Internal conflict arises when a character is subject to two or more imperatives that are incompatible. While this is a simple enough concept in theory, in the practical business of constructing a work of fiction care must be taken to maintain the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief regarding the legitimacy of these imperatives to the character.
Allow me to give a few examples of common internal conflicts.
I’m in love my best friend’s wife: Here the imperative to act on a romantic attraction is in conflict with the imperative to respect both the sanctity of marriage as an institution and the friendship with the desired person’s husband.
My partner is a crooked cop: The imperative to uphold the law by arresting those who engage in corruption is in conflict with the imperative to remain personally loyal to a professional comrad.
If I carry you I might not escape the danger: Common to Disaster and Horror stories, the situation involves a conflict between the imperative to assist a wounded person and the imperative to insure personal survival.
I could make lots of money selling harmful products: The imperative to provide for oneself and one’s dependants is in conflict with the imperative to trade honorably with one’s customers.
All of these can be sources of dramatic tension in a story. In many stories, however, they become cliche and fall flat. I don’t believe that is simply because they have been done before, but because the authors don’t take the time to lay a solid foundation for the multiple imperatives necessary for the conflict. Instead, they rely on the audience’s familiarity with similar conflicts in other stories.
A cliche, after all, isn’t doing something that has been done before. It’s doing something poorly that has previously been done well.
In order to do an internal conflict well the author must have a good understanding of the mechanism by which a character translates an Indicative Statement (“this is what is“) into an Imperative Statement (“this is what I must do“).
There are two essential methods that we use for extracting a required course of action from a situation, one cognitive (moral reason) and one non-cognitive (emotion). These methods are non-orthogonal and in ordinary circumstances work in parallel. What we feel we should do is generally similar to what we think we should do.
This is because emotion is the abridgment of reason, not the abdication of reason. Which leads us to one of the major causes of poorly written internal conflicts, the assumption on the part of the author of a false emotive universality.
That is to say that when a character as presented as having a conflict that takes the form of “Should I follow my heart or should I follow my head?” it frequently is in actuality a conflict between the character’s head and the author’s heart.
This is particularly true when the author–consciously or unconsciously–disagrees with the moral framework of the characters involved.
To take the first example I gave, that of being tempted by the wife of another, it is a conflict of imperatives only if the mediate statement of “I have an obligation to pursue all sexual attractions” is accepted as valid.
Without that, the situation of being sexually attracted to an unavailable partner can be awkward, even painful, but is not a moral conflict. It is the author’s assumption that while a character may think that fidelity is a virtue, his feelings must be in favor of promiscuity that causes such a story to be written. And it rings true only to those who share that assumption.
Can an attraction to an unavailable partner be a valid internal conflict in a story?
The reason for the conflict has to be more than “all those people are just hypocrites”. We have to see that the character rejects the moral imperative of fidelity (at least in terms of that particular marriage) and we have to understand why, which involves much more character development than such stories usual bother with.
To take the second example, that of a police officer who discovers a partner’s corruption, again the conflict may be a valid one, but groundwork has to be laid to make it so. A commitment to an ideal and loyalty to a person are very different imperatives. (And it is the difficulty in comparing the two that makes this particular conflict so painful to resolve.) It is in the establishment of the close equality of the intensity of disparate impulses that is tricky here–if the obvious answer is either “Let the rules slide, you owe this man your life” or “He’s not a cop anymore, he’s just another crook” then the narrative tension evaporates. The audience must be able to support both points of view simultaneously.
Risking one’s life to save another is a very primal conflict, to move on to my third example. So primal, in fact, that it’s hard to see at first how it requires justification. However, it should be kept in mind that the wrenching nature of the choice will cause characters to go to great lengths to avoid having to make it. An author has to be very sure that there is no other way that the conflict could be resolved–i.e. a strategy that would allow one character to protect another without increasing the first character’s risk. Because if there is another way the audience is going to want to know why the characters didn’t take it.
The final example is a favorite of thriller writers, both on page and screen, but what is presented as a moral conflict is in many cases a cognitive one–that is, between long term and short term thinking. With few exceptions business rely heavily on repeat customers, and selling a product that is hazardous seldom results in repeat sales. Once again, it can be done, but the author needs to make the swindle believable, which means understanding the industry involved. I’ve written before about the practical difficulties of using a big corporation as the villian of a piece.
So, to sum up:
An internal conflict between moral imperatives can be the source of strong narrative tension in a story, provided:
- The conflict is within the character’s own belief system and not a reflection of the author’s criticism of that belief system
- The warring imperatives are seen to be of comparable strength
- There doesn’t exist a way to resolve the conflict without choosing between incompatible alternatives
- The alternatives make sense within the context of the story
As always, I invite comments, criticisms, amplifications, refutations, and so on. I write these pieces to clarify my own understanding as much as to share it.