As a writer, one of my favorite dilemmas is the choice between an internal conflict—in which a character experiences most of their struggles on a level no one but the reader sees—and an external conflict, in which the majority of plot events occur out in the world.
External conflicts give us Tolkien, they give us Rowling. Speculative fiction (Sci Fi and Fantasy) almost always includes an overall external conflict. In cases such as this, the conflict is typically a metaphor for other internal conflicts (good vs. evil being a major mainstay).
On the other hand, internal conflicts give us Shakespeare. They give us Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. What I find so darn appealing about internal conflicts is the fact that they can rage on without anyone else in the story being aware of them.
At least for me, that mirrors my life more closely. I would rather have the protagonist crying for no visible reason, or perhaps struggling so hard not to cry—not to be crushed by the weight of their personal burdens—that it tears them apart.
In my own writing, I’ve tried both internal and external conflict, and I’ve found external conflict tends toward melodrama. When the plot depends solely, or even disproportionately, on the outside world, it must be moved by unrealistic events. However, in writing Auburn, I’ve found that a plot moved primarily by a character’s (or perhaps multiple characters’) internal desires is much more realistic and powerful (at least, in Contemporary fiction).
I have a confession to make: I never felt a strong emotional connection to Harry Potter (the character). And I believe that’s true for the majority of readers; Harry is a mouthpiece, a pair of eyes through which to view the magical world Rowling created. While he’s smart, he’s not the smartest. While he’s funny at times, he isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious. And his struggles could conceivably be any other boy’s struggles if placed in the same situation.
The same could be said of Frodo, or many other Fantasy characters. Their redeeming quality is bravery, and they follow an archetypal path in dealing with the conflict before them.
On the other hand, let’s talk about some Contemporary YA novels. Not The Hunger Games, since Katniss is rather like dear Harry or Frodo… But perhaps Hopeless by Colleen Hoover (an excellent read by the way, as are many of her other novels). The main character, Hope, has many unique features and qualities (such as an antipathy toward intimacy), and almost all of the events of the novel are driven by either her actions or the actions of the hero.
Perhaps the perfect example of external conflict in the Contemporary YA genre is the Pretty Little Liars series (in which the main characters are taunted and tortured by a mysterious ‘A’). What I find interesting about this is that events in the series are almost as unbelievable as I would predict, given my own experiences with writing external conflict (without spoiling anything, there are a ton of instances where characters are conveniently in the right or wrong place at the wrong time, or where one character gets hit by a car or framed for murder).
Another example (and arguably the most famous one) is the Gossip Girl series; however, since I never made it very far in those books I’ll have to recuse myself from analyzing them. Needless to say, I would predict that events get increasingly difficult to believe as the series goes on.
And that is the nature of the question, when it comes down to it. Do you choose an external conflict and melodrama? Or an internal conflict that might not be enough to move a reader’s emotions? Please note that I’m not trying to say internal conflict is free of melodrama—lord knows there’s a lot of it in every type of novel—but I do believe that an external conflict is more predisposed to the ridiculous.
That’s good when it comes to speculative fiction, where the ridiculous is a part of the deal, but not as much when a novel is supposed to mirror the real world.
Personally, I’d rather see the character who’s bearing burdens no one else can see, who’s crushed by the world around him/her and trying not to show it. I feel more invested in those stories, and I feel more connected to the protagonist.
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