internal conflict

[ in-tur-nl kon-flikt ]
/ ˈɪn tɜr nl ˈkɒn flɪkt /
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psychological struggle within the mind of a literary or dramatic character, the resolution of which creates the plot's suspense: Hamlet's inaction is caused by internal conflict.
mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.


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Origin of internal conflict

First recorded in 1580–90
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is an internal conflict?

Internal conflict is a struggle within a person’s mind over a problem or question. That’s why it’s called internal.

Internal conflict vs. external conflict

All stories have conflict. Conflict makes the action happen. Conflict is the challenge that moves the plot along. But, if you’ve read a novel or watched a movie, you know there are many, many different types of plots—driven by different types of conflict. The biggest types are internal conflict and external conflict.

External conflict is when a person (or group) fights with something else outside of themselves. For example, a person may have conflict with an entire society, that’s external conflict. Think of To Kill A Mockingbird: Atticus Finch is fighting against the structural racism of his entire town.

Other types of external conflict are “Person vs. Environment” (Life of Pi), “Person vs. Supernatural” (Ghostbusters), and “Person vs. Machine” (The Terminator).

However, with internal conflict, there’s only one version: “Person vs. Self.” Internal conflict is a struggle within the self, not a struggle against an outside force. The archetypal image of this conflict is a person with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, with the devil telling them to do the bad thing and the angel telling them to do the good thing.

Think about the movie The Emperor’s New Groove, where Kronk’s internal conflict is literally represented by tiny angel-and-devil costumed versions of himself.

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What are real-life examples of internal conflict?

In the literary context, internal conflict refers to a character’s inner struggle. You might say that a particular book or movie is driven by internal conflict, meaning that the action revolves around a character’s emotional struggle within themselves.

Internal struggles of this kind are peppered throughout pop culture too, since they’re important parts of character development. The moment in the Lord of the Rings series where Frodo can’t decide whether to go to Gondor with Boromir or straight to Mordor is internal conflict. Every time Spock wrestles with the existence of his own emotions in Star Trek: The Original Series, that’s an internal conflict too. And, in the Lion King, when Nala finds Simba and tells him he must return to Pride Rock, his dilemma over whether to go back or not is internal conflict.

In everyday life, we might encounter moral or ethical dilemmas that we have trouble resolving and feel conflicted about. In these cases, we can describe this as our own internal conflict about a concept or problem.

Internal conflict can also be used more broadly to describe problems within a whole organization or nation, not just a single person. In that case, it means that the people inside the organization are fighting with each other. This is a little bit different than the literary use, but the basic connotations of “problems coming from inside, not outside” remains the same.

How to use internal conflict in a sentence