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.