What is Internal Conflict? (with Examples and Writing Tips)
Internal conflict in literature is the struggle between a character’s values or desires and their goals. Though this conflict may arise from external conditions where the character must choose between a sense of duty towards others and their own true wants and needs, they are, in the end, fundamentally about the battle that goes on inside a character's heart and mind.
Much like external conflict, internal conflict adds stakes and allows the reader to emotionally invest in a story. In this post, we dive deeper into what internal conflict is and how it can elevate your writing.
Internal conflict deepens the story
When we think of conflict, often the first thing that comes to mind are external ones. Antagonists, the forces of nature, societal rules, and many more form the basis of many tales, providing our heroes with obstacles and driving the plot forward. Seeing how characters overcome these challenges is part of the appeal, but it’s more important to see how these challenges affect them personally — and that’s where an external conflict can become an interior one.
Will an obstacle in their journey make them question their own ideals and morals? Will they reassess who they are and what drives them? Essentially, what effect does their problem have on their internal lives, and will it possibly change them forever? This adds another layer to the story and can give it deeper meaning.
Tip: Use your internal conflict to highlight the external conflict
Combining your external conflict with your internal conflict is an effective way to add greater depth to a story.
For a great example of external conflict mirroring a character’s inner struggle, look no further than Rocky. On the surface, it’s a movie about an underdog boxer going up against the world champion, but part of its long-lasting appeal is that it’s also a story about self-worth.
Rocky’s external struggle is the physical strain of his training, while his internal one is something deeper. It underpins his journey to the prize fight and gives it greater stakes — he’s not just fighting for prize money but for his own sense of self. In the run-up to the big fight, Rocky has moments of doubt and wonders if he’s simply setting himself up for embarrassment. This complements the physical struggle he undergoes while training for the prize fight and gives his actions a greater weight.
Internal conflict isn’t just an important part of character building, it also impacts the direction of the plot.
It gives your plot stakes and long-lasting consequences
A character’s internal conflicts influence their actions and decisions. A hero who believes the best of people might have their trust betrayed by the wrong person, making a plot beat that much more significant. A firefighter’s feelings for their family back home could make their rescue mission that much more precarious, and the risks they’re taking more keenly felt. Internal conflict functions as another way to add stakes to your story: what will happen to our hero if they don’t change their ways? What are the consequences if they don’t achieve their goal?
Tip: Give your character a flaw that they struggle with
The most memorable figures in literature all have character flaws. No one is perfect, least of all your main character, and their less-than-stellar traits will have them making decisions that have consequences — some of which might create a domino effect of new problems.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea centers on a young man named Ged, whose journey to becoming a great wizard is often stymied by his pride. When he’s challenged by a peer, Ged’s hubris leads him to attempt a resurrection of a sorceress. Instead, he creates a shadow that kills another wizard and threatens Ged at every turn for the rest of the novel. This critical character flaw influences the course of the plot and raises the stakes as Ged continues down a dangerous path to either prove himself or fix his mistakes, dealing with internal conflict between his arrogant impulses and his newfound fears.
On a larger scale, internal conflict impacts the themes and overall meaning of your story.
It turns a specific story into something universal
On the surface, a story might be about one thing: defeating the evil wizard, regaining one’s rightful control of the throne, or getting the girl (or guy). But no matter what kind of tale you’re telling, readers love it when you hit on ideas that are familiar to them, even if they don’t relate to the exact situation. There’s no better way to do that than by giving your characters internal conflicts that people know from their own lives.
We might not know what it feels like to fight dragons or be a world leader, but we can understand the struggle between doing what’s right and doing what’s convenient or self-serving.
Tip: Ground your stories by giving your characters relatable internal conflicts
The universality of internal conflicts can make your story more relatable, which is especially useful if you’re writing speculative fiction.
Terry Pratchett does this masterfully in his Discworld series set in an outlandish fantasy world. In Guards! Guards!, we follow Samuel Vimes — captain of the severely underfunded Ankh-Morpork City Watch — as he tries to keep a dragon from destroying the city and overthrowing the government. But that’s only half the story. Along the way, Vimes also struggles with his sense of duty as a Watchman, his pessimistic nature, and the ideals that he held as a younger man. These internal conflicts ground his story, making it familiar and relatable to the reader in an unfamiliar world.
With these tips and examples under your belt, you should now have a good grasp on what internal conflict is and how authors can use it in their story. In the next part of this guide, we’ll focus in on external conflict to show you how, when combined with inner struggles, it can elevate a narrative and create a well-rounded and compelling tale.