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June 30, 2024 12:00
Scared woman with shadow behind her illustration. The importance of story conflict.
character development

Internal and External Conflict in Fiction

Krystle Appiah. Former editor at Macmillan
Krystle Appiah
January 29, 2023
January 29, 2023

Writers working in every genre and for every age group will doubtless hear a lot about the importance of story conflict. After all, conflict drives the story forward, creates satisfying character arcs, and reflects the tensions between two opposing forces that we face in real life – and that are the foundation of compelling stories. From dystopian tales like The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale to childhood favourites like Matilda, conflict occurs from early on and spurs the plot onwards.

But conflict can come in all shapes and sizes. To begin with, there’s external conflict versus internal conflict. The former is wrought upon your main character by external forces – that is, events and circumstances beyond their control. The latter relates to the character’s own internal conflicts: their contradictory impulses, duties, desires and self-doubt. If you’re writing lighthearted fiction for any age group, don’t worry: internal conflicts don’t have to be soul-rending. In fact, internal conflicts affect us every day. It can be as simple as wanting to buy a cool new pair of football boots, but not having saved enough to afford them. If we see your character fighting to fulfil or resist their wants/needs, then we’ve got some interesting internal struggles that could serve as your core conflict – or as a secondary story conflict.

Which brings us to the question of primary versus secondary conflicts. And then we have to think about how all these character conflicts and the outside forces that operate on them relate to one another, and how much of each we need. If the character’s internal conflict is powerful, do we still need to add external conflict? And to make that external conflict work in the story, does it have to relate to the character conflict going on in their heads?

If you’ve been pondering any of these questions or trying to ramp up the external and internal conflict at the heart of your book, we’ve got you covered. In this blog post, our children’s fiction editor Krystle Appiah shares her insights on how to include conflict obstacles to make sure you have a good story with plenty of character development and high stakes!

Conflict is everywhere in storytelling

If I say ‘conflict’ what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Is it an epic fight scene, arguing best friends, villains swooping in on horseback to kidnap the princess, a love triangle to end all love triangles, an alien invasion that throws your hero’s life into chaos? Whatever you imagine, conflict is and always should be at the very heart of a novel.

Let’s face it: stories would be incredibly dull and uneventful without conflict. In board books and picture books aimed at children aged 0–5, we see conflict introduced as a way to teach kids about friendship, sharing, communication, self-awareness, basic conflict resolution and so much more.

If you don’t believe me, take a peek inside The Squirrels Who Squabbled, The Case of the Missing Cake, The Day the Crayons Quit or Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back.

What is conflict?

In its simplest form, conflict could be defined as ‘a problem or struggle characters need to overcome’.

But conflict is never a one-size-fits-all tool. A conflict that works well in one novel could be the very worst idea for another novel. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and different conflicts will impact your characters and plot to varying degrees.

Each and every conflict your characters encounter should serve a purpose, to either help or hinder them as they pursue their character goals.

Different conflicts are born out of different contexts: individual characters might have their own internal conflicts, two characters might fight with one another, or you might have one character or a group fighting an external problem – to name but a few set-ups.

One thing’s for sure: each and every conflict your characters encounter should serve a purpose, to either help or hinder them as they pursue their character goals.

I like my characters. Do I really need conflict?

Yes! And before you ask, here’s exactly why it’s essential: conflict is the driving force of your novel.

Each struggle, obstacle or challenge that your characters face is a plot point that will lead them to a fork in the road of your narrative. They can either:

  • Go forward and develop as characters and overcome said obstacles
  • Stay where they are, get stuck and never achieve their goal
  • Turn back and find another route

It might help to think of it another way. As the driving force of your novel, conflict either means pressing down on the accelerator (gas pedal) or the brakes. In extreme examples, conflicts could even mean putting the car in reverse so that your characters are temporarily worse off than they were at the start of the story.

Whether your characters end up at their destination or not is very dependent on the conflicts they face, and if they do or don’t learn from those experiences and develop the skills they’ll need by the climax.

Shall we break it down now?

What types of conflict do we see in novels?

You’ve probably heard about all kinds of conflict: external conflict, internal conflict, big conflicts, little conflicts, conflicts with the natural world, with other characters, with society at large... But we can break conflict down into a few key categories that can help ensure you have a cracking story and lots of rich character development.

The central conflict

This problem or obstacle is at the foundation of your story. It’s usually introduced very early on or triggered by the inciting incident.

Using the analogy above, you can think of the central conflict as the moment the car’s engine clicks on and the journey begins. This problem is the first obstacle that sets your story in motion and one that your hero will spend the entire novel trying to correct – so make sure it’s not an easy fix.

In the classic children’s story Matilda, the central problem is that one bookish, brainy and gifted little girl does not fit in with her family or have a place where she belongs. Matilda needs a home where she is loved, appreciated and accepted, and she’ll spend the whole novel searching for this.

So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.
Roald Dahl, Matilda

Ideally, the central conflict should be something that boils down to a simple question. As a writer, your job is to keep this question in mind over the next 35,000—75,000+ words as you work towards an answer. In the case of Matilda, the question at the heart of her story could be, ‘Will Matilda find a place where she belongs?’ or ‘Will Matilda find a home where she’s accepted and loved?’

Major conflict

This type of conflict crops up specifically because of your main character’s flaw. In some way, we have to see the character’s position or nature conflict with their goal.

