Internal conflict is one of two types of conflict within literature and film (the other being external conflict).
Internal conflicts are all about internal emotional struggles. The main character must struggle and fight within themselves to achieve the courage or inner realization to overcome their inner weaknesses. Their mind is the struggle, rather than something external to themselves.
A great example of an inner conflict is that of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, who fights in his mind between his innate evil and innate good, until he is overcome by the “dark side” and chooses evil.
Below, I’ll provide thirty-seven examples – both from real literature and once I’ve made up – that you can use as stimuli for your own plots.
Internal vs External Conflict
Internal conflict and external conflict are two fundamental types of conflict featured in literature and film.
- Internal conflicts occur within a character’s mind, involving struggles such as questioning their sense of self or battling internal desires that threaten to consume them. A typical example is Hamlet’s hesitation between seeking revenge and tending to his duties.
- External conflicts involve challenges from things outside of the main character – such as antagonist characters or natural disasters impacting the character’s life. An example is Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” where the protagonist struggles against the natural forces of the ocean as he tries to catch a fish.
Internal conflicts tend to provide an introspective look at the human condition: how characters react when facing temptations, guilt, identity crises or maturation. In comparison, external conflicts offer a broader perspective, shifting focus towards the protagonist in a fight against a damaging force that is threatening them or their family.
Types of Internal Conflict
There are two types of internal conflict: man vs self and man vs destiny.
The key difference between a “man vs self” plot and a “man vs destiny” plot lies in the nature of the conflict.
- Man vs Self: In a “man vs self” plot, the central conflict emerges from an emotional struggle. This internal conflict could be related to their values, fears, or issues. It creates tension with the individual’s sense of identity, forcing them to change in order to achieve resolution – such as depicted in “The Great Gatsby,” where Jay Gatsby battles between his desire for love and success while working through his insecurities.
- Man vs Destiny: in a “man vs destiny” plot, the central conflict emerges when an individual faces an inner struggle between what they want and what destiny commands of them. Here, the protagonist fights against their destiny but, in most cases, comes to the realization that they need to come to terms with their pre-determined destiny.
Internal Conflict Examples
I’ve broken the following examples of internal conflicts into five literary themes: fear of failure, quest for self-identity, conflict between desires and duties, internal struggle between good and evil, and fighting one’s own destiny.
Fear of Failure (Man vs Self)
One of the most iconic representations of man vs self conflict surrounding the fear of failure is portrayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby”.
The main protagonist, Jay Gatsby, is constantly battling an internal conflict between his dream for a future with his long lost love and his fear that he will never attain it.
In this story, Gatsby’s quest for Daisy Buchanan leads him to amass wealth and flaunt it at extravagant parties in hopes of winning her back.
However, deep down, he fears that he may not be good enough for her and that his past may catch up to him, causing him to fail in achieving his ultimate dream of being reunited with Daisy. This inner turmoil ultimately leads him to make questionable decisions and leads to his downfall.
Fear of Failure Ideas:
- A talented athlete who lost a big game must overcome a fear of failure before the final championship match.
- A journalist suffering from writer’s block must confront their past mistakes and their fear of not being good enough to write an investigative piece on a corrupt corporation.
- An aspiring musician prepares for an audition with the biggest record label but struggles to conquer his own insecurities and self-doubt about his talent.
- A young girl afraid of water has her courage put to the test when trapped during a flood and must rescue herself and others to survive
- In order to save the lives of his fellow soldiers, a soldier has to fight through his personal demons that are holding him back from fulfilling his duties.
Quest for Self-Identity (Man vs Self)
A great example of the man vs self conflict with a quest for identity is represented in Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece “Invisible Man.”
The protagonist, an unnamed young black man, grapples with his own sense of self in a racist and violent society.
Living in mid-20th century America, he experiences alienation and marginalization at every turn as he navigates through various relationships and social situations that challenge who he fundamentally is.
Through his journey to find himself, the protagonist learns to face his own fears and emotions as well as confront the misconceptions that have shaped him into someone other than himself. The novel highlights how discovering one’s identity takes time, patience and courage in a world that can diminish your value based on race or class.
Quest for Self-Identity Ideas:
- In order to understand a family estrangement, a young woman in the suburbs embarks on a road trip to reconnect with lost relatives and her neglected cultural roots.
- The struggle of an adopted child searching for their biological parents leads them on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance.
- A college student studying abroad in Japan immerses herself in the culture and language to find a deeper understanding of her multiracial identity as well as belonging.
- A rebellious teenage girl from an affluent family goes on a cross-country hitchhiking journey, where she looks for introspection, realization and individually apart from social stigmas
- After being diagnosed with amnesia, a man uncovers repressed memories leading him on quest that forces him to face past traumas and rediscover his true identity.
- A budding artist struggles to find his place in the competitive New York art scene while trying to reconcile with his working-class upbringing
- In pursuit of answers about her true heritage, a mixed-race woman travels to different countries meeting family members previously unknown creating interesting confrontations between race and its definition across different cultures.
Inner Conflict between Desires and Duties (Man vs Self)
A famous example of inner conflict between desires and duties is found in the classic Shakespearean play, “Hamlet.”
Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is torn between his desire for revenge against his uncle Claudius for killing his father and his duty to the kingdom as a future king.
Hamlet’s mind is consumed by feelings of betrayal, anger and despair, yet he recognizes that his personal vendetta may exact a heavy toll on Denmark.
Throughout the play, Hamlet battles with himself as he tries to balance honor with justice as well as find resolution amidst mental strife.
