When we talk about the difference between plot-driven fiction and character-driven fiction, often what we really mean is: what kind of conflicts are these characters facing? After all, conflict is what drives a story, whether that’s a fight with a fearsome dragon or a moral dilemma that could mean staving off bankruptcy at the expense of personal ethics.

We face conflict every day of our lives, small and large. Your characters are no different. In this article, we’ll be looking at internal conflict—the doubts, fears, and struggles that come from within. We’ll show you some helpful tips on finding your own character’s internal conflict, with some examples from literature, too.

What is internal conflict in a story?

Internal conflict is an imbalance between a character’s personal beliefs, values, ethics, or sense of self and that character’s ultimate goals and desires. Often this conflict results in the character sacrificing some part of themselves, sacrificing the goal itself, or simply recalibrating their understanding of the world in pursuit of their desires. Internal conflict can be moral, philosophical, or linked to personal identity.

When an internal conflict involves right versus wrong, sometimes the balance is clear. For example, a character might experience internal conflict if their boss asks them to sabotage a rival company. If they accept, they’ll be recognized, promoted, and better able to support their family; however, in doing so, innocent people might be hurt. The character needs to decide which is more important, and how far they’re willing to go to succeed.

Other times, an internal conflict might be more blurry. For example, imagine a mother with deep, traditional religious values learns that her son is gay. Suddenly, she’s experiencing an internal conflict between two very important belief systems—her faith, and her love for her child. As readers, we hope that the mother and son will reconnect and come to understand each other… but the journey there will be long and complicated.

Internal conflict makes for great storytelling because it’s so relatable to readers. Most of us haven’t fought off serial killers or monsters from the deep, but we have experienced what it’s like to need two different things, or to need things with two different parts of ourselves. That’s why exploring this inner tension helps engage readers.

Writers look at story conflict through two different contexts: external and internal conflict.

What’s the difference between external and internal conflict?

Internal conflict is conflict that originates from within the character’s mind: their inner struggle as they make difficult choices that could change everything and that, once made, can never be taken back.

External conflict is conflict that originates from external forces, like an antagonist, society at large, or the natural world. These are things that are beyond the character’s control, but that they have to face and overcome in some way. For example, most of the classic “hero vs. villain” stories are external conflicts, in that the hero battles something that is outside of themselves.

Many stories feature both internal and external conflict, which gives a story different layers. Sometimes, these conflicts are connected to each other—for instance, an internal conflict that arises in response to an external conflict. We’ll look more at how to do this below.

Why every good story needs internal conflict

You may think that you’ve pinpointed your story’s conflict firmly in the wider world—a nefarious villain comes to town and gets up to all sorts of shenanigans, a vicious storm is approaching like no other in recorded history, or a shadowy organization is slowly turning the citizens of your story world into cybernetic sleeper agents. High-stakes, grand-scale problems. Is internal conflict really so important?

The answer is yes, your action-packed ride-or-die saga still needs internal conflict because internal conflicts affect every choice your main character makes. More importantly, it’s what makes them human. Your story’s external conflict (i.e. the high-stakes, grand-scale, action-packed, etc. etc.) won’t resonate with the reader on an emotional level unless they’re part of the character’s inner journey. You create this emotional journey—and with it, your essential character development—through internal conflict.

Often internal conflict occurs when the main character is faced with an external force. For example, if your external conflict is a storm, your internal conflict might be the choice the character needs to make between fleeing and saving themselves or staying to care for those who are unable to leave.

Their choice will reveal who they are as a person and create a more complex, interesting story.

Good storytelling is all about hard choices.

Types of internal conflicts characters encounter

There are many places that character conflict can come from—just like the myriad ways we face our own internal conflicts. Here are some of the different types of internal conflict you can use in your story.

Moral conflict

Often when we think of internal conflict in a story, we’re thinking of moral conflict: the internal struggles between right and wrong. Is it okay to do a bad thing for the right reasons? Is it worth doing the right thing if it costs you everything you’ve worked for? How bad is this bad thing, really?

Moral or ethical conflicts happen when two opposing forces pull the main character in different directions. One of these is their goal or need within the story, and the other is what they know to be innately, immutably the right thing to do. For example, in The Hunger Games, the protagonist is forced to commit unspeakably horrific acts in order to protect their loved ones. Another example might be if a high school student cheated on a test in order to get into a better college and escape the stagnation of their small-town life.

Moral conflict is the dichotomy between morality vs. a base need.

Philosophical conflict

Philosophical conflict, sometimes called religious conflict, is the struggle a character faces when they have to deal with something that goes directly against what they believe in. This might result in an expansion of those beliefs, or an erosion of them.

For example, a religious person who finds their prayers haven’t been answered might start questioning whether a higher power truly exists at all. On the opposite end, a character who believes only in measurable facts and logic, and who is suddenly confronted with something they can’t explain, may have to drastically reassess what they thought they understood about the world.

Philosophical conflict can sometimes overlap with ethical conflict, because so much of our morality is tied to what we believe in. If a character’s fundamental beliefs are shaken, they may begin expressing uncertainty about what is right and wrong.

Identity conflict

Identity conflict is the inner conflict that happens when a character loses their sense of self and isn’t sure what kind of person they want to be. This type of story conflict is especially popular in YA novels, because discovering who you are is an enormous part of one’s young adult years.

