Creative Writing Fiction 6 min2023-12-01 00:00

What Is Internal Conflict in Literature? Definition and Examples

internal conflict

We often hear about how we need to include conflict in our fiction. And, on the face of it, this sounds like simple advice. We all know what conflict is, right? There’s conflict in a gunfight, a car chase, and a magical battle. And there are more subtle conflicts like simmering arguments and passive-aggressive subtext.

All that stuff is external conflict, and it’s really important. But there’s another kind of conflict we don’t talk about nearly enough.

That’s right, folks.

It’s time to talk about internal conflict. But hang on. What in the name of Stephen King’s favorite typewriter is internal conflict, what can I use it for, and how can I add more of it to my novels?

Those are all fantastic questions. So, let’s get into it, shall we?

Internal Conflict: Definition

You’ve probably heard internal conflict referred to in different ways, including:

●     Character vs self

●     Person vs self

●     Man vs self

Essentially, internal conflict is the emotional battle raging inside your main character or protagonist. It’s their primary character flaw. It’s the chink in their armor that holds them back and stops them from getting what they want.

The character flaw you give them is essential to creating internal conflict.

When your protagonist tries to achieve their external story goal, whether that’s solving a murder, finding love, or saving a kingdom, their character flaw should stop them. And when their flaw holds them back, your protagonist should have an emotional reaction to that. This is the “character vs. self” conflict I was talking about. The flaw acts as a catalyst for your character’s internal struggle.

It’s a battle between what your protagonist thinks they need and what they actually need. Who they are, who they want to be, and who they need to be to reach their goal.

Internal conflict can seem like an abstract concept, so let’s look at an example to make it easy to understand.

Example of Internal Conflict: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding does a great job of setting up Bridget’s internal flaw right away. Feilding opens the book (which is written like a diary) with a list of things Bridget says she will and will not do. The list of “Will Nots” is Bridget’s “flaws,” and the list of “Wills” is who she wants to become by the end of the novel.

Some items on Bridget’s list include:


●     Drink more than 14 alcohol units a week

●     Smoke

●     Spend more than earn


●     Improve career and find new job with potential

●     Be more confident

●     Be more assertive

This tells us that every time Bridget acts confidently or assertively, she’ll be more likely to achieve her goals and have less emotional turmoil. Whereas every time she smokes or drinks more than she “should” or spends a lot of money, she’ll beat herself up (internal struggle/internal conflict).

This simple example shows how internal conflict works.

Top tip: If you use Fictionary StoryTeller Software, you can chart the internal struggles (and successes) of your main characters.

Let’s dive a little deeper and look at the types of internal conflict you might use to add depth to your characters.

Examples of Internal Conflict in Books

Moral Conflict

If one of your characters has a strong sense of right and wrong, moral internal conflict arises when right and wrong are pitted against each other. The choices you force your characters to make will be ethical in nature.

For example, in The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Starr struggles morally. She faces the choice to speak out against the police for shooting her friend Khalil (right thing to do) or hide the truth (wrong thing to do). The dilemma comes in because (if Starr speaks out) there will be unpleasant consequences for her family and her own safety.

Love Conflict

Love conflict is a juicy one because it’s so universal. We all understand it. This type of internal conflict centers around romantic or unrequited love. The internal struggle arises because of the protagonist’s flawed belief they’re not worthy of love.

Going back to Bridget Jones, Bridget doesn’t believe she’s worthy of true love. She starts a relationship with Daniel Cleaver, even though she knows he’s the type of man she should avoid. Later, she struggles to believe Mark Darcy will love her just the way she is.

And that’s where Bridget’s internal conflict comes from.

Family Conflict

As the name suggests, this kind of internal conflict is rooted in family drama. The internal struggle often arises when people don’t think they belong in their family. There could also be misbeliefs around family abandonment.

In Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, Kya has a huge lack of self-confidence because she feels abandoned by her family. She doesn’t feel smart enough, worthy enough, or enough in any way. Her internal struggle centers around learning to be confident despite her background.

Self-Perception Conflict

This kind of conflict revolves around issues with self-identity. Characters struggling with this kind of internal conflict might involve a flawed view of their abilities, self-worth, or even their place in society.

In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield comes of age. He struggles with the disparity between the person he thought he was going to be as an adult and the person he actually is. He also struggles with his place in society because he sees the adult world as phony.

Religious Conflict

This type of conflict occurs when a main character questions their faith or religious beliefs, often leading them to leave the religious community they’ve been part of their entire life. The internal struggle usually centers around the belief they’re a bad person because they’re doubting their faith.

In Inside Outside by Jeff Elkins, the protagonist, Tim, is a pastor going through the religious deconstruction process. That is, he’s questioning his faith, his career, and everything he’s ever believed about God and the church. Every time Tim makes a decision that doesn’t align with his faith, he questions whether he’s a good person.

This is where his internal struggles come from.

Conclusion: What Is Internal Conflict in Literature?

Writing gripping internal conflict is key to writing stories readers love. The internal struggles your characters face will resonate with most readers.

By having your protagonist wrestle with their core beliefs, identity, and relationships throughout your stories, you create realistic, multidimensional characters readers connect with on a deep level.

But keeping track of all the juicy internal conflict in your story can be a tad tricky.

And that's where Fictionary comes in.

Fictionary's StoryTeller Software allows you to map both the external and internal conflict across your entire manuscript. You can evaluate whether you've included enough to drive the plot and characters forward. You can see where you have conflict, but it’s weak. And you can check out the in-app help tips to learn more about conflict.

Fictionary helps you master internal conflict and take your writing craft to the next level.

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