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 in real life. In the pages of a novel? Boring.

The more conflict, the more interesting your story.

What is Internal Conflict?

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

How does your hero react when the going gets tough — not just externally, but also internally?

Memorable character arcs result from dramatic inner change.

Types of Internal Conflict

Your characters may struggle with:

1. False Belief

Do your characters believe something about the world, their family, or even themselves, that’s simply wrong? Some writing coaches call this the Lie your hero believes. Facing the truth can be painful — and can contribute to his character arc.

Examples

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 he deeply misses them. He learns they were actually murdered by Voldemort.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Ebenezer Scrooge, a misanthrope who hates Christmas, hoards his wealth, and believes pursuing money is better than pursuing anything else — even love. Three Ghosts help him recognize the ugly consequences of this false belief.

2. Self-Doubt

Your characters may worry that they’re doing the wrong things. Perhaps they feel they’re not up to the task — that someone else would be a better choice to tackle it.

Examples

Spider-Man: Far From Home movie

Peter Parker is given the late Tony Stark’s glasses, meant for his successor, which give Peter access to the powerful artificial intelligence E.D.I.T.H. (Even Dead, I’m The Hero). Peter questions whether he is capable of filling Tony Stark’s shoes.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

Frodo Baggins finds himself racked with self-doubt on his quest to destroy the ring he inherits from his uncle Bilbo Baggins.

He faces many obstacles on his quest — including his own trepidation, as well as his struggle against the tempation of what the ring might bring him.

3. Dilemma

Two options may look equally good to your character. The path he chooses could make a huge difference to his life.

Examples

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.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Consulting wizard Harry Dresden has to decide whether to let police lieutenant Karrin Murphy in on all the details he knows — or to withhold information in the hope of protecting her.

He chooses to keep quiet (and regrets it when Murphy is attacked by a giant scorpion).

4. Fear

Your story’s hero shouldn’t be fearless from the get-go. Give him reasons to grow into this. In fact, that’ll make it easier for the reader to empathize with him.

Fear could drive your character to action — even to fight against great odds. It could also be what your character must overcome to move forward.

Examples:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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

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 Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe

The narrator of this short story, prone to catalepsy, suffers a morbid fear of being buried alive. He first discusses other characters inadvertently buried alive, then dreams of being buried alive along with many others.

He insists his friends promise not to bury him unless his body is actually decomposing and even reconfigures the family vault to allow for easy escape.

5. Moral Conflict

Often, the right choice isn’t clear. Your character faces two possible courses of action. Each will lead to suffering for someone — or perhaps even death.

Examples

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

A mother faces an impossible dilemma in the Auschwitz death camp when a Nazi officer makes her choose which of her children will die and which will live. Her crushing guilt shapes her character.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

What lengths would you go to to save your child’s life? How about your sister’s? Thirteen-year-old Anna is conceived as a bone marrow match for her sister Kate — and she undergoes countless surgeries.

This brings Anna and her mother Sara into conflict, as Anna fights for medical emancipation.

What is External Conflict?

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

Types of External Conflict

Your character may face one — or, likely, several — key conflicts.

1. Character vs. Character

Straightforward — and popular with readers, this is the struggle between your hero and your villain. Your hero may also conflict with well-meaning friends in the way of his goals.

Examples:

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

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

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Dorothy’s encounter with the Wicked Witch of the West is a classic example of character vs. character conflict, ending when Dorothy throws a bucket of water on the witch — not knowing this will cause the witch to melt.

2. Character vs. Society

Your hero stands in opposition to a large group — perhaps an oppressive religious organization, a corrupt government, or a repressive local community.

Examples

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, this novel looks at the deplorable treatment of maids in the South. One of the three narrators, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, tells how she and other black characters fight powerful social forces.

3. Character vs. Nature

In some stories, your hero’s primary conflict is with nature itself.

Examples:

Call of the Wild by Jack London

In this adventure novel, the dog Buck (a St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix) has to survive the harsh, frozen world of northern Canada. He experiences starvation and exhaustion as well as suffering from the bitter cold.

4. Character vs. Animal

Animal attacks could drive your story.

Examples:

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 danger of the sea, but also 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.”

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This philosophical novel details the adventures of 16-year-old Pi, adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a boat with a tiger, hyena, zebra, and orangutan.

5. Character vs. Technology

In science-fiction and dystopian stories, your hero may conflict with sentient Artificial Intelligence or simply key equipment breaking down or malfunctioning.

Examples:

2001: A Space Odyssey

In this classic Stanley Kubrick film, the computer HAL turns on the astronauts, providing incorrect information, refusing to follow instructions, and attacking when they plan to disconnect him.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

The Martians come to Earth in huge cylinders, with three-legged fighting machines, chemical weapons emitting a poisonous black smoke, and heat rays that incinerate people.

Humanity’s attempts to fight back seem doomed after the destruction of their powerful torpedo ram ship, HMS Thunder Child.

How Internal and External Conflict Helps Develop Characters

Your characters must be credible and believable and grow inwardly.

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?

Is he jealous? Doubting himself? Scared? Worried? Depressed? Work at imagining as many internal conflicts as external ones for your character. The internal stuff is what readers most easily relate to.

They might not resonate with a big car chase or shootout, but they know angst when they see it.

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.

jerry-jenkins

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