Internal conflict is the result of a character having two opposing goals or desires. These goals might be personal to the character, affecting their arc, or they might impact the main conflict of the plot. Some stories focus on internal conflict as the main conflict.
With internal conflict, ultimately, a character must choose which of their goals or desires is greater. The imporant part is that for the character each option is equally valuable. A classic example is duty versus love: do you serve a sworn duty and follow a family tradition or wish, or follow your heart and an unknown reward? Throughout the story the character may be pushed and pulled towards one choice or the other before finally choosing.
Internal conflict doesn’t just affect big-picture arcs either. On the scene-level, internal conflict can flavor even the quietest of moments. In every scene, your characters should want something particular to advancing the plot. How they feel about what they have to do to achieve that goal could breed internal conflict for that scene.
This also occurs during the ‘fail’ scenes of trial-fail cycles. Your characters may have tried something only to have their plans come crashing down on them. They know they need to keep pushing forward (their first goal), but in the face of failure, it’s tempting to quit (a second desire).
Because of the opposition playing out inside the characters, internal conflict is heavily tied into the emotional arc of the scene. How a character starts a scene and how their personal conflict resolves will affect their mood. Starting off in a poor mood and having the greater choice win out should pick up their mood. Similiarly, starting in a poor mood and being forced to accept the poorer choice will result in a soured character.
When it comes to developing characters, one of the things you might have to look at is how they interact with each other. A lot of interactions between people are based on previous interactions, which goes all the way back to when they first met.
Knowing how your characters met each other can help with more than just setting the tone of their relationship. They can also help you find hidden interpersonal conflicts and gives you a good base point of reference for how the relationship changes both in and out of the story as time goes by.
As an exercise: Set a timer for ten to fifteen minutes and free write the first meeting between:
- Protagonist and Antagonist
- Characters and Love Interests
- Protagonist and Supporting Characters
- Antagonist and Supporting Characters
One of the forms of conflict is Man versus Fate. Stories with a versus Fate conflict often showcase a struggle against destiny. Much like the the versus Society conflicts, stories with a versus Fate conflict may not have an obvious antagonist. Rather, the conflict here demonstrates a the clash between a predetermined path and free will.
In some ways, this makes versus Fate conflicts an internal struggle. Although your character may be inevitably drawn into their destiny, they can’t help but react to what’s happening around them, and possibly even to try and delay that inevitable end.
Some cases of this however, also take on a theological element when the ‘fate’ itself is manipulated by a god or deity. Greek myths are littered with examples of this; they often pit mortals against divine demands and whims.
Man versus Self is one of six types of conflict. I discussed conflict and how it matters in writing in an earlier post. Each form has their own unique characteristics which sets it apart from the others.
Of each type, Man versus Self conflicts might seem like the easiest to identify. Often, these are the internal conflicts each character deals with that stem from moral dilemmas or opposing personal goals. Conflicts of the self are going to pit your character against their worst enemy: themselves.
That internal nature of the versus Self also leads this to be a huge component in stories of change and growth. The beauty of this type of conflict is that it’s one that can be utilized on practically every character (including your antagonist): What one personal thing holds them back from reaching their goal? And how do they feel about that obstacle?
If you’re struggling with character arcs, this type of conflict can be an underlying cause. Take a look at what your characters are struggling with and see if you can identify where they’re against others and where they’re fighting themselves and their own limitations. You might find there’s an imbalance between what your minor characters’ versus Self struggles and any other conflicts they’re involved in.