If you’ve ever found yourself reading a novel or short story and wondering how the character is going to make a difficult choice, then you have experienced internal conflict in literature. Internal conflict allows us to see characters make important choices and either flourish or suffer as a result of those choices. Often internal conflict helps us connect to characters, and we may even have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
Internal conflict in literature, sometimes called “person vs. self conflict,” is the conflict that occurs inside a particular character’s mind. Usually internal conflict involves a character being faced with a difficult choice. Often, the choices of the main character of a work greatly influence the resolution of the plot. Internal conflict can be revealed through dialogue, narration and a character’s action.
When identifying internal conflict, determine if there is an easily identifiable opposition to the character in question. If the character is fighting against another character, animals or even the something in nature, such as the weather, the conflict is not internal. Because internal conflict occurs only in one character’s mind, if there are tangible opposing forces, identify the conflict as external.
A character’s internal conflict is resolved when he makes a final decision and/or carries out actions based on that choice. If the internal conflict is the story’s primary conflict, then the reader can usually predict what the character’s choice will be during the climax of the plot, even though the actual resolution may not take place until after the climax, during the falling action or denouement. If the internal conflict is a secondary conflict, resolution may take place at any time during the story.
One example of internal conflict is in John Steinbeck’s novella, "Of Mice and Men." George Milton, one of the main characters, spends his life looking after his mentally disabled friend, Lennie Small. Because of Lennie’s great size, he becomes unintentionally dangerous to others. George’s internal conflict surrounds how to best care for his friend while maintaining the safety of those around him. Because this conflict centers on a decision George must make by himself and that occurs in his own mind, the conflict is internal.
Other types of conflict in literature are considered external conflict. There are three main types of external conflict, person vs. person, person vs. nature, or person vs. society. While external conflicts may be more specific, such as person vs. technology, all external conflicts usually fit into these three main categories.
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