Conflict is key to writing great stories. And while writers may categorize conflict differently, I categorize conflict into eight types:
Person vs. Self
Person vs. Person
Person vs. Nature
Person vs. Society
Person vs. God
Person vs. Fate
Person vs. the Supernatural
Person vs. Technology
In today’s modern times, the Person vs. God conflict often gets left off lists or is combined with or even replaced by the Person vs. Fate conflict. But because fate conflicts don’t necessarily have gods, and god conflicts don’t necessarily include fate, I put them in separate categories.
Out of all the conflict types, Person vs. Fate is often the most misunderstood.
Many of us were introduced to the concept of person vs. fate through classic tragedies where the protagonist was foretold a future that led him to a dreadful end (like in Oedipus Rex or Macbeth). This has led some to proclaim that the person vs. fate conflict is unpopular or even outdated, and has also led some writers to shortchange this conflict type (if they even give it much thought). In reality, a fate conflict happens whenever a character is struggling with a destiny–something is predetermined or foreordained, and the character somehow opposes that. What is foretold need not always be tragic or lead to a dreadful end. Arguably, it need not always even be otherworldly.
In fantasy, fate often comes from a prophecy. In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, Harry struggles with the prophecy that neither he nor Voldemort can really live while the other survives. In horror, this may be a kind of curse. In Final Destination, the characters are trying to cheat their deaths–they are fated to die. It can even play into the concept of the universe having an order or law that must be upheld or fulfilled. In The Lion King, Simba must embrace his destiny as the one true king to bring order to the Circle of Life. And if we broaden the concept a little more, we can find foretold fates in the normal world; in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel is fated to die from terminal cancer.
Person vs. fate conflicts are very effective because they get the audience to anticipate a future outcome, which is exactly how we hook and reel the audience in. Readers will want to keep reading to see if what is expected to happen actually does happen, and they will want to know how it happens. So the person vs. fate conflict has some innate strengths.
Many fate conflicts are rendered as teasers. Some characters have premonitions in dreams or visions that only reveal a snippet of fate. Prophecies are often worded in ambiguous or metaphorical ways, giving rise to multiple interpretations. Teasers don’t tell readers specifics, but they promise that the specifics will come if the reader keeps reading. So, the reader keeps reading. This also introduces a sense of mystery. Some fate conflicts work as a riddle that the audience gets to participate in, which pulls them even deeper into the narrative.
Usually person vs. fate conflicts explore free will within strict limitations. While some writers choose to ultimately emphasize a lack of free will, others choose to emphasize the power of free will. In Oedipus Rex characters try to change fate and end up bringing it about. In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, Harry eventually realizes he has a choice to accept his role or not, and chooses to rise to the occasion. Characters destined to die, may have a moment where they decide how they will face that death.
How the character chooses to deal with the fate is often just as (if not more) interesting than the fate itself. The character may openly fight against fate like Oedipus Rex, or the character may have more of a personal struggle with accepting the fate and its costs, like Simba. The audience may be invited to consider whether it’s worth the cost. In Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus sells his soul to the devil to gain all knowledge. Was gaining all knowledge worth a fate in hell?
We often think of fate conflicts coming from some force beyond the character’s power, but sometimes it’s interesting when the character makes a choice that leads to an inevitable fate, such as Dr. Faustus, or even Jack Sparrow, who makes a deal with Davy Jones in exchange for the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Fate conflicts traditionally come from the supernatural: prophecies, premonitions, curses, fortunes and predictions, a universal law, magical debts, or the will of otherworldly entities. But the concept can be broadened to include real-world fates: terminal illness, death row and other court sentences, forced marriage, being made a scapegoat, or forced labor. Admittedly, some conflict types can overlap with others, but looking at conflicts from a fate angle may open up your stories to new possibilities.
A few more examples of fate conflicts:
- Curses, like in The Ring, where a video is promised to kill the viewer in seven days.
- Deals, like in Pirates of the Caribbean, where Jack is in debt to Davy Jones and must join The Flying Dutchman or be taken by the Kraken
- Fortunes and predictions, like in The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, where Blue is told that if she kisses her true love, he will die
- Supernatural entities, like in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, where a ghost tells Scrooge of his coming death
What have you noticed about fate conflicts? Have you ever written, or do you plan to write about a fate conflict? What do you like about them?
Note from Angela:
This seems like an excellent time to mention our thesaurus guides that tackle all forms of conflict, from the central ones that September mentions here, all the way down to scene-level, inner, and micro conflict.
The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & 2) will ensure you have plenty of fresh ideas on how to plot, create complications, and cause your characters to struggle. Find out more.
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Her blog won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award, Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award and has over 500 writing tips. She offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.