It’s not that hard to get your head around the concept of an external conflict. The war scenes depicted in War and Peace or the shouting matches between husbands and wives in Anna Karenina? Those are external conflicts. The primary difference between internal and external conflict, from a writer’s point of view? Internal conflict can be a lot harder to write well.
But what is internal conflict in literature? Let’s prime the pump with an example not from books at all, but from the movies.
Internal conflicts in movies
OK, big time, massive, huge spoiler alert: if you still don’t know the wildest silver screen reveal from the year 1980, that “Oh my god!” moment near the end of sci-fi space masterpiece The Empire Strikes Back, then skip down a few paragraphs.
Alright, you’ve been warned. The reveal is this: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father! However, the crux of the matter here does not come until the end of the next movie in the vaunted Star Wars franchise, The Return of the Jedi.
In the dramatic final scene of Jedi, we see the Empire’s Darth Vader torn between saving his son Luke or the Emperor, Vader’s lord and master. The actor physically portraying Vader, David Prowse, did so in a mask that fully covered his face, thus his acting was all about body language. We see Lord Vader look back and forth, looking from potentially dying son to evil emperor again and again.
In his pivots and twists and final lurch toward a decision (don’t worry, we’ll not add another spoiler), we see a physical manifestation of internal conflict. Most impressive that the scene still works despite a lack of facial acting or spoken words.
More often than not, though, internal conflict is caused by issues less cut-and-dried than that which Vader faced, and resolving most internal conflicts is not as easy as deciding to throw the emperor to his death. (Oh, sorry – that was a huge spoiler.)
In literature, as in life, internal conflict involves multiple components and are only solved by often heroic but seldom quick, cut-and-dried actions or decisions. That’s why a character’s own internal conflicts in literature or film can make a story so engaging, and why our own real life internal conflict can make life such a challenge. Often a fascinating challenge, to be sure, but a struggle nonetheless.
Why is internal struggle important for great writing?
Picture some of the greatest villains ever known from literature. What makes them so compelling? Yes, correct: their complexity. As two of the finest examples of all time, let’s consider two “monsters” from 19th century classics, Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula.
Far from being the single-mindedly cold, heartless monsters thought of at first blush, on a close reading of the original novels by Shelley and Stoker, we see creatures who do violent, gruesome things, to be sure, but who also have complicated motivations, who are oft gripped with indecision, who long for love and connection, and who are, perhaps more than anything else, misunderstood. (Granted, the “monster” of Frankenstein is the more easily sympathized with.)
Complexity: Necessary for both internal and external conflict
Without a character’s internal conflict, and without the complexity thereby created, the stories would be infinitely less engaging, and almost surely not still in print worldwide even two centuries after the publication of Frankenstein (and some 125 years after Dracula).
Internal struggle helps color characters ranging from these classics to modern heroes (and anti heroes and villains) and heroines such as Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games books and films, who is torn between loyalty to her family and home, her will to stay alive and even advance in society, and by the horror that in order to achieve any of it, she must kill.
Almost every novel is going to have at least some character conflict or some external conflict (which are not always one and the same) like an argument or fistfight or a nuclear war. But only a book also featuring that enriching internal conflict can rise to greatness.
A few fine examples of internal conflict in literature
We have already noted several fine internal conflict examples, but in rather broad strokes. Now, to better illustrate what makes for believable, compelling internal conflict in writing, let’s quickly look at three more classic examples of internal conflict in literature, and how a character struggles when confronting these conflicts throughout their character development.
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is hardly Shakespeare’s greatest play, but its namesake protagonists do display some of the clearest-cut examples of internal conflict in writing.
Both are torn between romantic love and familial faith, and, dramatically, both arguably end up dead because of a lack of fully overcoming the struggle. (For a more nuanced and objectively better example of internal struggle in Shakespeare, read Hamlet.)
Of Mice and Men
In Steinbeck’s slim classic Of Mice and Men, the protagonist George is ravaged by internal conflict as he tries to decide how to deal with the aftermath of the actions of his intellectually challenged friend Lennie. He finally makes a nearly impossible external choice, but the real drama of the story is within.
And in much more recent writing, witness the internal conflict of Elsa Martinelli, protagonist of Kristin Hannah’s novel Four Winds, who by turns must choose between husband and parents, husband and children, a home gone to pieces vs. the unknown out west, and finally the choice between what is right but a danger and what is safe but a tragedy. All of the internal and external conflicts in her life compound to make her struggle arguably the greatest challenge she faces.
