Every novel, movie, and type of story in every genre revolves around certain conflicts. These are challenges the main character or characters must face and attempt to resolve. Conflicts come in all shapes and sizes; from the traditional pitting of ‘bad guy’ versus ‘good guy’ to subtle conflicts the main character faces within herself (should I put myself first, or care more about others?). As this illustrates, a distinction is often drawn between external and internal conflict.
External conflicts are struggles between the main character(s) and forces in the outside world. These forces may be villains who must be overthrown, enemies who must be defeated, or a natural phenomenon like an earthquake or disease that must be survived. External conflicts can be more realistic, as well. For example, a student might struggle with her parents, a difficult teacher, or a tough English class. Or an outcast might fight to prove himself to the community who looks down on him as different and worthless.
Internal conflicts are those struggles a character has within his or herself. They take place solely in the character’s mind, and deal with emotions and beliefs and other such dilemmas. The character must face this conflict and make some kind of decision, often morally based. For example, the main character might be tempted to solve her problem through illegal means, and have to decide whether to take this action or stand true to her moral code. Characters might also struggle with negative character traits, like pride, stubbornness, or cowardice, and be forced to find ways to overcome these traits. Internal conflicts are subtler than external ones, but are often more powerful and more difficult for the character to work through.
Note: This article discusses elements from all parts of the novel, and so contains spoilers for those who haven’t read the book.