Internal and External Conflict: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters

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Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters

How can you keep readers interested to the end?

The engine of fiction is conflict.

It’s a hit among readers. Hir Book writing company

Dianna and I newly marked our 50th wedding anniversary and agreed on nearly everything. In real life, that’s a gift. Within the pages of a book? Boring.


The more tension there is in your story, the more engaging it becomes.

What is Internal Conflict?

People can relate to characters because they face mental, spiritual, or emotional struggles. If your characters lack authenticity, they may lack normal human emotions.

How does your hero handle misfortune—not only externally but also internally?

Dramatic inner change results in memorable character arcs.

Types of Internal Conflict

Your characters may battle with:

False Belief

Do your characters have illusions about the world, their family, or even themselves? Some writing coaches refer to this as the lie your hero believes. Facing the truth can be uncomfortable, but it also helps his character arc.


Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

For most of his childhood, Harry assumed his parents had perished in a car accident, and he adored them. He learns Voldemort murdered them.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Ebenezer Scrooge, a misanthrope who hates Christmas, hoards his wealth and believes pursuing money is better than seeking anything else—even love. Three ghosts help him recognize the ugly effects of this false belief.


Your characters may be concerned that they are misbehaving. Perhaps they believe they need to be up to work and that someone else would be a better fit.


Spider-Man: Far From Home movie

Peter Parker is given Tony Stark’s spectacles, intended for his successor, which grant him access to the solid artificial intelligence E.D.I.T.H. (Even Dead, I’m The Hero).

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Frodo Baggins’ mission to destroy the ring he inherited from his uncle Bilbo Baggins is driven by self-doubt.

He faces many obstacles on his quest—including his fear and his struggle against the temptation of what the ring might bring him.


Two options appear equally appealing to your character. The direction he takes could have a significant impact on his life.


The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Frost depicts the psychological turmoil that arises when faced with a tough decision in this poem: indecision, doubt, bewilderment, reluctance, and, finally, contentment.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, a consulting wizard, must decide whether to tell police officer Karrin Murphy everything he knows — or to suppress information in the hope of saving her.

He prefers to remain silent (and regrets it when a giant scorpion attacks Murphy).


The hero of your story should not be courageous from the start. Give him reasons to progress. Doing so will help the reader identify with him.

Your character may act out of fear, even if it means fighting against impossible odds. It could also be something your character needs to overcome to progress.


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen is concerned that she cannot protect and provide for her family.

A fresh tension arises once her surprising buddy confesses his love for her—she wonders if he’s sincere and if she loves him.

The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe

The narrator of this short story, who has a catalepsy condition, is terrified of being buried alive. He starts by talking about other characters who were mistakenly buried alive, and then he dreams about being buried alive with many other people.

He makes his buddies swear not to bury him unless his body decomposes, and he even reconfigures the family crypt to allow for easy escape.

Moral Conflict

The best option is only sometimes apparent. Your character must choose between two options. Each will cause someone pain—and possibly even death.


Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

In the Auschwitz death camp, a mother is forced by a Nazi commander to pick which of her children will die and which will live. Her crippling shame influences her personality.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

How far can you go to protect the life of your kid? What about your sister? Anna, thirteen, was created as a bone marrow match for her sister Kate, who tolerates multiple procedures.

As Anna pushes for medical clearance, she clashes with her mother, Sara.

What is External Conflict?

This is just a character’s fight with what he must overcome to reach his goal.

Types of External Conflict

Your character may be involved in one or more significant conflicts.

Character vs. Character

The conflict between your hero and his adversary is straightforward—and appealing to readers. Your hero may also conflict with well-meaning fellows who stand in the way of his aims.


Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Harry’s biggest problem is that he has to put his life at risk to stop Voldemort from getting the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Dorothy’s encounter with the Wicked Witch of the West is a textbook example of character vs. character conflict, capped off when Dorothy dumps a bucket of water on the witch, unaware that she will melt.

Character vs. Society

Your hero is against a big group, like a powerful religious group, a corrupt government, or a strict local society.


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

By defending a black man wrongfully accused of rape, lawyer Atticus Finch defies a racist society.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

This story, set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, examines the awful treatment of maids in the South. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, one of the three narrators, describes how she and other black people battle massive social forces.

Character vs. Nature

Your hero’s central conflict in some stories is with nature itself.


Call of the Wild by Jack London

In this adventure story, Buck, a dog who mixes a St. Bernard and a Scotch Collie, has to live in the harsh, cold world of northern Canada. He is starving and exhausted, and he is also suffering from a terrible cold.

Character vs. Animal

Animal attacks could be the trigger for your story.


The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Eighty-four days and no fish. The villagers believe the older man has run out of luck.

Santiago is threatened by the sea, a giant marlin, and the sharks competing for it. He and the marlin fought for several days, neither eager to give up.

“Fish, I adore and revere you. But I’m going to kill you before the day is through.”

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

In this philosophical story, a 16-year-old boy named Pi is stuck on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a tiger, hyena, zebra, and orangutan.

Character vs. Technology

In science fiction and dystopian scenarios, your hero may face off against sentient artificial intelligence or have essential equipment fail or malfunction.


2001: A Space Odyssey

In this classic Stanley Kubrick movie, the computer H.A.L. turns against the astronauts by giving them wrong information, refusing to do what they say, and attacking them when they try to turn him off.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Martians come to Earth in huge cylinders with three-legged fighting machines, chemical weapons that make black smoke and kill people, and heat rays that burn people to death.

After the destruction of their mighty torpedo ram ship, H.M.S. Thunder Child, humanity’s attempts to fight back appear doomed.

How Internal and External Conflict Helps Develop Characters

Your characters must be credible and believable, and they must evolve inside.

Consider this:

What does my lead character want or need, and why?

What or who stands in his way? The stakes must be strong enough to sustain an entire novel.

At every point, test him, removing every support and convenience. Put him in the worst possible situation.

Please resist the urge to provide your character with whatever he requires. In reality, as authors, we should do the opposite. Take away your hero’s house, car, income, and even his significant other.

This contributes to a dramatic character arc.

What personal flaws emerge to keep him from his goals?

Readers identify with flawed characters. Every internal or external challenge generates new muscles that eventually change him.

What internal struggles keep him from his ultimate goal?

Is he jealous? Does he doubt himself? Scared? Worried? Depressed? Try to imagine your character having as many internal issues as outward ones. Readers can most easily relate to the interior stuff.

They may not understand a high-speed chase or firefight, but they recognize anxiety when they see it.

How will he become heroic and accomplish his goals?

Resist the need to explain how your character evolves. Readers should be able to figure out what you show them in the story. To become a hero, your character must be proactive and develop those new muscles.

His transformation must result from his action—of doing something.

If you get this right, your readers will remember your story for the rest of their lives.

The #1 Mistake Writers Make When Developing Characters

I am making a perfect hero.

Who can relate to perfection? I certainly can’t.

Yes, heroic potential. Sure, it’s honorable. Yes, I’m bent toward doing the right thing.

But not ideal.

Lastly, your hero must face his problems, rise to the occasion, and win despite all odds. But he must do so from a place of genuine humanity.

Make the main character that the reader can relate to; in the end, they will see they have the same potential.

Character Development Worksheet

If you’re an outliner, a character arc worksheet like this one might help you get to know your hero.

If you’re a pantser (like me), you might not have the patience for it and would instead get right to work. Do what works best for you.

Create a character who feels genuine, and he will become unforgettable.

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