Defining Types of Conflict in Children's Books

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Defining Types of Conflict in Children’s Books

In fiction, when we talk about conflict, we are talking about the things that prevent a character from getting what he wants or what he needs. Conflict isn’t necessarily fist fights or even arguments (though they can be). Conflict is more like roadblocks or at least bumps that keep the journey of the story from being too smooth or too fast. It adds interest to the story. And it supports the theme or truth the story is trying to explore. In fact, conflict is so vitally important to telling a good tale, and married so closely to plot, that it’s worthwhile to try to break it down a little and look at how it might work out in a book.

Defining Types of Conflict in Children's Books QuoteConflict basically comes in two forms: conflict with characters, and conflict with situation. Again, keep in mind that character conflicts don’t mean violence. A character who is afraid of the dark is in conflict with himself when he needs to go down into the basement after his favorite stuffed animal tumbles down the stairs. His own fear keeps it from being a simple matter of walking down the stairs, picking up the stuffed toy, and walking back up.

A character who wants to walk by himself to school may run into all kinds of conflicts, beginning with his mom who isn’t as confident as he is. She may simply try to talk him out of it, but he ends up talking her out of her protests instead. No yelling, no fight, just a bump in the story road. So keep that in mind as we break down conflict even further and look at some examples of story conflicts in published books.

Character Conflict in Children’s Books

Character conflict can be broken into even smaller bits. Characters may be in conflict with themselves (as with our made-up example of the boy who is afraid to go downstairs and get his toy.) Or a character may be in conflict with another character (as with the child who wanted to walk to school, but had a mom who was worried about it).

Additionally, characters may be in conflict with society. For example, the character who struggles with society expectations, or considers them wrong. Such a character may follow his own moral compass even if he receives negative feedback from everyone around him. I once wrote a story about boy who was born into a family of dragon slayers. His family expected him to be a dragon slayer. His village expected him to be a dragon slayer. But he wanted to play soccer, not kill dragons. In his story, he was experiencing conflict with society.

Defining Types of Conflict in Children's Books Monster and PigeonInterestingly, picture books have added a new kind of conflict to this list, one that doesn’t appear often (if at all) in books for older children. This is character vs. the reader. That may sound strange, but think of all the picture books that break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader. One very popular example is The Monster at the End of this Book. The title would suggest the conflict will be with a monster, but instead it is a book where the main character (Grover) begs the reader constantly not to turn the page as that will bring them closer to the monster at the end of the book. Grover does all sorts of things to keep the reader from turning the pages, but the reader presses on.

Another famous character vs. reader book is Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems. Here we really have two characters who want something. The titular pigeon obviously wants to drive the bus. But there is also the narrator who is the actual bus driver. The bus driver wants the reader to tell the pigeon, “No.” The story therefore pulls the reader in to side either with the pigeon or with the narrator. The narrator leaves the story and the reader is faced with the pigeon begging and coming up with reasons why the reader should side with him.

These stories of character vs. reader are popular with kids because they give power to the reader (and young readers are constantly frustrated by their lack of power in the world). In the story, the narrator gets to play at being the adult who makes the decisions and runs the story.

More Character Conflicts

Let’s look at some more books with a character vs. self-conflict. Let’s consider Creepy Crayon by Aaron Reynolds (illustrated by Peter Brown). In this story, Jasper Rabbit isn’t doing well in school. We soon find out why. Jasper doesn’t study. He puts fun ahead of study and has the result of doing poorly on tests. So his core conflict is with himself. But then Jasper finds a mysterious purple crayon that helps with his spelling without studying! The author gives Jasper everything he ever wanted. He doesn’t need to study. He gets great grades, as long as he uses the crayon. But Jasper can’t enjoy all these things he gets that he doesn’t deserve. So he gets rid of the crayon and overcomes his bad habits. His grades aren’t quite as great, but they are his.

This story has a core conflict of character vs. self, but it also has character vs. character. After all, Jasper has to go through quite a bit of trouble to get rid of his overly helpful crayon. Even books for very young children can employ more than one type of conflict.

Defining Types of Conflict in Children's Books Carrots and PenelopeAnother book with a character vs. character conflict is Penelope Rex and the Problem with Pets by Ryan T. Higgins. In this book, Penelope gets a huge, cheerful pet who makes everything harder. The pet (Mittens) doesn’t make Penelope’s life difficult on purpose, but he does create a huge conflict. Penelope ends up very upset with her pet, but then when her pet is sent outside where there is less trouble to cause, Penelope misses her new, troublesome pet. So Penelope decides she can coexist with Mittens after all, especially when Penelope and her family learns some new skills to help her with the difficult pet.

