What makes us care so much about the fictional characters in a novel? Whichever genre we write in, the short answer is the same: conflict. When a character overcomes the obstacles they encounter, our readers come to believe that they, too, can aspire to that same success.
For fictional conflict to be effective, it must be more than just two characters arguing. Each character must experience two types of conflict, internal and external conflict.
Internal conflict is the mental or emotional struggle that occurs within a character. This can be caused by a personal belief, idea or characteristic.
External conflict is the struggle that occurs between a character and outside forces. These outside forces can be:
Character vs. Another Character: Take Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s classic novel, “Pride and Prejudice”. When she discovered how her prejudice had allowed her to misjudge Mr. Darcy’s character, she was plunged into a deep inner conflict about her feelings for him. And Mr. Darcy himself had to overcome his innate arrogance before he could truly value Elizabeth. The internal conflicts that Darcy and Elizabeth had to struggle with – his pride and her prejudice – exacerbated the external conflict created by the behaviour of other characters. Her mother’s vulgarity, Lydia’s elopement and Wickham’s desire to hurt Darcy would not have created conflict if Elizabeth and Darcy did not have their own inner conflicts to deal with.
Character vs. Society: In “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D H Lawrence, Connie Reid (Lady Chatterley) and her working class lover, Oliver Mellors, struggle against the social restrictions of post-World War I England. The effectiveness of this external conflict rests in their inner struggle with their own sexuality. Without Connie’s struggle to overcome her sexual inhibitions, which have their roots in the dry intellectualism of Wragby, and without Mellor’s struggle to find an appropriate balance between his “primitive” and “civilised” sides, their love affair would not have had such a far reaching influence on their society.
Character vs. Nature: During the early-1930’s a severe drought ravaged parts of America, turning it into a dust bowl. John Steinbeck’s opening line in “The Grapes of Wrath”, set in this period, clearly places unforgiving Nature as the main antagonist: To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. As the disastrous drought forces the Joad family to migrate westward, they continue the struggle against a hostile environment (external conflict). Moreover, Tom Joad’s story dramatises his inner conflict between the human impulse to respond to hardship and disaster by focusing on one’s own needs and the impulse to risk one’s safety by working for the greater good of society.
Left: A 1936 farmer from the Dust Bowl of America.
Character vs. Supernatural: Who could ever forget Ben Mears, Father Callahan and young Mark Petrie’s battle against vampire Kurt Barlow in Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot”? Ben went back to Jerusalem’s Lot to conquer the nightmares he had as a child about Marsten House (inner struggle) and he ended up fighting off an even bigger threat: the supernatural vampires lead by Marlow (external conflict).
Character vs. Machine/Science & Technology: The groundbreaking scientific advances of the Industrial Revolution in England introduced a new external conflict: Man vs. Machine (or science and technology). The Romantic author Mary Shelley’s Dr Victor Frankenstein, from her novel “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus”, is a man driven by his search for scientific knowledge. ‘I will pioneer a new way,’ he declares arrogantly, ‘explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.’ Little does he realise that his scientific creation will end up destroying all he loves (external conflict) and that in the process he is brought to see that uncontrolled passions, such as his quest for new scientific knowledge, are ultimately dangerous (internal conflict).
Character vs. Destiny: The Trojan hero Aeneas, in “The Aeneid” by Virgil, is fated to travel from the ruins of Troy to Italy, where it is his destiny to establish a race that will lead to the founding of Rome. The goddess Juno harbours feelings of vengeance against the Trojans and, in the first half of the poem, impedes his mission (and thus his destiny) by inciting a romance between Aeneas and Dido (external conflict). Aeneas’ defining characteristic is piety, a respect for the will of the gods, but he is also a man capable of great compassion and sorrow and, when the gods send their messenger to remind him of his destiny, he must eventually subordinate all other concerns – including his great love of Dido - to this mission (inner struggle).
From these examples, it’s clear that internal conflict and external conflict in a novel are closely entwined. External conflict is the catalyst that brings the character's internal conflict to the surface and forces him to change. Without that particular belief or personality trait, the character would react differently. In “Pride and Prejudice”, unlike his proud friend Mr Darcy, humble Mr Bingley didn’t find the Bennet family antics any obstacle to falling in love with Jane Bennet.
A writer must come to understand the difference between internal and external conflict and must then intuitively merge them for, without an expert blending of both internal and external conflict, a character’s journey may just end before it has begun.
Image source: http://climate.umn.edu/doc/journal/top5/numberone.htm