How to use external and internal conflict to develop fictional characters

Conflict is one of the key elements of a good story. ‘Internal conflict’ and ‘external conflict’ are two kinds of challenge or obstacle that your characters may face. What exactly are these types of story conflict, and how can you use them to create strong characterization in your writing?

Defining internal conflict and external conflict

In storytelling, ‘internal conflict’ describes a character’s inner struggle. A character might struggle with emotional and psychological problems such as fear of intimacy or abandonment, for example. Internal conflict is important for characterization, since flaws and internal struggles make characters more lifelike and sympathetic.

External conflict describes conflicts between a character and forces outside themselves. These conflicts may be between characters or groups of characters. They can also be between a character and more abstract forces. For example, a threatening, dangerous environment in a post-apocalyptic novel.

Both types of conflict, internal and external, are useful because they create:

  • Tension: We want to know how the conflict resolves and feel resolution, so we keep turning pages to find out
  • Stakes: Conflict makes resolution urgent, because alternative outcomes are upsetting (the hero must overcome the antagonist/environment or themselves ‘or else…’)
  • Character development: Conflict allows for dramatic incidents and confrontations that test characters and cause them to learn and adapt

So how do you use external and internal conflict to develop characters?

Create obstacles between characters and their goals using both conflict types

Accomplished authors use both external and internal conflict to impede characters’ progress towards their goals.

To use an example from fantasy, In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings cycle Frodo and his co-travelers must face external conflicts as well as internal ones. They encounter hostile creatures such as orcs and wargs and treacherous terrain, alongside their own fears and weaknesses.

Frodo’s sidekick Sam is initially scared of their quest. Over the course of the story cycle, Sam gains courage as they travel towards Mordor. We see Sam’s internal conflict, and then we see how external conflicts pit him against his internal struggle, forcing him to outgrow it.

In a romance novel, conflicts either prevent union or throw existing relationships in jeopardy.

In Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, for example, Allie’s snobbish and disapproving mother is a source of external conflict. Her opposition and interference delays the lovers’ reunion after their summer of love.

Later story developments add poignant internal conflict to this external obstacle. His aging protagonists battle with medical conditions that interfere with their ability to simply be in and enjoy each other’s company. Even once the characters overcome primary external conflicts, internal conflict (in this instance, self vs mind or body) still yields complications.

Like Sparks, think how you can make internal and external conflict create suspense-generating complications that also test your characters’ commitment to their goals.

Determine how internal and external conflicts will affect each other

Dividing conflict into ‘internal’ vs ‘external’ is perhaps reductive, since the two are linked.

In a romance, for example, a character who fears abandonment might be clingy towards their lover. This in turn might create external conflict when the other character feels smothered. Determine how these internal and external conflicts stoke each other.

Take, for example, a character who is independent and hates asking for help. How would this challenge their survival in an environmental disaster? Will they need to learn to rely more on others and ask for help in life-or-death situations?

This is an example of how external conflict can be a crucible for character development. External conflicts can pit characters against their own internal conflicts, forcing them to renegotiate their own limitations and beliefs.

Create opposing internal conflicts for characters and see sparks fly

Opposing internal conflicts between characters may build confrontation and drama, but also attraction. For example, a chaotic and messy character might annoy a ‘neat freak’ who is obsessive about order. Yet the same neat character could find this trait strangely alluring. Differences that spark conflict are frequently also the differences that attract people to one another.

The romantic relationship at the heart of the indie film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind illustrates this. Kate Winslet’s character Clementine is skittish and impulsive and an extrovert. Jim Carrey’s character Joel, whom she meets on a train, is melancholic, serious and introverted.

Initially, their differences result in mutual attraction. Clementine enjoys teasing Joel about his intensity and seriousness. But over time, each character’s internal conflict — Clementine’s fear of boredom and stasis and Joel’s fear of unpredictability — become sources of mutual frustration and hostility.

Through giving each character an opposing internal conflict that contains the seed for conflict, Charlie Kaufman (the scriptwriter) creates a development arc for each primary character that feels true, even inevitable.

Combine multiple internal and external conflicts over the course of your story or novel

Your characters can show multiple internal conflicts (and face multiple external ones) in the course of your story. Take, for example, a character who struggles to be in a relationship because they struggle with anxiety and self-doubt. What new internal conflicts might arise if they discover new-found confidence?

Perhaps they are not used to having the confidence to actively choose or leave their significant other. This in turn creates anxiety about whether or not they’ve made the ‘right’ choice. One internal conflict resolving can thus leave space for a new, related one to arise.

Create your own cheat sheets for characters’ internal and external conflicts

Credible characters are human like us. One of the reasons Greek mythology is powerful (and narrative epics like Homer’s Odyssey are still read and taught) is because the Greek Gods are just like people. Like ordinary mortals, they’re prone to love, jealousy, conflict and error.

When creating a character for your novel, create a cheat sheet for internal and external conflicts they will grapple with. For example, this could be a character conflict cheat sheet for Odysseus’s wife in Homer’s Odyssey:

Character name: Penelope
 Who and where: Wife of Odysseus, awaits his return in Ithaca
 Internal conflict: Doesn’t know if Odysseus is still alive and unsure whether or not to take his advice to remarry if he has not returned from war by the time their son Telemachus is grown.
 External conflict: Besieged by persistent suitors vying for her hand in marriage, forcing her to find ways to deter them until she receives confirmation whether Odysseus is alive or dead.

Start developing your story idea on Now Novel and brainstorm believable conflicts, characters and themes .


Originally published at www.nownovel.com on March 6, 2017.

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