Character Conflict in Stories

Character conflict in Unforgiven
Character conflict in Unforgiven arises from William Manny’s thinking he can stay true to the wishes of his dead wife to be a better man versus his true nature as a hired gun.

We’ve often heard that character conflict is the fuel that powers your story — and rightly so. Without conflict between characters, as well as warring elements within a single character, your stories lack dramatic impact and interest.

Internal Vs. External Character Conflict

There are two main types of conflict — internal and external. Internal conflict arises from warring elements within a character’s psyche. In The Matrix, for example, Neo’s lack of belief in himself as the chosen one is in conflict with his duty to rescue mankind from the agents and the machines. But this inner conflict echoes the external one: He has to believe that he is ‘The One’ in order to defeat the agents and machines and rescue mankind from perpetual slumber. This is an example of how juxtaposing the internal conflict of a character, especially a protagonist, against an external conflict makes for a gripping tale.

“Internal and external character conflicts continuously struggle against each other, thrusting and parrying like opponents in a fencing match, until there is an eventual winner.”

Conflict, however, is not simply distributed in equal measure along the length of your story. Each obstacle faced, each new conflict that arises, should build on the danger and intensity of the previous one. This means that inner conflict is adjusted to suit changes to the physical threat. Is the character more or less fearful after each physical challenge? More or less prejudiced or committed?

Character Conflict in Unforgiven

What, then, follows a scene containing such conflict? Typically, a setback, leading to a deepening of the conflict. In Unforgiven Ned Logan decides to walk away from the job involving killing the men who cut up the face of a prostitute. This leaves William Manny (Clint Eastwood) and the myopic Schofield Kid to carry out the deed without him. The situation is further aggravated in the last act when Manny faces an entire saloon filled with men seeking to kill him. This is the result of the setback — the murder of his friend, Ned Logan, who was unjustly accused of murder. Manny now has no alternative but to revenge Ned’s death.

It is important to note, then, that each conflict has the following structure—conflict, setback, climax, resolution.


Conflict between characters, as well as inner conflict within a single character, is essential in stories. Positioning and pacing mounting conflict through a skillful use of setbacks is an effective way of structuring this all important narrative element.

2 thoughts on “Character Conflict in Stories

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Self interest is a very destructive thing. It usually is the route of all conflict. How does any given situation personally effect you right here and right now. It’s in our DNA to put our own needs above the needs of others be it in obtaining our own goals or influencing the decisions of those around us be it in our own inner circles or society as a whole . There are many situations. Personal and professional.

    If you are a mother with your child in a store and he sees something he wants and you don’t want to buy the over prized item. It leads to conflict no matter what you decide to do. Do you A. buy the item to get the child to stop crying only to be viewed as weak and easy to control or B. Threaten to punish the child , thereby standing your ground and proving to yourself that you have inner strength.

    Self interest is what causes the friction between Walter White and Skyler White . At first we pick the side of the wife who is the helpless victim in Walt’s decision to become a drug dealer. However because Skyler is so focused on herself and how this mess effects her she does not take the time to recognize that the only reason why Walt is doing what he is doing is so he is able to provide for his family.

    In short : If you want conflict between character make sure that there goals are in direct conflict with there self interests. You were raised in a Republican house hold , see what happens when you introduce your parents to your Democratic fiancé.

    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Good comments. About Walter White though—he starts off doing it for his family, but in the end, he does it out of pride and in pursuit of power. ‘I’m in the business of Empire building’, remember?


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