His internal struggle portrays beautifully how one can be conflicted between two powerful emotions that compel them in different directions creating an intricate inner battle.
Conflict between Desires and Duties Ideas:
- A first-year medical resident has to decide between helping a critically ill patient by breaking protocol and remaining professional in the face of imminent danger.
- A lawyer has to choose between upholding his moral values and defending his client, who’s linked with crime.
- The life of a career-driven woman struggling between her passion for art and responsibility for handling her father’s business empire, questioning if she should follow her heart or continue legacy?
- A mother must balance personal ambition with parental responsibilities when offered a job promotion that requires long-term hours away from home.
- An army corporal is conflicted about following orders from higher-ups now that he knows they intend to commit atrocities against an enemy, contradicting with his sense of right and wrong.
- A suburban housewife struggles with the desire to have an affair with the high school football coach, knowing full well that it might break up her perfect suburban family.
- The protagonist of an action-adventure film finds herself tempted to abandon her teammates to pursue a personal vendetta against the main villain instead of staying loyal to the mission objective.
- In order to save the life of someone they care about, a paramedic decides whether or not to disobey protocol protocols which would jeopardize take permanent punishment.
Battle Against Destiny (Man vs Destiny)
“The Lion King” is a classic tale representing the inter-conflict of protagonist vs destiny.
Simba, the heir to Pride Rock, is fated to become king and rule his land righteously upon his father’s death.
However, an unforeseeable tragedy strikes as his uncle Scar manipulates Simba into running away thereby usurping the throne.
The young cub finds himself at odds with destiny as he grows up in self-imposed exile with no real knowledge of how to take back what belongs to him.
Guided by personal growth, Simba learns valuable lessons about family, responsibility and leadership that will help him take on the challenge that awaits when it comes time for him to face his fears and fulfill his destiny to rule over Pride Rock once more and restore order in the animal kingdom.
He ultimately defeats Scar once and for all. He learns he cannot alter fate nor ignore past traumas tied to it. He must develop the maturity to take control and finally secure a bright future for the good of his clan.
Battle Against Destiny Plotline Ideas:
- A young couple tries desperately to be together, but fate seems determined to keep them apart.
- A film starts with the closing scene, showing to everyone that the main character dies. Throughout the film, we see the character evading near misses, but at the end of the day, we know fate will catch up with him.
- A cancer survivor learns how to find joy in life again, despite battling with the fear that destiny has something else waiting for her.
- Despite having no training or experience when it comes to science or technology, an engineer cannot help being drawn towards creating an innovative device, simple curiosity driving him in what is surely shaping up as an uphill battle against destiny.
- The protagonist is destined for failure by their birthplace and socio-economic status which affects their pursuit of education and ensures hardship all through their life; ultimately leading him to confront his failure to escape classism in modern society.
- The leader of a group hostage situation debates with himself over whether he should sacrifice himself for the good of the other hostages, before realizing that his whole life has been preparing him for this inevitable conclusion to his life.
- Despite knowing that cancer runs in his family tree almost acutely; never did anyone prepare him for what happens when he gets diagnosed at a relatively younger age than anticipated?
Internal Struggle between Good and Evil (Man vs Self)
The “Star Wars” prequel trilogy offers a complex portrayal of a character battling an internal struggle between good and evil.
Anakin Skywalker, commonly known as Darth Vader, begins as a heroic Jedi Knight with strong moral convictions who yearns to liberate the galaxy from darkness. However, he finds himself constantly torn between his duty to protect people and his selfish desires to be a strong rule of the galaxy.
As the story progresses, Anakin gradually succumbs to his darker impulses — he becomes consumed by fear and falls out of favor of this once-respected hero pushing him towards embracing villainy ultimately becoming Sith Lord Darth Vader.
Anakin’s internal conflict demonstrates how the notion that good and evil exist within everyone—embodying a sort of duality within humanity that we don’t always recognize.
Internal struggle between good and evil plot ideas:
- After being released from prison, a former criminal must confront his dark past and decide whether to continue down the path of crime or start anew.
- A detective investigating a string of murders begins to question their own morality as they become increasingly violent in their quest to bring the killer to justice.
- A young person with superpowers struggles with the responsibility that comes along, reconciling the need for justice against the desire to take vigilante action.
- An angel who has fallen from Heaven is conflicted between their sense of duty to God and curiosity about the sinful practices down on earth.
- A nurse takes advantage of elderly patients by stealing money and painkillers. She grapples with the guilt, realizing she had succumbed to her own sense of power.
- After making poor choices leading up till now, a soldier in war-torn lands questioning if harm done on the battlefront was really morally right, or simply covered up by his own self-serving justifications?
- As a teacher discovers an unsettling history within her institution, she’s torn between covering up an inconvenient truth or taking it public.
- Curiosity leads a former police officer down into corruption which ultimately affects life events, culminating in a crisis where the protagonist is forced to step forward and confess his wrongs.
- A rebellious teen who has been wreaking havoc on the streets begins to question his behavior, and is torn between loyalty to his bad-influence friends and desire for a more moral life.
- A scientist experiments on living subjects trying to break ground with groundbreaking research involving rare illnesses, questioning it is justifiable to harm people against their will for the good of science.
Internal conflict helps to draw a plot forward and develop depth in its characters. It can draw the reader in and develop emotional connection between the reader and the characters. Take inspiration from the above examples, but also use your own creativity to develop your own unique inner struggles that resonate with you and your own stories you want to tell.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]