Conflict is a powerful element within the story and can be loosely categorized as either Outer (external) Conflict or Inner (internal) Conflict. The difference is that outer conflict is something external keeping the character from his goal, while inner conflict is a mental struggle over wanting things that are at odds or compete.
Internal conflicts might be:
- Opposing or competing wants, needs, or desires
- Confusion about how to feel
- Questioning beliefs or values
- Suffering from indecision, insecurity, self-doubt, or another emotion that puts the character at odds with themselves
- Conflicting duties and responsibilities
- Grappling with an aspect of mental health
Internal Conflict Is Relatable
Internal conflict draws readers in because it’s a type of struggle common to us all. Confusion over what to do, feel, and believe, can make us feel exposed. To find a path forward, we must weigh and measure personal beliefs, ideas, and needs. Characters, like us, must do the same, and as they look within themselves for answers, they reveal their vulnerability and humanity to readers.
Scene-to-scene, you’ll usually see inner conflict. At times it’s a heavy weight, other times, indecision over what to do, or deciding what’s better, option A or option B.
Where inner conflict really takes center stage is at the story level. Character vs. Themselves conflict will create a war zone inside your character throughout the story, and they must resolve it successfully to achieve their goal.
5 Ways to Find—and Use—Inner Conflict
This primary inner conflict might be something you need a bit of help to brainstorm, so poke around the psychological side of them to see what shakes loose.
#1: Their Greatest Fear
Fears are highly motivating. The inconvenient, everyday ones? Sure, because no one makes split-second decisions better than an arachnophobe who’s just stumbled into a spiderweb. (This is the voice of experience talking.)
But in storytelling, it’s the larger fears that drive both character and story. Fear of failure, being alone, losing a loved one … these can push the character to embrace unhealthy habits or paralyze her into maintaining the status quo and resisting needed change.
Imagine, for instance, a character who is afraid of letting others down. This fear will insert itself into every situation where she’s accountable to others, steering her toward doing what others want rather than what she wants, or causing her to step back instead of stepping up. She may worry that if she takes on something big, she’ll screw it up, so she discards goals that could result in personal fulfillment, such as having children or leading a beloved charity group or event. This fear of disappointing others can influence her choice of career or who she marries. It can lead to her sacrificing her own joy for the happiness of others. Then, before you know it, an important human need has been compromised, leading to more problems.
#2: Their Core Moral Beliefs
Nothing causes psychological turmoil quite like a challenge to one’s core beliefs, and no beliefs are more central than the moral ones, because they define who we are.
This is the situation Paul Edgecombe encounters in The Green Mile. As a death-row prison guard, experience has taught him that the men in his charge are guilty and deserve their punishment. But then he encounters an inmate who doesn’t fit the mold. Could John Coffey, a man found guilty in a court of law, actually be innocent? If so, how can Paul execute him?
Think about what your character believes on the deepest level—his thoughts about right and wrong, good and evil. Then introduce an event that challenges those ideas. If his inner turmoil surrounding this issue or theme is what the story is really about, if it’s something he could struggle with for the story’s entirety, it may be a good choice for his story-level internal conflict.
#3: Their Existential Ideas
Another trait particular to human beings is our curiosity, particularly about big ideas: Who am I? What’s my purpose? Is there life beyond Earth? After death? These questions often aren’t answerable, but your characters grapple with them anyway because the answers will impact and define who they are.
If your character already knows what they believe about bigger life questions, that information will become part of their core belief system. Challenging them will throw the character into an emotional and existential tailspin. If they don’t have answers, the struggle to find them can lead to all kinds of internal strife.
#4: Their Wants and Needs
Wants are exactly what they imply: something the character desires but doesn’t necessarily need. By themselves they don’t generate much conflict, but when you set them in opposition to the character’s missing need or a core belief, internal strife explodes onto the scene.
Dan Burns, the protagonist in Dan in Real Life, lost his wife many years prior and is now raising three girls on his own. He hasn’t been truly happy in all that time—but then he meets Marie. Finally! His need for love and belonging is going to be filled—except … his brother is already dating her.
Now his need (happiness and love) and his want (to be with Marie) are at odds, because for him to be with Marie, he would have to betray his brother. And how could he be happy doing that?
#5: Their Secrets
Characters jump through all kinds of emotional and logistical hoops to keep important secrets from coming to light. They may withdraw from people, organizations, and cherished hobbies to avoid questions that hit too close to home. You can imagine the inner turmoil that develops when a character must give up an area of giftedness or a close friend in order to keep certain information from getting out.
Many characters will drastically change their behavior to keep their secrets safe. Melinda Sordino in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is so determined to keep a certain event from being revealed that she stops talking altogether. After all, if you can’t talk, you can’t tell. If your character’s secret is one that must be protected at all costs, it can provide compelling fodder for internal conflict.
TIP: Uncover their Backstory Wound
Above are some of the factors that can contribute to a character’s inner struggles, but a lot of times the root of inner conflict can stem from a wounding event in the character’s past, so it’s a good idea to know exactly what that is and the various ways it will impact your character.
One Stop For Writers can help you dig deeper
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.