Internal conflict, also known as Character vs. Self, involves a choice or an inner battle that the main character must overcome in order to mature, grow, or solve a problem in their world.
An internal conflict of a character can have a significant impact on the plot of a story, or on other characters in that story. Often times, the internal conflict a character faces is driven by emotions that the character must overcome in order to move forward, such as jealousy, anger, unhappiness, greed, or unrest. For example, in the novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge must overcome his greed and selfishness in order to reconnect with the people around him and find his happiness again. Scrooge’s journey is embodied by three ghostly spirits who visit him because his pursuit of money has led to his isolation from his family and his employees. He needs to make a change before he meets the same fate as his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Because Scrooge learns an important lesson, his redemption impacts his employee Bob Cratchit’s family, and in particular, his young, sickly son Tiny Tim.
A character’s internal conflict can also be an important choice he or she must make before they can grow, learn, mature, or solve a problem in their world. Sometimes, this choice is a very personal one about which path to take in life. Robert Frost embodies this inner conflict in his poem “The Road Not Taken”, and this situation mirrors choices all humans make that impact their futures at some point in their lifetimes. In literature, these choices can revolve around an adventure, family, work, friendships, or a grab for power. Internal conflict can also be the emotions experienced as a result of these choices, like guilt or regret. If a character is tortured by their choices, their future decisions and choices are often marred by their mistakes.
Characters are often forced choosing between two scenarios in which there are no desirable outcomes. This choice is often called a dilemma. The classic lifeboat question is an example of such a dilemma: if you have a 6-person lifeboat, but there are 7 people, whom do you choose to leave behind? Each person is a different age, gender, and profession. Psychologists have used this question in the past to see the way that people think, and what they value most. Characters in these scenarios often show what they value most in their final choice, even if it means having to sacrifice something dear to them for someone else.
In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Macbeth, Macbeth, spurred on by the encouragement of his wife Lady Macbeth, chooses to fulfill his desire for power by killing King Duncan. However, afterwards Macbeth is tortured by guilt and regret for his deeds, and this manifests itself in hallucinations, unrest, and impulsive decisions which lead to his demise.
In John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men George knows that Curley and his men will probably torture and kill Lennie for accidentally killing Curley’s wife. Rather than allow Lennie to face that humiliation and pain, and not understanding why because of his mental disability, George makes the painful decision to shoot Lennie while Lennie is thinking about their favorite dream.
In the short story “The Lady or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton, the princess’ internal dilemma comes when she has to decide which door to send her lover to on the day of his trial in her father’s arena. Behind one door is a hungry and ferocious tiger who will tear him to pieces; however, behind the other door is a beautiful maiden whom the princess hates, and the two will be immediately married if he opens that door.
In the short story “The Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” by Jack Finney, Tom must decide whether or not to follow his work paper out of the window and onto the ledge, or to lose weeks’ worth of effort and a potential shot at a promotion at his company. While he initially chooses to go out on the ledge, he soon is overcome by his fear and nearly falls to his death. This near-death experience impacts a choice he must make later on in the story, in deciding what is most important to him in his life.
In Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver, Jonas makes the difficult decision to leave his society with Gabe, the baby his father has been watching after. He is not sure where they will go and he knows he is leaving the safety of his world, but Jonas does realize that Gabe’s life is in danger and that in order to save it, they must leave their dystopian society.