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January 17, 2022

The War Within: Exploring Internal Conflict in Character

Conflict is the essence of drama. At least, that’s what everyone says in every writing book ever. It’s true. Mostly.

While conflict can exist between a person and an external force (like nature or general society) or another person, some of the most real drama comes from the conflict within a single person. Every story has a conflict on all of these levels, but the best ones (in my opinion) put the most central conflict within the protagonist.

What is internal conflict?

First, let's start with defining this term. Internal conflict, in film, refers to the struggle that occurs within a character's mind. These are the issues that the character strives for throughout the plot internally. As opposed to external conflict, where a character is dealing with a force outside themselves, such as wars or other character's actions.

The value of internal conflict

While external and interpersonal conflict is great drivers of drama, internal conflict is one of the best tools we have as screenwriters because it imbibes our characters with life. Yet, no matter their personality type, no human does not experience internal conflict.

It’s wanting cake and ice cream, but your mother only allows one. It does not know which girl or guy you should date when you have feelings for two different ones. So it has to choose between a steady job or a scary dream.

Since internal conflict happens inside a human’s mind, when we show that our characters have internal conflict, the audience can more easily believe our characters act and react as humans would.

Internal conflict is where your character’s arc plays out entirely. By the end, their internal conflict should be resolved one way or another.

How to write internal conflict

Writing internal conflict can be difficult. After all, this is screenwriting, so we’re trying (mostly) to limit our writing to things that can be seen and heard, and internal conflict is…well, internal.

A trick to writing internal conflict (without the character just saying aloud their struggle) is to externalize it through context. Ensure that the audience understands the viable choices before the character, and give time for a character to weigh those choices. It’s the time and weight that make the internal conflict palpable.

Think of it as a fork in a path. If a character approaches a division and goes right without ever breaking stride, we’ll never understand a choice has been made. But if the character approaches, pauses, looks left and right, then grimaces, and reluctantly goes right, then we’ll see that a choice has been deliberated and made.

Notice also that the grimace provides a bit of emotional interpretation. The reluctance shows that it wasn’t necessarily easy, leading the audience to infer that a bit of conflict was going on in the character’s head.

Make sure the options are clear to the audience, slow down at the moment of debate/choice, and give an emotional reaction to the character.

Here’s a bit more about writing internal conflict from the screen, from John August: Internal Conflict: The Only Way To Write It For The Screen.

the-war-within-exploring-internal-conflict-in-character.

Examples of characters with internal conflict

Some of the best characters you’ve seen are the best because of their internal conflict. Whether it’s a flaw that they just can’t overcome or two goals that are just forever at odds, here’s a list of internal conflicts and the great characters they’ve produced.

Cassandra (in Promising Young Woman)

Cassandra wants to avenge her friend yet wants a life free of the pain it brings up.

Luke Skywalker (in Return of the Jedi)

Luke wants to defeat the Emperor, but he struggles to do so without giving in to anger.

Maximus (in Gladiator)

Maximus wants to kill the Emperor but also wants Rome to live up to its potential. Notice how often internal conflict doesn’t need to be seen in the character’s emotions so much as two goals that are odds. This externalizes the conflict through their choices.

Barry (in Barry)

Barry wants to stop being a hitman but also doesn’t want to get caught for being a hitman. Barry’s a great example because the internal conflict can quickly go unnoticed, as he’s continually pulled in by others (interpersonal) and involved in dangerous situations (external). But deep down, Barry has intense internal conflict over his choices to survive and the choices he wishes he could make.

Here are some more character examples from Industrial Scripts.

Let the audience do the work

Writing characters and developing their personalities can be difficult. However, when it's done right, it can add incredible depth and complexity to your story overall.

One of the great things about internal conflict is that the audience will do a lot of work for you. You don’t have to write a voiceover; you don’t have to have the characters say their feelings aloud. Instead, audiences will project an interior mind into your characters.

Simply putting irreconcilable choices ahead of your characters will force them into internal conflict, even if it’s never stated, is all you need for the audience to lean in.

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The War Within: Exploring Internal Conflict in Character
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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David Wain

For decades I've been searching for a seamless screenwriting app and and everything has come up way short – until Arc Studio. Writing and collaborating is easier than ever and it gets better every week. Well done!

David Wain
Writer/Director "Role Models"