The major or main conflict is ‘the gap between who your character is at the start of the story and who they need to be at the end of it’.

This is where we see your main character’s moral conflict or the character arc in action! A major conflict popping up shows readers that a major change is needed. This is usually a perspective shift or a dramatic change in your main character’s circumstances – cue the adventure!

The major or main conflict is ‘the gap between who your character is at the start of the story and who they need to be at the end of it’.

There are many things that could bring about this major, central conflict. It could be because of your character’s position in society, how they view the world, their duties versus their wants, their values, secrets, or pretty much anything else that’s at the core of who they are to feel believable.

writing conflict in fiction
The Children’s Fiction Writing Course Program at The Novelry.

How exactly does a character flaw lead to conflict?

A character flaw doesn’t create the major or core conflict. It exposes it.

Character flaw + Obstacle -> Major Conflict

Here are a few examples:

  • A selfish and isolated main character + who wants friends -> will need to learn to be kind, not selfish, if they’re ever going to make friends
  • A character with a fear of water + a sibling that falls overboard on a fishing trip -> a sudden need to overcome their fear so they can rescue their sibling
  • A spoiled and lazy prince + cast out of the palace -> will need to learn some humility and the value of hard work before he’s welcomed back into the fold

These in-built conflicts point to a deficit or flaw your main character has. It shows readers the choice they need to make to:

  1. Change and reach their goal
  2. Change and get something better
  3. Stay the same and likely fall at the final hurdle
When I write I am always looking for the dramatic kernel of an event, the junctures of people’s lives when they go in one direction, not another.
—Joyce Carol Oates

Ultimately, the major conflict is a moral one. It’s about who your characters are at the beginning of your novel and who they are becoming – and it needs to be resolved before your characters get to the end of their story.

In The Last Firefox, Charlie starts off as a timid, fearful boy (flaw) who becomes guardian to a firefox that’s being tracked down by a hunter (obstacle), which means Charlie needs to learn to be brave (major conflict) if he’s going to protect his friend (goal).

Often, stories have a pivotal moment where your main character overcomes their flaw or shifts their perspective in a big way, but it can also happen in smaller incremental ways, which leads us on to…

Minor conflicts

In the grand scheme of your novel, minor conflicts are small problems your characters face that propel the plot forward. They can often be resolved in a short period of time, e.g. anything from one scene or one conversation to a few chapters. These could be conflicts with other characters, technology, nature, something magical or supernatural or even a conflict your characters have brought upon themselves.

These minor obstacles might seem pretty inconsequential at first glance, but they provide regular moments of tension that carry readers through the story.

Plus, each one is a potential moment of growth or failure for your characters. When used effectively, these minor conflicts could be times when readers see your characters develop the skills they’ll need when it’s time to face the big, scary obstacles at the climax. Think of minor conflicts as the building blocks in character growth and development.

Examples of minor conflicts:

  • A character argues with their parent
  • Your main character gets lost in the woods
  • The school bully embarrasses your main character
  • Your main character gets detention and can’t meet their crush after school
  • Your character doesn’t get picked to join a sports team
  • Your main character breaks a promise and feels guilty about it
  • A character loses something important
  • A character gets sick

Internal and external conflict

Now, this is where things get even more fiddly. Another way to categorise conflict is as either external conflict or internal conflict.

Internal conflict is defined as ‘the struggle between a character’s emotions, values, desires, traits and interests that might stop them from achieving their goal’.

This type of conflict is essential for developing a character arc. It helps ensure characters’ problems resonate with readers. Often – but not always – an internal conflict serves as the major one.

And external conflict is ‘a problem characters face due to circumstances outside of their control’.

Multiple internal and external conflicts can be at play in a single scene or chapter.

An example of internal and external conflict

In Nura and the Immortal Palace, twelve-year-old risk-taker Nura is torn between her desire to beat Ahmed (internal conflict) by mining the most mica jewels (external conflict), her desire to stay safe from a potential mine collapse (external conflict) and appease her friend Faisal (internal conflict).

Faisal’s always cautioning safety, but me and all the other kids threw safety to the sea when we accepted this job. The deeper the tunnels we dig, the greater the chance they’ll collapse. And I’ve heard the horror stories too – about all the kids who never came back.
—M.T. Khan, Nura and the Immortal Palace

If you keep reading, you’ll see how all the minor internal and external conflicts interact with the major conflict of Nura’s risk-taking behaviour to create a very tense scene. As a reader, I love how much complexity is added just by throwing in a few different types of conflict. We see that Nura is pulled in multiple directions. Plus, the conflicts she faces feel entirely believable based on what we know about who she is as a character.

Why your story needs external and internal conflicts

Lastly, here are a few final thoughts on conflict and why it’s essential to include both external and internal conflict in your story:

  1. Conflict is key when it comes to developing characters.
  2. The existence of conflict lets readers know something is at stake.
  3. Conflict creates tension, and tension keeps readers turning the pages.

And I’ll leave you with this final piece of advice.

The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
—Thomas Paine

Go off, cause problems and give your characters obstacles to overcome. Let’s see what they’re made of.

Someone writing in a notebook
Krystle Appiah. Former editor at Macmillan
Krystle Appiah

Before joining The Novelry, Krystle Appiah was an Editor at Macmillan Children’s Books, home to authors including Marcus Rashford, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Tomi Adeyemi and Julia Donaldson.

Members of The Novelry team