Internal Conflict Examples in Literature

Conflict is used to bring a story to life. Internal conflict happens when a character struggles with something within themselves. These two contradicting wants, needs or desires help to build a character. Explore several famous examples of man vs. self and how it differs from external conflict.

Internal Conflict Examples in Literature Internal Conflict Examples in Literature
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What Is Internal Conflict?

Internal conflict -- also called man vs. self -- is a battle inside a character. In movies or TV shows, this might be shown as the good angel on one shoulder and the evil demon on the other.

With internal conflicts, you might feel a clash between competing desires. For example, an alcoholic may struggle not to reach for the bottle of bourbon. That person knows they need to stop drinking, but the desire to drink is very strong, leading to an intense internal struggle.

In fact, there are several types of internal conflict, including:

  • Conflicts about religion come into play when a person begins to question their faith or culture. For example, someone might question God after the death of a loved one.
  • Sexual conflicts are a war between your morals and sexual desires. For example, a person may feel conflicted about having sex before marriage.
  • Moral conflict is where you might bend your morals for a perceived greater good or immediate need. For example, a person might steal food to feed their starving family.
  • Conflict in self-image happens when a person's actions do not align with how they view themselves. For example, a mother may feel guilty if she thinks she's patient, but loses her temper with her children.
  • Conflicts of love is when you hurt something you love. Spanking children is a great example of this type of internal conflict.
  • Existential conflicts are internal struggles that a character might have about the meaning of life or the meaning in their life. For example, an environmentalist might work to save the planet while secretly believing it is doomed.
  • Interpersonal or societal conflicts are internal conflicts between your personal feelings and societal norms or expectations. A naturally introverted person who fakes being extraverted to fit in with classmates is an example. This can make them feel guilty about not being true to themselves.

Internal conflict is a character element that is utilized to add depth, mood, morality and humanism to characters in both movies and books.

Famous Examples of Man vs. Self

Books and movies are a great place to find examples of internal struggles. As the character struggles with their inner thoughts and feelings, you begin to see their growth and change. Explore a few famous examples that truly exemplify man vs. self conflict.

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The Narrator in Fight Club

Fight Club, a book by Chuck Palahniuk that was adapted into a movie, is a great example of internal conflict. The narrator struggles with mundane life so heavily that he actually creates an alter ego in Tyler Durden. This comes to a head at the end of the story when you realize that both characters are the same person.

One area that exemplified the narrator's internal struggle is in the line:

Maybe self-improvement isn't the answer. Tyler never knew his father. Maybe self-destruction is the answer.

In this passage, the narrator is having an existential internal struggle. He is trying to understand the meaning of it all and how an unwanted person could fit into a perfect society. The narrator concludes that since perfect isn't the answer, possibly self-destruction is.

Hamlet in Hamlet

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, there are several moral internal conflicts. Not only does Hamlet struggle with wanting to kill Claudius in revenge, he also struggles internally with his own depression and thoughts of suicide. Act 3, Scene 1 demonstrates Hamlet's struggle with suicidal thoughts:

To be, or not to be - that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep…

What's more, Hamlet's need for revenge is strong. Even the ghost of his father is calling for it. But, Hamlet knows that it is not right to kill Claudius out of revenge. This internal moral conflict throws him into a deep depression and apparent madness. This, in turn, creates an even deeper internal conflict in Hamlet of whether it is better to live in pain or to die and end the suffering.

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Jonas in The Giver

In Lois Lowry's The Giver, Jonas' internal struggle builds as he gains the different memories that his society has lost from the giver. This is seen in Chapter 13:

They were satisfied with their lives which had none of the vibrance his own was taking on. And he was angry at himself, that he could not change that for them.

His internal struggle becomes a moral internal conflict when he finds out that Gabriel is going to be killed. He must then choose if he wants to save him and leave or stay and let him die. He ultimately decides to go and save Gabriel.

Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense

In the movie The Sixth Sense, Cole Sear exhibits internal struggles as he comes to grips with his sixth sense. He exhibits interpersonal internal conflicts because he wants to conform to societal norms but that is impossible. Cole also has conflicting feelings about helping the ghosts and wanting to ignore them, which leads to a moral internal conflict.

Internal vs. External Conflict

While internal conflict can take a large role in literature, it typically happens in conjunction with external conflict. Much like the name suggests, external conflicts happen between a character and an outside or "external" force.

This could be another character, like the conflict between Claudius and Hamlet, or even a force of nature, like how the snow affects Jonas and Gabriel. External struggles happen in the outside world, unlike internal struggles that happen inside a character's own head.

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Conflicts in Character

Good characters are well rounded and based on defining traits like having strong values. Because of these traits, they experience different kinds of internal struggle as they navigate their fictitious worlds. The internal conflicts they experience can also depend on the type of character they are.