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Sharpen Your Writing Skills: Internal vs. External Conflict

Written by MasterClass

Jan 17, 2019 • 9 min read

Conflict is the main tool a writer can use to create the world of their novel. Conflict can reveal uncomfortable truths about what it means to be human; it can express a writer’s views on a topic via characters and action. Conflict is a driving force of plot, and mastering it is integral to improved writing.


What Is Conflict?

Conflict is defined as a disagreement or clash of values, motivations, desires, or ideas. Conflict is what drives us humans to do great things in our lives, and it’s what propels our own stories forward. In writing, the presence of conflict creates narrative tension.

There are two types of conflicts in writing: internal and external. Both are rooted in the same underlying force: antagonism.

What Is Internal Conflict?

Internal conflict, or character vs. self, is a psychological struggle that takes place within a character, caused by their own emotions, fears, conflicting desires, or mental illnesses. Internal conflict tends to be a battle of reconciling two opposing forces within the same individual.

Example of Internal Conflict in Literature

  • Hamlet by Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Hamlet offers up a classic example of a character fighting their internal demons. Hamlet is told by a ghost that someone murdered his father and that Hamlet must avenge the murder. Throughout the play, Hamlet feels conflicted with himself as to whether someone actually did murder his father, and how to seek revenge in a noble fashion. The famous line “to be or not to be” reveals Hamlet’s internal struggle with his own self-doubt about avenging his father’s death. This internal struggle is Hamlet’s eventual downfall, as he does not take action until it is too late and Hamlet himself is murdered.

What Is External Conflict?

External conflict is a type of conflict that happens outside of the character. External forces stand in the way of a character’s motivations and create tension as the character tries to reach their goals.

There are three primary types of external conflict:

1) Character vs. Character

This type of conflict occurs when two characters, often with opposing viewpoints, are at odds with each other. In this type of conflict, both characters are carefully developed through indirect and direct characterization, so that the reader understands the core of their disagreement (and in some cases, is able to empathize with both).

Examples of Character vs. Character in Literature

The character vs. character conflict generally heavily influences plot, as evidenced by these famous examples:

  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter’s main conflict is with Lord Voldemort and that recurring conflict pushes all seven novels forward to the final, dramatic resolution. Within this conflict, we see characters align with either Harry or Lord Voldemort, who represent the forces of good and evil. This creates further opportunities for conflict within the novel’s secondary characters, as the division grows clearer and the tension, stronger.

  • The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen, the main character, is forced to battle other characters during the Hunger Games, a ritual which involves a fight between characters to the death. As the novels progress, her conflict shifts and transforms to a personal vendetta against the oppressive and sadistic leaders of her dystopian society.

  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Thrillers are driven almost entirely by external conflict, and this one is all about character clashes. Brown throws a series of antagonists at his main and secondary characters, adding tension and danger to the story of a slow-developing romance intertwined with family secrets. Internal conflict is limited, but that’s not the goal of the book – it’s a page-turner, and Brown’s deft use of a simple conflict formula earned him bestseller status.

2) Character vs. Society

Society is a broad antagonist that can encompass forces from social mores and unspoken customs to government systems. The judgment of society can feel collective and overwhelming, or entirely random, depending on the character’s perspective.

Example of Character vs. Society in Literature

A character battling the forces of society rejects the norms and expectations, and takes up a hero’s cause to right perceived wrongs, as in the following famous examples:

Gilead is an oppressive republic where fertile “handmaids” are sent to infertile couples to act as surrogate childbearers. The totalitarian state ascribes to xenophobia, protectivisim, and strict religious rules, until a bold handmaid named Offred threatens the status quo.

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we see an entire story driven by a character vs. society conflict. Winston, the novel’s main character, lives in a dystopian society with an all-powerful government that persecutes individualism and individual thought. While Winston is outwardly an upstanding member of the government party, he inwardly hates it which drives him to rebel against the party by entering into an illegal affair with a suspected informant named Julia.

  • The Trial by Franz Kafka

Kafka introduces the core conflict of this classic in the first line: "Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested." The Trial is the story of a man’s struggle against a society that has inexplicably targeted him; immediately entering the conflict gives the reader the same sense of overwhelming confusion and ostracism that Josef K. experiences.

3) Character vs. Nature

In this type of conflict, characters are threatened or kept apart by natural forces, powerful animals, or infectious diseases. Because nature is a silent opponent, characters are forced to reflect on their lives, often with the conclusion of accepting their mistakes, flaws, or mortality.

