I've long known what the purpose of inner conflict is. Indeed, it was one of the simplest concepts for me to grasp when I was learning about it. Now I'm not so sure.

I seem to have developed a dual understanding of inner conflict: what I used to know, and what I now know. Neither seem wrong, but they are different and can't both be the purpose of inner conflict.

My question therefore is simple: What is the purpose of inner conflict? Why does one include it in their characters?

The reason I'm not explaining how I view inner conflict is because I don't want to turn this question into a debate over which of my views are correct, or if either are. I want to hear how you view inner conflict instead.

Note: As with any aspect of writing, I'm sure there are those who disagree with it. If you believe writers should not use inner conflict, I am interested to hear what you have to say. However, please put it in a comment. Only use an answer to answer the actual question.

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    Without the inner conflict, your story has no more significance than a football game.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 1:39

4 Answers 4


Inner conflict is the whole enchilada. All good stories lead up to a moment of crisis in which the protagonist must make a choice. That choice must be personally difficult. It must come at personal cost. Deciding to buy the Chevy rather than the Ford is a choice, but not one that comes at a personal moral or psychological cost. The climax of a story is always that moment of change or revelation when the protagonist must ask themselves, am I this sort of person or that, am I willing to pay this price or not?

All stories also need something to bring the protagonist to this crisis point. This is the role of external conflict. But external conflict is not enough in itself. Its point is to create the occasion on which the inner personal conflict must be faced. Otherwise resolving the external conflict is a mere technical matter, like choosing between the Chevy and the Ford.

The crisis point of inner personal conflict can also be reached without an external antagonist, without an external conflict. But external and internal conflicts are not alternatives. Internal conflict is always at the heart. The external conflict is merely a mechanism to bring them to that point.

  • Looking over the answers, there seem to be two general ideas: 1) inner conflict makes the character more relate-able, as mentioned by FlyingPiMonster, and 2) inner conflict is the climax of the novel, as mention by you. Both seem logical. Which one is it? Is there a reason inner conflict is not simply a device to make characters for relate-able, as suggested by FlyingPiMonster? Commented May 13, 2017 at 15:46
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    Why would inner conflict make a character more relatable? Only because we recognize the inner conflict as something we have in common with the character. So if we relate to the character because of their inner conflict, can the story be satisfying if their inner conflict is not central to the story, If not, the very thing that drew us to the character turns out not to matter in the story. The inner conflict is whether to leave his wife for the woman he has falling in love with, but the climax of the story is that he buys the Chevy instead of the Ford. How can than not be a disappointment?
    – user16226
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 15:57
  • Now that I've given this some thought, I realize that you've revolutionized the way I see conflict in novels. While great, this poses a problem in the other direction: external conflict. You say that external conflict 'brings the protagonist to [the climax]'. How does it do that? How can I tell if I need an external conflict or not? P.S. In case this is about to turn into a long discussion, we should move it to chat. Commented May 14, 2017 at 15:48
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    @ThomasMyron That probably deserves a whole question to itself, but the basic answer is that the external conflict puts the character in a situation where their internal conflict has to be faced.
    – user16226
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 20:04
  • I've posted that question, and would like to hear your thoughts on it: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/28087/… Commented May 15, 2017 at 16:43

Inner conflict, as I define it, is simply a character's conflict with themself, rather than a character's conflict with the outside world. Inner conflict might be caused by an outside conflict (it usually is), but this is typically because the external conflict reveals something conflicting within the character.

Inner conflict can take many forms. Often, a character holds a certain worldview, but goes through an external conflict that forces them to reevaluate that worldview. Take, for example, the movie Cars. Lightning McQueen, the main character, is a famous race car who is accustomed to living in big cities and being carried everywhere in his trailer. When he gets stranded in the small, rural town of Radiator Springs, he comes to question his own values and morals as he meets the people there.

Or, an inner conflict might take the form of a difficult decision. This would be a major decision, one that calls into question (again) what the character truly values.

What is the purpose of inner conflict? It helps us connect with the characters more. Connecting with characters is critical to good storytelling; we don't care what happens to characters we don't care about.

Inner conflict makes your characters more human. Real people have inner conflicts. In fact, most of the inner conflicts in literature are real conflicts that many real people face.

Having a character go through such an inner conflict allows us to connect with them. Have you ever battled an evil wizard? Have you ever blown up a Death Star? Most of us haven't [citation needed]. But we can relate to the situations these characters are in, largely because we can relate to their inner conflict. We can think about a character's dilemma: Would I hand myself over to the guy who wants to kill me in order to save my friends? and ask ourselves if we would do the same. We can watch Luke's inner turmoil as he is tempted by the power of the Dark Side and compare it to our own temptation.

TL;DR Inner conflict is simply a conflict that occurs within a character's mind, usually involving their morals/beliefs/values. All types of conflict are engaging if they are written well, but inner conflict is one of the most relatable, because we all experience it.

  • Looking over the answers, there seem to be two general ideas: 1) inner conflict makes the character more relate-able, as mentioned by you, and 2) inner conflict is the climax of the novel, as mention by Mark Baker. Both seem logical. Which one is it? Is there a reason inner conflict is not the choice led up to in the climax, as Mark Baker suggests? Commented May 13, 2017 at 15:45
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    @ThomasMyron I think it is both. You could write a story where there is no inner conflict, and the external conflict is the climax. But it would likely not mean much to us, because of the reasons I stated. So instead we use external conflict to drive an internal conflict. They typically reach their climax at the same time, since they're tied together. Commented May 13, 2017 at 16:02

Since you say you know what an inner conflict is, I'll try and avoid explaining it.

Instead, I should point out that the definition of 'inner conflict' is why it is used in a novel.

Having your character disagree with himself excites the reader. The reader wonders what the character is going to choose, and the consequences of that choice. Let's say the character has someone he doesn't want to lose, but that person could potentially ruin the goal he has been trying to achieve throughout the novel. What does he do? He is now in conflict with himself, and the reader is given the opportunity to guess what is going to happen. This has the reader wanting more.

Inner conflict is seen so often, in almost every novel, because of the reason I've just explained.

Hoping this answers your question.

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    I thought I knew what inner conflict is. Now I'm not so sure, because I have two conflicting definitions of it. I would welcome your definition of it. And thank you for your answer! Commented May 12, 2017 at 22:58
  • Basically, the character is in conflict with himself. He does not know what to do or what to choose. What did you believe inner conflict to be?
    – James
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 4:03

Without some degree of inner conflict you have virtually no meaningful narrative. A debate between two agreeing a parties is a very short debate. A story may contain a major internal conflict or a series of conflicts. Life is a series of decisions - each of which is in itself a conflict.

In characterisation a conflicted character comes across as lacking confidence. If you go beyond the basic grammar and editing guidelines evidence of conflict is portrayed in the language.

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