film we talked about in our site article also includes Mean Girls. Cady Heron, a teenager who enters public school for the first time after being raised and homeschooled in Africa, learns about the rules and cliques in her new school. She learns about the Plastics, a group led by Regina George (McAdams), the queen bee. After a conflict and betrayal, Cady and Regina enter a heated conflict involving their friends and Aaron Samuels,

To read more about movies with this type of conflict, read our article on Examples of Person vs. Person Conflict.

Person vs. Nature

A Person vs. Nature conflict involves an external struggle—the protagonist faces a natural force like a strong tornado, an exploding volcano, or a deadly storm.

In our article 10 Movies Using Person vs. Nature Conflict, we discussed James Cameron’s Titanic, considered one of the most successful films of all time, a story about the passenger liner RMS Titanic. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the film tells how the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg.

There’s also Jan De Bont’s Twister, a disaster film about storm chasers who are researching the deadly tornado. Jo Thornton (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton), lead the team that will deploy a tornado research device during an outbreak in Oklahoma.

In Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the protagonist is stuck by a boulder for five days. It’s a biographical film that shows how canyoneer Aron Ralson (James Franco) survived for more than five days of being trapped, using a camera to record his struggle.

Read more about the Person vs Nature conflict in film here.

Person vs. Society

When the story’s character is faced with a problem with society, he is usually faced with an issue that’s much bigger and more difficult to solve. A person vs. society technique is similar to the Person vs. Person conflict—while the latter focuses on one antagonist or villain, a Person vs. Society story pits the main characters against a group.

One example of a film that uses this type of conflict is V for Vendetta, an adaptation of the iconic Vertigo comic book, directed by James McTeigue and starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving. This is a dystopian political film about a man named V, an anarchist freedom fighter who revolts against a fascist, authoritarian government.

There’s also The Hunger Games, a film series based on The Hunger Games trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins. Protagonist Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, competes in a game under an oppressive society. In the first installment, Katniss joins the Hunger Games, an annual event where two “tributes” from a nation composed of 12 districts compete in fighting to the death until there is only one survivor left.

Another classic is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a psychological drama about Randle McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson), a man who convinces his fellow patients at a mental institution to rebel against Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), an intimidating, heartless nurse. The film, released in 1975, was directed by Milos Forman and based on a novel by Ken Kesey.

Learn more about this storytelling technique in our article on Movies Showing Good Examples of Person vs Society Conflict.

Person vs. Technology

This is a type of conflict where the protagonist faces a man-made invention like a machine or a robot. This is common among science fiction stories like The Terminator—a 1984 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger—which is about a cyborg assassin traveling from different points in time to kill a woman.

The Man vs Machine conflict can also be seen in The Matrix, a film by the Wachowskis and starring Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Laurence Fishburne.  It tells the story of Neo (Reeves), a computer hacker who is taken to an underworld by Trinity (Moss) where he meets Morpheus (Fishburne) and learns about a computer-generated world that controls humans. After discovering the truth, Neo joins a rebellion against the Machines.

The Mitchells vs The Machines is a sci-fi animated comedy film about a family that faces a robot apocalypse. The film is directed by Michael Rianda and stars Danny McBride, Abbi Jacobson, and Maya Rudolph. The Mitchells, an ordinary family, embark on a road trip driving a daughter to college, but they get caught in a robot uprising that they need to save the world from.

For more examples of films featuring a Person vs. Technology.

Person vs. Supernatural

This is a storytelling tool that deals with the supernatural, such as witches, vampires, gods, zombies, and ghosts. These are considered magical creatures, or those that cannot be explained or controlled by natural law.

One of the most popular films that makes use of this conflict is Ghostbusters, a supernatural comedy directed by Ivan Reitman, and starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis. It’s about scientists and parapsychologists who start a ghost-catching business and find a gateway to another dimension.

Horror films are also excellent examples—there’s the Sam Raimi classic Evil Dead, which is about demons. Unknowingly released by a group of friends vacationing in a cabin in the woods, the demons called “Deadites” are evil creatures possessed by a powerful demon. Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) is the hero-protagonist, fighting the Deadites in the feature films and a Netflix TV series.

Lastly, there’s 30 Days of Night, which started as a pitch for a comic book and was created by Steve Niles and directed by David Slade. It stars Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, and Danny Hutson. A gang of vampires attacks a quiet town in Alaska during its annual, month-long polar night in winter in which the sun will not rise for a month. Some residents left for the winter, but those who stayed, the husband-and-wife Sheriff team, faced the hungry group of vampires.

Learn more about these types of films in our article on Movies Showing Person vs Supernatural Conflict article.

Person vs. Self  (Internal Conflict)

A Person vs. Self conflict is where the character faces himself—unlike the rest of the styles we’ve discussed so far, this involves a tension that takes place from within. The protagonist faces a conflict in their own mind, struggling with their own thoughts.

This technique is used in Darren Aronofsky’s critically-acclaimed film Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel. Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer who is to play the lead role of the White Swan of Swan Lake. The film shows the pressures experienced by Nina, which became much more complicated after she meets Lily, who is set to play the role of the Black Swan. Along the way, Nina deals with the pressures on herself and experiences hallucinations, psychotic episodes, and breakdowns as she prepares for the role.

There’s also Me, Myself and Irene, a film by the Farrelly brothers. The film stars Jim Carrey, who plays the role of Charlie, a man diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, a mental health condition where the person has multiple distinct personalities. Charlie is a nice guy that is often taken advantage of by people around him. One day, however, he develops the disorder and starts dealing with a split personality named Hank, a rude and often violent persona that takes over Charlie when he’s stressed. All this occurs as both personalities fall for a woman named Irene (Renee Zellweger).

Lastly, there’s Fight Club, based on a book by Chuck Palahniuk and directed by David Fincher. The film tells the story of an unnamed character played by Ed Norton, an insomniac with an office job he hates. He meets a soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) during a business trip—after a series of events, they start Fight Club, where men fight in a bar basement.

Visit this page for a broader discussion and examples of the Person vs. Self conflict in films.

Person vs. Destiny (Luck-Fate- God)

Lastly, there’s the Person vs. Destiny conflict, where the protagonist faces factors such as luck, fate, or gods. This is similar to the Person vs. Supernatural conflict—one of their main difference, however, is this one involves a foretold event. This is usually revealed at the story’s beginning, where the protagonist learns about his fate and does something to either stop or fulfill it.

In our article on 10 Movies Showing Person vs. Destiny Conflict, we talked about the 1994 film Only You, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Marissa Tomei. The destiny conflict here is about Faith (Tomei), who in her teens believed that she was going to be with a man named Damon Bradley. Still believing in her fate after over a decade, she makes arrangements to meet Damon.

We also talked about Slumdog Millionaire, the critically-acclaimed film by Danny Boyle. The 2008 film stars Dev Patel, who plays Jamal, and an Indian Muslim teenager who joins the Hindi adaptation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal is one question away from winning 20 million prize money. The film explores his flashbacks that lead to his ability to answer the game show’s questions. The events center on Latika, a girl he met when he was young and who he believes is the person who kept him motivated. He thinks that it is her that made him believe in his destiny.

A William Shakespeare classic, the story of Romeo and Juliet is one of the best examples of a Person vs. Fate conflict. The story has been adapted to different films, and one of the popular ones is the Baz Luhrmann version, titled Romeo + Juliet. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, the film retells the romantic tragedy about the star-crossed lovers and victims of fate with forbidden love because of their feuding families.

See more films about this type of conflict in our article on  Movies Showing Person vs. Destiny Conflict (Luck-Fate-God).