External Conflict vs Internal Conflict
“Plot, or evolution, is life responding to environment; and not only is this response always in terms of conflict, but the really great struggle, the epic struggle of creation, is the inner fight of the individual whereby the soul builds up character.”
—William Wallace Cook, July 1923
It is essential that all fiction writers understand conflict. Every genre has a different balance between external and internal conflict, but for a novel to truly be effective it absolutely must have both.
You need to understand your genre, and whether the emphasis for that genre is on internal or external conflict. For example, a thriller would have a great deal more external conflict than a Romance novel. But the best thrillers, have internal conflict too (think Jason Bourne and his search for his own identity).
So what exactly is the difference between Internal and External conflict?
External conflict is everything that happens TO your characters. This could be:
Man vs Man (think John McClane going up against the terrorists in Die Hard)
Man vs. Society (Katniss going up against the ruling establishment in The Hunger Games)
Man vs Nature (think the The Perfect Storm or Titanic).
Internal Conflict is everything that happens WITHIN your main character(s), or what is known as Man vs. Self. Internal conflict stems from the characters inner issues: who they are as people, their beliefs, their experiences, their hang-ups.
Disney's Beauty and the Beast provides the perfect example.
* Spoiler alert below *
Pretty Belle is a dreamer, a hopeless romantic. Gaston, the town's most eligible - and most self-centred - bachelor, decides he wants Belle as his wife. Meanwhile, living alone in a nearby castle, is the Beast, a prince transfigured by an enchantress because of his selfishness and his inability to love. The spell will only be broken when he learns to love and is loved in return. But as the years pass and no-one can see past his hideousness, the Beast grows more angry and more reclusive.
Belle and the Beast are thrown together (watch the movie for the details I'm skipping over). Slowly, despite the obvious obstacles, they become friends and attraction grows between them. She learns to see past his hideous face to the man within and he learns to control his anger and find hope and joy once again.
Just as it seems they are going to come together, Belle looks in a magic mirror and sees that her father is ill and needs help. The Beast lets her go, even though he knows it means giving up his only chance to break the spell and transform back into a prince.
In trying to help her father, Belle tells the townsfolk about the Beast. Led by the jealous Gaston, the townsfolk storm the Beast's castle. The Beast is injured in the fight and Belle finds him. She reveals her love for him in his dying moments and so he is saved and transformed back into a handsome prince. Happy Ever After.
Now the external conflicts are clear: the enchantress' spell, her father's illness, Gaston's jealousy, the excited mob. A certain amount of external conflict is always necessary, but it is the less obvious internal conflicts that add depth to any story and which keep the reader hooked.
In Belle's case, her internal conflict is her romantic idealism. She dreams of living the fantasy she reads about, and yearns for a hero like those in her books. She knows she doesn't want Gaston, but she still has to learn to look beneath the Beast's hideous features to love the man within.
In the Beast's case, he needs to learn to love and to put someone else's needs above his own.
Even when all the external conflicts have been resolved, and the battle with the townsfolk has been won, Belle and her Beast cannot find their Happy Ever After without overcoming their own prejudices and issues. And it is important that they are the only ones who can help each other overcome these issues. No-one else but Belle can draw the Beast out of the anger he has withdrawn into and bring him to the point where he is able to put her needs before his own. No-one but the Beast is able to show Belle that true beauty is within.
Having a clear idea of what your characters' conflicts are and how they're going to overcome them is the basis of your character arcs. In resolving their internal conflicts, your characters learn and grow. This gives them depth, makes them real people as opposed to two-dimensional characters, and makes your reader care about them.
Can you see how you can apply this in your own writing? Do you have any questions regarding internal and eternal conflict? Leave your comments and questions in the comments section below.