The protagonist may be faced with an external choice that forces them to honor one of two different paths—for instance, choosing between a business program and an arts program. Or, they may be caught between their loyalty to their family and their desire for freedom. In these moments, the protagonist isn’t sure who they truly are. What the character experiences across the entire novel will eventually help them answer this question.

Identity conflict means questioning the truth of one’s inner nature.

Self-image conflict

Self esteem and self worth are things almost everyone struggles with at some point in their journey—in real life and on the page. This is regardless of age, gender, or career path. Writers well know the pitfalls of “imposter syndrome,” or feeling like an undeserving fraud under the headlights of success.

Poor self esteem can manifest in a variety of different ways, and it can stem from numerous places in your character’s life. They may be comparing themselves to people they see on social media, to older family members, or to colleagues in their work place. Or, their self doubt might come from a negative experience, such as a rejection from a loved one or institution.

Negative self awareness is—unfortunately—very relatable, and readers will cheer your protagonist on as they learn to love themselves all over again.

Interpersonal conflict

While character conflicts between two or more people are usually an external problem, they often have an impact on the character’s emotions that manifests as an internal conflict. This might be a relationship with a loved one, or, in the case of a wider societal conflict or political conflict, with a group or organization.

In these cases, the internal conflict is the inner struggle that happens in response to what’s going on between these people. For instance, a character may start questioning if they can trust their partner, if something is being hidden, or if they’re falling victim to their own paranoia. Or, the character may be considering whether or not to reach out to an estranged friend, and whether their pride is more important than their broken friendship.

These types of character conflicts can overlap with other inner conflicts, like morality, self esteem, and core beliefs.

Examples of internal conflict in literature

Now that we know a bit more about the different types of internal conflict, let’s look at how a few successful authors have put them to use in their work.

Broken Light, by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris’ culture war-driven novel takes place almost entirely internally. The main character is able to look into people’s minds and even make small adjustments, with disastrous results. Some of the characters experience existential inner conflicts as they consider their own actions, and the way those actions reflect or conflict with the person they want to be. The protagonist herself, a middle-aged unhappily married woman, learns that she can make a real difference in the lives of women—but it comes at the cost of unethically manipulating the minds of problematic men.

This story opens with clear ideas of right and wrong, and those ideas become increasingly blurred as the novel progresses.

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s magical realism novel (which became a beloved ’90s feminist film) is powered by layer upon layer of internal conflict. The protagonist is caught between her family heritage and the nice, reliable, uninteresting person she wants to be. Her philosophical beliefs reflect a need for the world to be predictable and orderly… and those beliefs hit several violent snags when she’s confronted with a decidedly unpredictable, disorderly antagonist. Finally, she finds herself responsible for her runaway sister, and struggles between her loyalty to her family and her need to care for herself.

Each individual internal conflict and its opposing character goals give the story both its tension and its humanity.

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s cult hit novel is a study in desires and fears, and the impact they have on a person’s perception of themselves. The two protagonists find themselves in an ongoing power struggle. One is afraid of how he’ll be perceived if he lets his desire control him, and one allows desire to be the barometer of her self worth.

The two character arcs explore an ongoing search for authenticity as the lovers manage societal expectation, their own understanding of who they are, and which parts of themselves are worth nurturing and fighting for.

Fear and desire are some of the most powerful sources of inner conflict.

How to incorporate internal conflict effectively

As you can see, internal conflicts are essential to rich characterization. The underlying battles your characters face will reveal who they truly are—not just to the reader, but to themselves. Here are some things to keep in mind when building the central conflict of your story.

1. Give your protagonist a strong core belief

Not only is a strong core belief a great way to reveal character, it’s also a great foundation for the impending conflict obstacles that drive a story forward. A “belief” might be something religious or spiritual, but it can also be a personal tenet or conceived truth born out of experience.

For example, one character may have strong feelings about the existence of ghosts, the benefits or dangers of pharmaceutical medicine, or what they have to do to feel validated in society. Then, over the course of the story, they’ll have to re-examine this belief and question whether it’s who they really want to be.

2. Give your protagonist an impossible choice

A story’s plot is put in motion when a character has to choose between two equally frightening paths. No matter which route they take, they’re going to lose something, someone, or some part of themselves.

To create internal conflict, present a choice between your character’s core belief and your character’s goal. Or, have them choose between two different sides of themself that seem to be in conflict with one another. What happens if they ultimately make the right choice? What if they make the wrong one? No matter which, you can be sure there will be a journey of self discovery and a satisfying story.

3. Connect your protagonist’s internal and external conflicts

A story will be at its most powerful when the external and internal conflict are tied up together. The external challenge might be a result of an internal challenge—for instance, an uncertainty or mistrust which alienates a loved one—or, the external challenge might lead to the internal challenge—for instance, if a breakup causes a rupture of self image.

If you’ve identified the different conflicts of your story, look for ways in which they might be feeding on each other. If you can’t see a connection, you may need to go a little deeper. Ask yourself: what impact is this internal conflict having on my character’s day to day life? How is this external conflict affecting my character’s mental well-being?

A character’s internal conflict drives their journey

People are pretty complicated. Every single person has more going on under the surface than you would initially expect—and that’s rich soil to explore for your story. Now, you can explore the nuanced layers of internal conflict to take your characterization to the next level.