Example of Character vs. Nature in Literature

Some of the most famous antagonists in literature are the forces of nature, forces that presume to stop a character from reaching their goals.

  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

In this classic tale, an aging fisherman facing poverty struggles to pull in a huge marlin that could turn around his luck. As the old man comes into conflict with nature—not only the marlin, but sharks and storms—he must make peace with his past and a possible death at sea. Hemingway’s deft use of both internal and external conflict in this short novel revived his literary career.

4 Other Types of External Conflicts

While man vs. self, man vs. nature, and man vs. society are the three main buckets of external conflicts, there are a number of other obstacles a character can face throughout the course of a story. Depending on the genre, plot, or action, consider introducing the following elements as external forces:

1) Character vs. Supernatural

Pitting characters against phenomena like ghosts, or monsters raises the stakes of a conflict by creating an unequal playing field. Supernatural conflict is usually reserved for genre writing, however these otherworldly characters are also memorable foils in literary fiction (think of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, or that famous ghost Marley from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol).

2) Character vs. Technology

Science fiction is the most common setting for this type of conflict, in which characters face threatening machines that are often cold and inhuman. But because all machines are created by people, technology serves as a foil to examine human behavior and the nature of existence.

3) Character vs. Animal

A more specific subset of man vs. nature, this type of conflict pits a character directly with an animal that represents an oppositional force. In Moby Dick, for example, Captain Ahab hunts the gigantic sperm whale that he believes is a physical representation of all that is evil in the universe (spoiler alert: he dies).

4) Character vs. God

God, or fate, is a prevailing force that shapes a character’s journey. Greek tragedies commonly exhibit this conflict; refer to the doomed characters who battle their destiny in such famous classics as Antigone by Sophocles or Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus.

writing in the dark


3 Ways to Add Conflict to Your Writing

Antagonism is one of the critical tools of storytelling. Stories don’t move forward without conflict, and conflict is produced by antagonists. These can be individual villains or forces of society (even forces of nature), but it’s important to consider how you treat any antagonist. They should be just as well-developed as your main character, and that will often mean understanding them.

When expanding your narrative, you’re going to need to create conflict for your protagonist. For this, you’ll need forces of antagonism that work against them. In genre writing, antagonists are usually arch-villains, but they don’t have to be people—they can be any oppositional element that thwarts your character’s main desire.

In crafting this conflict, it’s helpful to remember some basic principles of antagonism.

  • The stronger the forces of antagonism are, the more well-developed your character will become.
  • The conflict should be tailored to your protagonist’s main desire.
  • Antagonism has to increase with time, or you’ll lose the reader’s interest.

Keeping antagonism in mind, try the following three exercises to introduce conflict into your narrative.

1) Invent Goals and Obstacles

The first thing your character needs is a goal, a want, a desire, a pursuit. Goals can be anything from making it to work on time or defeating every last evil force in the universe. The goal does not matter as much; what matters more is how badly your characters want to achieve the goal. Once you make a list of goals, create a list of the things that could stand in between your character and those goals.

If the character wants to make it to work on time, what will stop her? Traffic, a sudden snowstorm, a creature from the sky, an emergency phone call, an empty gas tank. If the character wants to defeat all the evil forces, what could stop her? Perhaps the evil forces reproduce, perhaps they are immortal, perhaps she’s riddled with self-doubt and needs to find the confidence first. Once you’re in the habit of creating goals and obstacles, you’ll find that plot points start falling into place and feeling more natural, or more real.

2) Find the Moral Gray Area

Look for complex arguments that will lead you to moral gray areas. A moral gray area is like a white lie: its intentions are good but the ways to the means, debatably so. Consider, for example, the idea that the government reads personal emails but that this act has successfully thwarted terrorist attempts on American soil. Is it all right to violate a citizen’s privacy in an effort to protect other citizens? A morally gray area like this one is perfect for generating conflict between characters throughout the course of your story. It will add richness to your hero and your villain, and it will engage your reader.

3) Practice Saying “No”

In writing, “yes” opens doors and “no” creates conflict. You want to stay open to possibilities while remembering to pit your character against forces that will try to stop him or her, or tell him or her “no.” Practice writing a scene in which two characters disagree at every turn. Can you get them to reach a resolution while still expressing opposing viewpoints? This concept also applies to any type of antagonist, for example a society that tries to keep a character down, a god that won’t let a character exert free will, or an animal that gets in a character’s way.