Now, character vs. society conflict tends to come along more with older children’s books, but we can find an example with The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein. In this book, Beatrice has developed fans who are impressed by how she never makes mistakes. But we see that she also doesn’t take any risks. She’s afraid of making a mistake.

Though we don’t see society lecturing her, we do see how her adherence to the rules has brought with it positive acclaim (even if it means people don’t see her, they only see her perfection). Then she makes a mistake, and it frees her from society expectations. She loses her fans, but she gains the pleasure of being herself. Though we never see any direct insistence by people around her that she adhere to the rules, the rules of society are clearly shown to have stifled Beatrice, and she becomes more herself when she casts them off.

Character vs. Situation

In these books, people aren’t the problem. The problem comes when characters are in a situation that prevents them from doing what they need to do or getting what they need to get. Too Much Glue, a picture book by Jason Lifebvre combines two different conflicts.

Defining Types of Conflict in Children's Books Glue and BarkusFirst is a character vs. society conflict. In this book, the main character, Matty, loves playing with glue. His parents are happy to play with glue with him. But the rules at school are different and Matty’s love for glue creates catastrophic consequences, especially when his glue play falls right in the middle of a school lesson that didn’t involve any glue at all. But when the main character manages to glue himself to the desk, it changes from character vs. society to character vs. situation. Matty can’t even go home at the end of the school day if he’s stuck to a desk. His classmates try a variety of things to help, but the situation only becomes harder to overcome. But when the glue dries, Matty can be peeled from the desk and he goes home, glue and all.

Moving on to a book that’s a different format, we’ll consider the early chapter book by Patricia MacLachlan (illustrated by Marc Boutavant), Barkus. Like most early chapter books, each chapter in Barkus is its own story and has its own story problem. In the first chapter, the story is merely a meeting between the main character and Barkus.

In the second chapter, “Barkus Sneaks,” the character of Barkus isn’t ready to stay home all day, even though dogs are not allowed in school. He follows his person. Then when she reaches school, Barkus rushes in. The main character has to convince her class of Barkus’s good points (especially since he is such a big dog). The situation of having Barkus show up in the classroom creates a problem for the main character, but it is settled easily, as is normal in an early chapter book, and Barkus joins the classroom, making the main character, the other students, and the teacher happy.

In the third story, the main character wants to throw a party at school for her dog, Barkus, but it snows overnight and there is no school. So she can’t have the party at school. The snow represents a situational conflict that the main character must overcome to reach her goal of having a party for Barkus.

More Character vs. Situation

Character vs. Situation books are more common with books for older children. Most adventure stories include some element of character vs. situation. Anytime a character is lost in the woods, they are dealing with character vs. nature conflict. Refugee by Alan Gratz tells three stories of children who face extreme circumstances (including the dangers of drowning or bombing). Though character vs. nature books are a staple for children’s books, other forms of situational conflict include character vs. technology and character vs. the supernatural. 

Defining Types of Conflict in Children's Books Hide and City of EmberStories where the character must overcome supernatural conflicts are popular with readers in upper elementary and above. Characters may deal with haunted houses, creepy caves, or even monsters. Hide and Seeker, by Daka Hermon, is middle grade novel example of character vs. the supernatural. Though the supernatural isn’t the only problem the main character faces.

The supernatural element of the story comes when the main character, Justin, plays Hide and Seek with friends. The game unlocks a supernatural force that has already hurt Justin’s good friend Zee, and now targets Justin and the others as well. So the core conflict of the story is a battle against the supernatural. That is the external (or main) story conflict, though the book also deals with conflicts involving family, friends, and society. As the age of the reader increases, so too does the variety of conflicts in each book. Books for older children are usually complex with multiple conflicts the main character must face.

When the situational conflict involves technology or machines, it is often a brief or minor part of the story. For instance, the Gary Paulsen novel, Hatchet, forces the main character (Brian) into a character vs. technology problem early on when Brian’s pilot father dies and Brian has to fly a plane. In another older novel, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, the city is facing a dire problem with the technology upon which the city depends. The lights are about to go out and plunge the city into deadly darkness.

In stories where characters must overcome situations, there is usually no element of personal hostility (though that isn’t usually true of the supernatural books). If a plane is in danger of crashing, it isn’t because the plane wants to kill people. If a train derails or a flood washes a house into a river, the flood wasn’t angry. It simply existed.

What Conflict Works for You?

Whenever you have a plot, you have conflict. Something is needed to keep the story journey from being too quick, too predictable, or too easy. And any bumps in the road you choose will be conflict. It isn’t necessarily a requirement to be able to categorize all the possible conflicts you might use. However, by thinking about your options, you can bring in things that make your story even more interesting and unexpected.

So what kinds of bumps and conflicts are your characters facing?



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With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.

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