The key ingredients of a good story, internal and external conflicts are markers of the human condition – the fight for survival against an aggressive enemy or ravaging disease, the struggle for self-actualisation, or the personal battle against the urge to wolf down just one more donut.
Come on… just one…
Use both kinds of conflict to fuel your characters’ motivations, and you’ll have a well-rounded cast that should play nicely – or not, if that’s what you want – on the page. But internal and external conflicts are tricky to balance, and it’s easy to accidentally tip the scales one way or the other.
When things get out of proportion, you can end up with a grand, sweeping core conflict that does everything it needs to do in terms of exhilaration… but the characters feel flat. There doesn’t quite seem to be enough to them – and thus we aren’t fully invested in the overall outcome.
Swing the pendulum the other way, and you have deep, heartfelt characters that feel like our best friends. We care for them, we enjoy their company and we want to see them succeed… but the story becomes boring because they really don’t seem to do much of anything. There’s little for them to strive outwardly for, and the story itself feels one-dimensional and uninteresting.
As a writer, both scenarios are equally frustrating ones to find yourself stuck in upon first read of your completed story.
So, to help us get a handle on this, let’s first define the two. How is external conflict different from internal?
In simplest terms, external conflict is the interaction between your character and the outside world. Think other characters, situations and circumstances, locations, or threats. It’s man vs. beast, man vs. weather, man vs. other man. Overcoming an external conflict is often the character’s primary mission – Frodo Baggins’ quest to take the One Ring to Mordor, for example.
Internal conflicts, on the other hand, are the struggles your characters face within themselves, fuelling their arcs and leading to personal growth. Emotional problems, such as abandonment issues or hostility, phobias or guilt can make for page-turning internal conflicts.
Internal vs. external conflicts can be boiled down to whether the fight is carried out in real life, or in the character’s own head.
Conflict creates tension, suspense, growth and raised stakes… but how do you create a well-rounded character without letting one type of conflict overwhelm the other? Here are a few tips:
- Make every conflict a visible obstacle to the character’s goals
Your protagonist’s external conflict may be to survive the harsh Martian terrain and get back to their ship before it leaves the planet. Their internal conflict could be their fear of wide open spaces. This is a clear collision of conflicts: Mars is full of wide open spaces, and the protagonist must conquer their fears or find a way around them if they are to avoid being abandoned.
Less obvious obstacles may come in the form of deep-rooted beliefs or emotional problems. If your character has trust or social issues, they may struggle at jobs involving teamwork – a quirk that forms the basis for nearly every detective TV show. If they struggle with self-esteem, entering into the public eye or learning a new skill will be as difficult – if not more – as raising enough money to help save a loved one, or winning the big talent show.
- Give your characters complementary – or opposing – conflicts
In the recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes and Watson must solve a different external conflict – a mystery – each episode. Holmes’ internal conflict is that he has limited social skills, yet must interact with people to solve the mystery. Watson’s internal conflict, meanwhile, is exasperation at his best friend’s odd habits and sociopathic tendencies. This leads to external conflict between the two – usually in the form of heated arguments – but ultimately Watson’s skepticism brings Sherlock down to earth, allowing each case to be solved. This dynamic brings the core relationship between these two characters to life.
- Make your conflicts iconic
Borrowing iconic conflicts from other stories or characters serves as a shortcut in the reader’s mind, so they’re very easy to engage with. Archetypal external conflicts include a father angered that his son doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps, or a “David and Goliath” scenario (every courtroom drama).
Internal conflict archetypes range from being driven to do what’s morally right in the face of overwhelming opposing forces, to wrestling with the darker side of your personality. Every one of us can relate to most internal conflicts, but an archetype arises when one becomes synonymous with the genre – or when the outcome becomes inevitable. Some may dismiss this as cliché, and on some level would be correct – but your job, as a writer, is to make the journey interesting. As long as you can do that, archetypes are generally not to be feared.
Internal and external conflicts are tricky to balance, but when one informs the other they develop a truly fleshed-out story – and don’t forget, even your minor characters need conflicts of their own, so don’t forget to let them have their own struggles, no matter how minor in the grand scheme of your plot.