As any bookworm or film buff knows, the heart of any good story begins with conflict. Conflict can come in two different varieties — internal conflict and external conflict — and identifying which of these conflicts works best for fictional characters is the first step for any writer trying to create a good story. The benefit of familiarizing yourself with these terms extends beyond the literary scope, though. Knowing the meaning of internal and external conflict and how to spot them in your professional, parental, or personal relationships is the first step to resolving an issue. Since no one likes conflict in real life, we typically want to learn how to better approach and deal with it as we grow up.
According to the Masterclass.com staff, the definition of internal conflict is “when a character struggles with their own opposing desires or beliefs. It happens within them, and it drives their development as a character.” You can see a fictional version of this in Toy Story when Buzz Lightyear realizes that he is “just a toy.” Eventually, the character realizes that being a toy isn’t such a bad thing and accepts it. You can find another example in HBO’s hit new series Mare of Easttown. The title character, Mare, struggles with grieving the loss of her son and realizing how it affects her police work and friendships.
External conflict is a little different and possibly easier to recognize, per the same outlet. The definition is when a character is “against something or someone beyond their control. External forces stand in the way of a character’s motivations and create tension as the character tries to reach their goals.” External conflict can be a zombie apocalypse, like in The Walking Dead, or even a medical case from Grey’s Anatomy.
Usually, most fictional works include both kinds of conflict because that’s how life is. And, sometimes, the two types of conflict come head to head, compounding the effects.
How Internal and External Conflict Work in Parenting
Being able to identify whether things are coming from inside or outside when it comes to conflict with your kid is fundamental to working things out with them. Sometimes it can be hard to step out of our own experiences or feelings at any given moment, but it’s as simple as taking a beat and considering why your kid — at any age — is acting out and causing issues. When they’re babies, it’s easy because babies cry, and you just have to figure out why. Are they hungry? Tired? Need to be changed? As hard as that age can be, there’s not a lot of interior life to translate.
As your kid gets older, conversations are the best way to get to the heart of the problem. Sitting down with your kid and asking them questions about their day can help unearth the conflict. Maybe it is internal, and they’re worried about a friendship or an upcoming test at school. Sometimes, greater environmental forces are at work, and talking about coping with them can lessen the feeling of “conflict” your kid (and you) might feel.
Internal and External Conflict in Relationships
Identifying and moving on from internal and external conflict in your relationships is similar to that of parenting. Still, it can be harder to suss out in intimate and platonic relationships, especially when emotions are high. We all know that sometimes there are things we are dealing with internally that cause us to blow up. Like, if things are rough at work, making you overstressed, and then your partner forgets to bring the one simple thing you asked from the grocery store, it turns into a major fight and seems like the end of the world.
In this case, looking inward is always the first step when you start feeling anxious or angry at a partner or friend. Getting to the bottom of your emotions (or asking them about theirs) will help you manage the conflict between you and another person. Some things you can’t change — a health scare, a job loss, or a death in the family. But you can change how you approach the other person and situation in a way that acknowledges the external conflict and helps ease any inner conflict that may be making it harder to deal with the outside situation.
Internal and External Conflict Examples
The best way to grasp the difference between these conflicts is to learn real-life examples.
Internal Conflict Examples
- Someone with addiction may sometimes wrestle with themselves about decisions they should make for their recovery.
- A person has about $100 left in spending money. They are conflicted about what they should spend it on. They go back and forth in their heads about buying a blender or a new coffee table.
- A person raised in a religious household and taught to abstain from sex before marriage is left feeling conflicted about those beliefs after meeting someone who inspires their sexual desires.
- A police officer feels an internal conflict when they discover the criminal is their child. They struggle to decide whether to protect their kid or do their duty as a law enforcement official.
External Conflict Examples
- Suppose a dog is chasing someone down the street. That person must run to avoid being bitten.
- A person gets locked out of their house in the middle of a blizzard. They must find shelter to stay warm.
- In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo kills Tybalt, which puts Juliet in a confusing position and makes the Capulet family hate him even more.
- If you left your keys inside your house and came back later, you’d be locked out of your home. Your obstacle is the door.
- Let’s say you’re taking a walk and it begins to rain. You run home to avoid getting wet.
A Final Note
Remember, external and internal conflicts usually go hand in hand, and unlike in some Disney movies, you can’t always resolve them in under two hours. But knowing what they are and how to spot them can make all the difference.
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