And then of course in some cases we have examples of characters who manage to be fascinating and compelling despite an almost total lack of internal conflict. Witness as an example Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, who really has no internal struggle regarding his obsession with one of the most awesome external forces of the sea, the white whale.
How to write great internal conflict into a character
Creating a character with believable internal struggle can help you create a narrative that will grip your reader all the more so. Even the strongest plot set in the most amazing surroundings can always benefit from a stronger literary or dramatic character, and a character the reader feels to be genuinely struggling with something is just that. A combination of internal vs external conflict usually always produces the best results.
Why? Because let’s face it, we’re all dealing with internal conflicts all the time, be they big or small, many or few, or all of that at once, so we can relate. In fact, with fascinating characters and great dialogue, plot and setting aren’t even the main players in a fiction (witness many of the famous books of Jane Austen or Albert Camus’ The Stranger as evidence).
But how to develop internal conflict within a character that will feel real enough to move the reader?
Make it real
In a few words, make it real. The more well-rounded and fully-developed your characters are, the more real their internal struggles will feel, and the more depth and color will come from the pages. This does not mean describing every hair on a woman’s head, breaking down the outfit of a main character piece by piece, or any such external descriptions, and it certainly doesn’t mean breaking the classic “show, don’t tell” rule of writing.
In other words, don’t write something like: “He was conflicted because he longed for the freedom of youth but did not want to abandon his family.” Do write something like: “His eyes drifted slowly from the toys and coloring books littering the playroom floor to the twilit evening beyond the window.”
The better you know your character, the more real their internal conflict will feel to the reader even though you won’t have to spell it out. Think through the life story of the person, coming up with details, experiences, and relationships he or she had that may never expressly appear in the writing but that will inform how that character would feel in a given instance. When you know what your character has been through, your reader will know what the character is feeling even if that backstory is all behind-the-scenes.
What creates internal conflict?
Lots of things can lead to internal conflict, and that’s true both in the fictional worlds authors create and in the very real lives we’re all living. For our purposes here, we will treat life and literature as one, for indeed the former is the fodder for the latter anyway.
Here, then, are five of the most common sources of internal conflicts.
Whether imposed by society, family, or the self, religion (or a distinct belief set akin to a religion, also known as morality) can cause immense internal conflict when the heart’s desires run up against the dictates of the beliefs. This can be especially powerful in terms of human sexuality.
The decision to keep or reveal a secret is one of the greatest causes of internal conflict in life and in literature. Keeping the secret can tear us up inside; revealing it can tear apart relations outside. And in some cases, revealing it may save them, which is all the more complicated in a novel or short story.
We’re using romantic desire as a shorthand for just that, for the emotional longing for someone, as well as for sexual desire. Both, whether separate or hand-in-hand, often lead to conflict, especially when the focalizer and the object of desire are within the bounds of preexisting relationships.
These two opposing forces can create some sparks!
Sometimes purely selfish, sometimes prudent despite the damage it may do to others, acting in our own self-interest can cause great internal conflict as we are torn whether or not to put ourselves first in terms of finances, time, freedom, experience, and on it goes.
Almost the opposite of self-interest in this case, a lack of self-worth can lead a person (or a fictional character) to struggle to know whether to heed their own convictions, tend to their own needs, and make their own choices, or to be used and controlled by others. Overcoming this kind of self-conflict and realizing self actualization is nothing short of a hero’s journey.
And it often makes for a compelling read, even in (or perhaps especially in) memoir or autobiography.
Internal conflict is not “a rock and a hard place”
Here’s perhaps the hardest thing about writing great internal conflict into a character: it’s not clear cut. As you would in your own life, if your character had a clear sense of which was the right choice to make in their own mind, the right proverbial path, the right lover or friend to stand by, and on it goes, he or she would make the choice and move on and your book would be over.
Rather than being that “rock and a hard place” quandary where there are no good answers, internal conflict, by its nature, means that there are at least two viable avenues of action. If you, as a writer, are stuck as to what your character should do to create the best story, the good news is you have at your disposal something not available in real life: the chance to try more than one of the options. The readers will never know if it didn’t pan out and you did a bit of editing! If you’re still struggling with the process of writing, you can always check out our recent article How to Write a Book.
And if appreciating or writing great literature is not the issue and you are more concerned about your actual, real life internal conflicts, consider looking at the best self help books.