Every good story that speaks to the human spirit has conflict. The best stories have various kinds of conflict, and some of those struggles are internal, rooted in the psyches of fascinating characters. Internal conflict can be riveting if presented well, and is vital for a writer to understand.
I took a class a couple of years ago about the development of theater–we read a lot of ancient Greek plays, and a couple of Roman plays–and one of the things I remember we discussed was an explanation of what makes Greek drama so riveting: it’s the way the Greeks developed internal conflict within their main characters. On the surface that conflict seems primitive compared to our modern narrative techniques, but what’s interesting is how the Greeks don’t cheapen internal struggles by relegating them to a choice between what’s right and a temptation to do wrong. No, what’s heart-breaking about Greek tragedy is how its characters are torn time and again between two mutually exclusive virtues (Alasdair MacIntyre gives a great rundown on this in his book “On Virtue.”)
Take the example of Antigone, for instance: she’s a young woman torn between the virtue of obeying her king, who forbids everyone from burying the body of Antigone’s brother because he died a rebel, and a religious/filial obligation to bury the dead. That’s a pretty profound dilemma between two conflicting duties, both of which are RIGHT according to her culture. Her problem is not choosing right from wrong; it’s that no matter what she does, she forsakes a sacred duty by necessity. This is soul-shaking stuff, if you really stop to consider it, and it speaks to the essence of what it means to be human.
There’s a great lesson for today’s fiction writers in the old Greek dramas, and it’s this: internal conflict can be more than temptation. That’s not to say temptations can’t have their place: give a decent man a chance to take revenge on an enemy who seriously wronged him; explore the haunting nature of addiction; allow characters to struggle against the ingrained suppositions born of their prejudices. But remember that’s not the depth of interior struggle. Consider the possibilities of a character who must choose between two conflicting loyalties. What happens when you have the ability to save a friend’s life from a vicious loanshark, but you’d have to steal the money from your place of business to do so? What happens when the responsibility to protect life and be an unselfish friend conflicts with “Thou shalt not steal”? This goes beyond a simple temptation to steal for selfish motives. The scenario’s more interesting than that, and in a lot of ways, it’s terrifying, because a reader who clearly understands that stealing is wrong sees how easily someone can offer justification for that crime, even though the theft remains a crime in every sense. I wasn’t stealing, after all. I was protecting a human life. This kind of a set-up goes beyond white and black to show the gray areas of life. That’s intriguing because it’s where we live. Life is ALL sorts of shades of gray.