Internal Conflict: Six Types of Internal Conflict (With Examples)
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Stories are built on conflict. Without any conflict, there’s not really any story. If Jane Doe gets everything she wanted, without any difficulties, and lives happily ever after, then that’s lovely for Jane, but not very interesting to read about!
When it comes to conflict, it’s easy to get how external conflict works. Perhaps Jane Doe wants a promotion … but a colleague is also going for the same role (character vs character conflict). Then, Jane’s late to work because the bus was cancelled and she had to walk through a snowstorm (character vs environment conflict) … and now her laptop won’t start (character vs technology conflict).
Those are types of conflict that you could see taking place.
But what about the conflict that only takes place inside Jane’s head? The self-doubt – is she really suited to the role? The moral dilemma – should she try to undermine the colleague who also wants the promotion? Those can be just as important a part of the story. And they’re both types of internal conflict.
What is Internal Conflict?
Internal conflict is the inner struggle that takes place in a character’s mind. They might be torn between two courses of action, or they might want to take action but feel afraid. The process of resolving this struggle can drive both the narrative (action) and the character’s development.
Internal conflict is sometimes called “character vs self” or “self vs self” conflict. A good story needs both internal and external conflict.
Why Does Internal Conflict Matter?
Internal conflict is essential for character growth—and readers will want and expect your main character to grow throughout the story. Including internal conflict should make your story deeper and richer, too: your character isn’t simply a cardboard cutout hero knocking down baddies right, left, and centre. They’re someone with real thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
After all, as individuals, we go through internal conflicts all the time, where our values, beliefs, wants, and needs all come into play. As a writer, you’re probably very familiar with the internal conflict between your desire to “sit down and write” and your desire to “do something easy and mindless instead”..!
So one way to make your characters more human is to show them struggling with internal conflict. That doesn’t need to involve lots of long, drawn-out scenes of your character going through Hamlet-like internal monologues of indecision … but it does need to be reflected in the story.
Six Types of Internal Conflict to Use in Your Fiction
Internal conflicts (and external ones) tend to overlap to at least some degree—so this is far from a definitive or exhaustive list! If you’re looking for some examples of internal conflict to help you with planning, drafting, or redrafting a story, I hope it helps give you some inspiration.
1. Moral Internal Conflict
Most internal conflict probably comes under the broad umbrella of “moral” conflict. This is when a character needs to choose between two different values, or between following a deeply-held value and taking the easy route out instead.
… Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
– from Othello, Act V – Scene II, William Shakespeare
Here, Othello (who believes he has evidence that his wife Desdemona is guilty of adultery) wavers between letting her live because of his love for her, and killing her because he believes that’s a fit punishment for her (alleged) crime.
This is a good example of an internal conflict that’s caused by an external one: Iago’s lies and manipulations.
2. Fear-Based Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is also often based on fear: a character wants to do something (whether for good or bad reasons) and they struggle to do it because they’re afraid.
His breath was actually fogging the surface of Snape’s thoughts … his brain seemed to be in limbo … it would be insane to do the thing he was so strongly tempted to do … he was trembling … Snape could be back at any moment … but Harry thought of Cho’s anger, of Malfoy’s jeering face, and a reckless daring seized him.
– from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
In this scene, Harry fights off fear to view Snape’s memories in the Pensive —memories that Snape has been careful to hide from him during their Occlumency lessons. Fresh from an argument with Cho and sneers from Malfoy, Harry fights off his fear. You can see the conflict here represented by words like “limbo” and “tempted”—Harry’s torn between two courses of action.
3. Religious or Philosophical Internal Conflict
Some types of conflict come from a character struggling against their religious background or against their philosophical convictions. We might see characters discovering and sticking to their own morality, rather than deciding to do what’s “right” based on religious or philosophical rules.
It was so heavy a promise that I was quite resolved to keep it completely—even from my cousin, Rosalind. Though, underneath, I was puzzled by its evident importance. It seemed a very small toe to cause such a degree of anxiety. But there was often a great deal of grown-up fuss that seemed disproportionate to causes. So I held on to the main point—the need for secrecy.
– from The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
In The Chrysalids, the narrator David and all his society have been brought up under a repressive post-apocalyptic religious regime where “Blasphemies” ( humans that have even a small difference from the norm, like an extra finger or toe) are either killed or sterilized and banished to the lawless Fringes. Here, he’s being tasked with keeping his new friend’s secret by her mother. We start to see the conflict between David and the religion he’s been brought up in, as he clearly doesn’t see the extra toe as any kind of problem.
4. Love-Based Internal Conflict
Love can be a major cause of internal conflict, perhaps due to a love triangle, unrequited love, or falling in love with the wrong person. If you want a happy ending (particularly if you’re writing romance!) then you’ll want to solve this internal conflict before the end of the story, one way or another.
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed. He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority, of its being a degradation, of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.
– from Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
In this very famous scene from Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is a little too honest about his internal conflict: between his feelings for Elizabeth and his sense of pride. It can be difficult to convey a non-viewpoint character’s internal conflict: Austen does so skillfully through direct speech and through the summary of what Darcy says, and also through description after Elizabeth’s unimpressed response: Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantel-piece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it.
5. Identity-Based Internal Conflict
Internal conflict can be about a character’s identify, particularly if they’re rejecting their family or the way in which their society or social group might categorise them. It can also be about a struggle to find their identity.
[Rosemary] held her wrist over the yellow panel. There was a soft pulse of light. A twinge of adrenaline ran along the stims. What if something had gone wrong with the patch, and they pulled her old file instead? What if they saw her name, and put two and two together? Would it matter to people out here? Would it matter that she’d done nothing wrong? Would they turn away from her, just as her friends had? Would they put her back on the pod, and send her crawling back to Mars, back to a name she didn’t want and a mess she hadn’t–
The pad blinked a friendly green. Rosemary exhaled, and scoffed at herself for being nervous at all.
– from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
As Rosemary arrives on the Wayfarer, she’s worried about maintaining her new identity. We get the sense that she’s running away from family issues, but it’s not until later in the book that we find out the details (and find out how her new friends react).
6. Existential Internal Conflict
Some characters have at least a degree of internal conflict that’s about their very existence or being: what does their life mean?
Everyone knows reliable cleaners are hard to come by and a surprising number of people in Cambridge seem to have discovered that Janice is an exceptional cleaner. She is unsure about the accolade ‘exceptional’ (overheard when one of her employers had a friend in for coffee). She knows she is not an exceptional woman. But is she a good cleaner? Yes, she thinks she is that. She has certainly had enough practice. She just hopes this isn’t going to be the sum story of her life: “she cleaned well”.
– from The Keeper of Stories, Sally Page
Janice (whose main internal conflict is related to misplaced guilt about an incident in her past) wants her life to be more than just “she cleaned well”. It’s something that many readers will likely resonate with: we want to be more than just our jobs, especially if those jobs are ones that people might see as mundane.
Internal conflict can be tricky to get right. If you spend too long dwelling on a character’s thoughts, readers may switch off. You can weave internal conflict into the narrative, perhaps showing how it arises from (or results in) external conflict: Darcy’s speech leads to an argument between him and Elizabeth, for instance.
Done well, internal conflict helps make your characters real to the reader—and encourages the reader to root for them. It shows their flaws and, in stories with a positive character arc, shows them overcoming those flaws.
If you’ve got a great example of internal conflict in fiction (either in something you’ve read or watched, or something you’re writing), then please do share it with us in the comments below.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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