Internal and External Conflict: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters

internal and external conflict

How do you keep readers riveted to the end?

Conflict is the engine of fiction.

Readers love it.

Dianna and I recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary and agree on almost everything. That’s a gift. On the page? Boring.

The more conflict, the more interesting your story.

What is Internal Conflict?

The mental, spiritual, or emotional battle a character faces makes them relatable to readers. If your characters don’t feel authentic, they may be missing common human emotions.

How does your hero react internally when the going gets tough?

Memorable character arcs result from dramatic inner change.


Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

internal and external conflict

For much of his life, Harry believed his parents died in a car accident and deeply missed a connection with them. He learns they were actually murdered by Voldemort.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen fears for her family if she can’t protect and provide for them.

After her unlikely ally declares his love for her, a new conflict arises—she wonders if he’s sincere and whether she loves him.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

In this poem, Frost describes the conflict one faces internally when confronted with a difficult decision — indecision, doubt, confusion, hesitation, and in the end, contentment.

What is External Conflict?

This is simply the struggle between a character and what he must overcome to achieve his goal.


Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Harry’s greatest conflict is risking his life to keep Voldemort from acquiring the Sorcerer’s stone.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Katniss faces:

  • The government and does whatever it takes to protect and feed her family.
  • Nature in the games themselves.
  • Competing tributes, all fighting for survival.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Lawyer Atticus Finch courageously challenges racist society by defending a black man falsely accused of rape.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Eighty-four days and nary a fish. Villagers think the old man has run out of luck.

Santiago faces not only the sea but eventually a great marlin and the sharks who compete with him for it. He and the marlin battle several days, neither willing to give up.

“Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

How to Use Internal and External Conflict to Develop Characters

Your characters must be credible and believable and grow inwardly throughout.

Ask yourself:

What does my lead character want or need, and why?

The stakes must be high enough to carry an entire novel.

What or who stands in his way? 

Challenge him at every turn, removing every support and convenience. Thrust him into the most terrible trouble you can imagine.

Resist the temptation to equip your character with whatever he needs. In fact, as authors we should do the opposite. Take away your hero’s house, car, income, even his significant other.

That contributes to a dramatic character arc.

What personal flaws emerge to keep him from his goals?

Readers relate to flawed characters. Every internal or external obstacle builds new muscles to change him in the end.

What internal struggles keep him from his ultimate goal?

How will he become heroic and accomplish his goals?

Resist the temptation to explain how your character changes. Readers should be able to deduce that from the story by what you show them. Your character must be proactive and flex those new muscles to become the hero.

His change must result from his taking action—by doing something.

Get this right and readers will remember your story forever.

The #1 Mistake Writers Make When Developing Characters

Making a hero perfect.

Who can identify with perfect? I sure can’t.

Potentially heroic, yes. Honorable, sure. Bent toward doing the right thing, yes.

But perfect, no.

In the end, your hero must overcome his obstacles, rise to the occasion, and win against all odds. But he has to grow into that from a stance of real humanity.

Create a lead character your reader can identify with, and in your ending, he’ll see himself with the same potential.

Character Development Worksheet

If you’re an Outliner, a character arc worksheet like this one can help you get to know your hero.

If you’re a Pantser (like me), you may not have the patience for it and might rather dive right into the writing. Do what works best for you.

Develop a character who feels real, and he’ll become unforgettable.


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