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Jan 3, 2020

Internal Conflict 101

By Bethany Tucker.

Conflict is the fuel of a story. It’s what makes the character burn and shine and the plot points churn. Without it, the engine, the world in which the story is told, has nothing to make it thrum with life. Conflict, however, comes in two forms, external and internal. Both are necessary for a strong story.

How do you know what kind of conflict is taking place? Imagine that you are walking toward a friend’s house, through a gate and into their yard. In front of you is a large, crazy-eyed dog growling, fangs bared. This is external conflict: you vs. dog.

Now, think about this again. You’re walking up to the same house. Asleep on the porch is a tiny, fluffy Maltese. This time, however, you have a phobia of dogs. You’re afraid to even open the gate and go into the yard. But you really don’t want your friend to know what a wuss you are. This is Internal Conflict: your fear vs. your desire.

Here are some famous examples of Internal Conflict:

-       Hunger Games: Katniss choosing between her promise to her sister to survive and her morals as a human.
-       Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Luke’s struggle in the face of Rei’s request, to deny the Force. He’s not fighting her, he’s fighting his internal demons.
-       Marvel: Bruce Banner’s struggle between his nature as the angry Hulk and the intellectual doctor.
-       Lord of the Rings: Aaragon’s resistance to claiming the throne of Gondor, even though the world of Man needs him to lead because he fears he carries the weakness of his ancestors.

Internal conflict can often appear to be an impossible choice. It’s a contradiction of internal traits, values, and loyalties. It must have external consequences often attached or even driving the main external conflict.

Think of Internal Conflict as what is taking place in a character, standing at the top of a cliff looking down. They’re standing on the edge because they intend to jump, but they haven’t jumped yet because part of them doesn’t want to jump.

As soon as they jump or walk away from the cliff, however, that conflict is over. There’s a release of energy. It either ignites the External Conflict showdown or resolves it. Internal and External Conflict must be enmeshed. For example, in Star Wars: the Last Jedi, when Luke resolves his internal conflict about himself as a Jedi, he immediately enters into conflict with Kylo Ren. Or in Hunger Games, when Katniss overcomes her Internal Conflict about teaming up with Peeta to fight and survive, she enters into External Conflict with the Game Master.

To utilize Internal Conflict in a story, hang on to these seven key points:

1) All stories must have internal conflict, even if it’s not front and center.

2) Internal Conflict must cause problems for the character.

3) Internal Conflict sets up tension, or creates tension where the External Conflict does not, but is almost always tied to the External Conflict, just like External Conflict is tied back to the Internal Conflict.

4) Whoever has the most internal conflict on the page and the largest changes in themselves are probably the protagonist of the story.

5) The Internal Conflict may go unseen by anyone outside of the characters internal world.

6) Internal Conflict is often grounded in past pain, fear, trauma, conflicting obligations, conflicting desires, or beliefs and values that no longer apply in the character’s space.

7) Internal Conflict should never be resolved without costing the character something.

Let’s apply all this to Mulan, the Disney version of the story. This is a perfect example of Internal Conflict and External Conflict driving each other. The External conflict is focused on the invading Huns. But Internal Conflict has the leading role. Mulan is not a “perfect bride”. She’s not graceful or demure, despite how hard she tries. No amount of pretty clothes and makeup can make her the “perfect bride” that will bring honor to her family and make her father proud by securing a good match. She’s in trouble, internally with herself and externally with society. This is how internal and external conflict feed each other.

In a heartbreaking scene, Mulan goes to her ancestral temple behind her family’s house and sings “Reflections”, asking herself when her face will reflect who she is inside. This is her Internal Conflict, she desperately wants to honor her parents, and yet the only path open to her, because of her place in society, is one she is unsuited for.

This is the theme of the film: Mulan trying and failing to be things that she’s told to be, and denying her own identity in the process. Her second attempt to resolve the Internal Conflict is her choice to save her father from conscription into the army to fight the Huns. For weeks, she trains, failing and actually being sent home, before her natural intelligence wins her a place in the fighting forces. This use of her natural intelligence is her first step towards unraveling her Internal Conflict.

For a time, she’s successful as a “soldier”. She even plays the pivotal role in a great battle. Unfortunately, she’s wounded in action and unmasked as a woman. This is failure two: being a soldier. This is the dark night of her soul. She has lost her internal battle, even if she won the external one against the Huns. Internal Conflict is resolved, for the negative. She’s no longer trying to be anything and there’s no hope for bringing her family honor.

Preparing to ride home, she sees the Huns sneaking into the Capital. Refusing to stay idle, except for saving China (the External Conflict), she engages the threat as herself. Even though there might be a tragic outcome, this action demonstrates the power of what takes place when she resolves her Internal Conflict. She has nothing to lose. She tries at least half a dozen times to warn her former military leader and then random people around the palace. No one listens. In a grand display, the emperor is taken captive before thousands of his people. Relying on her natural intelligence, her knowledge of being a woman, and her skills as a soldier, Mulan devices a way into the palace using subterfuge. She saves the emperor. External Conflict resolved.

However, Mulan still has her own Internal Defeat. She is prepared to even die for acting out of the limitations placed on women in her society because she has no honor left in the eyes of others. Her rash actions, in part, were possible because she was no longer trying to be anything but what she was.

In an about-face on the part of society, the Emperor, in recognition of her actions, presents her with the enemy’s sword and a medal, granting her honor. She returns home, kneeling before her father and presents the sword and medal. Internal Conflict resolved, again, this time positively. She’s brought honor to the family, but as herself, through her own choices. Her dignity has not come from the Emperor choosing to recognize her, but through her own internal trials.

Internal Conflict, especially when tied with External Conflict, is an incredible tool for driving an unforgettable story that readers will demand to read. Never leave this in your toolbox. Take it out and use it! And while you’re at it, please comment below about your favorite Internal Conflict in a book or film.


About the Author: Bethany Tucker
Bethany lives on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State, west of Seattle. She has been writing fiction for the last twenty years. It’s an urge she can’t escape, nor does she want to. Bethany writes epic fantasy with heavy dalliances in the paranormal under a pen name as an independent author. She is also a freelance editor and formerly an English instructor, though she would point out that teaching English is not actually what leads her to be qualified to edit fiction. She has lived abroad extensively and credits her ability to write diverse fantastical worlds to those experiences.