Internal conflict is a device used in fiction writing that enables the author to portray character development. Characters face internal conflict when they struggle to make a choice. Struggles may involve fate, morality or personal beliefs. Internal conflict gives characters dimension and makes them easier to relate to. People often face internal conflict of some kind, so when a character in a story struggles with internal conflict it evokes sympathy and connection.
Right and Wrong
Many internal conflicts boil down to the difference between right and wrong. In children's literature, the conflict is usually an external one in which good and evil are clear-cut. Novels feature internal conflict in which the right and wrong choices may not be so apparent. A character might have to make an ethical decision or act in a way that does not correspond to her emotions. Choosing between family loyalty and passionate love, or children and significant others, is an example of a right vs. wrong internal conflict. Characters that must choose between the morally right option and the option that feels good are facing a common internal conflict.
Releasing the Past
Characters struggling to move forward are having an internal conflict about releasing the past. There may be a person from the character's past that is hard to forget, and he may be unable to connect emotionally in present relationships. Characters who faced abuse in their past may make choices that place them into abusive situations in the present. For instance, a female character who was abused as a young girl may date abusive men as an adult until she overcomes her conflict with the past and chooses a healthy relationship.
Internal conflicts are sometimes the result of a character's self-doubt or lack of self-awareness. If a character wants to achieve a goal, it may be necessary to take on certain personality traits to achieve that goal. A young character entering high school or college may decide to behave like her peers, even if the behavior does not align with her values. She may behave promiscuously or be disrespectful to people as she struggles to define her own system of values. A character that initially has a bad attitude and makes bad decisions might face internal conflict when faced with a serious problem. Though her choice in the past may have been impulsiveness or cruelty, overcoming her internal conflict may lead to a responsible or kind decision in the present.
Coming face-to-face with your own mortality is a dramatic internal conflict. Capturing the moment when a character realizes his life will not go on forever something everyone can relate to. Likewise, in fantasy writing, a character may face an internal struggle over immortality. Though not realistic, examining the pros and cons of living forever enables writers to develop a character in an interesting way. A character offered a choice between mortality and immortality will be faced with multiple internal conflicts, including right vs. wrong, fear vs. courage and strength vs. weakness.