The Only Necessary Conflict
Trauma isn’t the only path to personal development.
Aug. 9, 2020
Is that really necessary?
Recently, I have been watching videos, reading articles, and diving into Stephen King’s On Writing to learn more about fiction — story structure, plot points, character development, dialogue, suspense . . . and conflict.
One widely accepted idea that pervades fiction writing advice is: There is no story without conflict. Your character has to face conflict to have a chance to change or grow. How gripping would a story be if it operated in a static state of bliss?
This concept makes sense, yet it made me question why we’re so interested in reading about conflict or watching it play out on the screen. Why is it that a character’s growth can only come after or through conflict? And what kind of conflict is necessary for personal development?
Conflict in stories can be divided into two types, which can both contribute to character growth: internal and external conflict.
Typically, the internal conflict is the first to be introduced and the last to be resolved. The character learns by dealing with external conflict and triumphing over their trials. Only after those victories does the character revisit their internal conflict.
A Lesson from Anakin
It’s clear to see this conflict pattern with Anakin in the the original and prequel trilogies of Star Wars.
The prequels are all about sowing Anakin’s internal struggle and anguish. Those films explain why it’s easy for Palpatine to manipulate him, and that trilogy concludes with Anakin giving into the dark side — becoming Vader.
This sets the stage for him to be the antagonist and the source of external conflict for Luke in the original trilogy. But if you focus on Anakin’s character arc in that trilogy too, it’s clear that the story of Anakin’s internal conflict continues. Battling Luke (his external conflict) in Return of the Jedi, at the direction of Palpatine, causes Vader to realize how he has been manipulated. It prompts him to address his internal conflict. And Vader turns on the Emperor. The end of Palpatine is the end of the original trilogy’s external conflict.
But Anakin’s two-trilogy-long internal conflict isn’t resolved until later, during his helmet-less talk with Luke. Vader asks Luke to take his mask off, knowing it will kill him, and says, “Just for once … Let me look on you with my own eyes.”
Vader becomes Anakin again but an Anakin that has grown. His transformation is marked by this dialogue:
Luke: No. You’re coming with me. I can’t leave you here. I’ve got to save you.
Anakin: You already have, Luke. You were right about me. Tell your sister … you were right.
So, here’s my question: Did Vader really have to duel his son and kill his mentor to change? Or could he have achieved the same growth by facing his son earlier, or by recognizing his unchecked desire and addressing it in the prequels? Do we really need external conflict to learn how to address our internal conflict?
Knowing What’s Necessary
How often, on a daily basis, do you face conflict that would befit the next bestseller or a Hollywood set (i.e., an “I am your father” moment)? Is every day a mini character arc, where you face challenges, overcome them, and go to bed a new person? I don’t know, maybe that’s exactly the case.
But if your love life, for instance, isn’t fraught with a bloody, age-old family feud like Juliet, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t growing and changing throughout it. I’m a big believer in incremental development, and I like to think that I’m developing in some way everyday. That doesn’t correspond with the idea that you need clear and present external conflict to grow as a character in a story. That sort of conflict just makes for a more engaging story.
So if it’s not the external conflict that’s necessary, what is? And how can you introduce the right sort conflict into your story?
Here’s my take (to be explained further below): the conflict necessary for growth is that between what you knew and what you have learned.
No external conflict is necessary for development. Even though it often helps (or forces) you learn to grapple with internal conflicts, external conflicts only serve as catalysts for personal growth; they are not necessary for it. You can growth in another way: by choosing to address and work through what’s within you.
If internal conflict is the only type necessary for growth, then what, specifically, does that look like? To me, learning, or the challenge associated with gaining new knowledge, is the only conflict necessary for personal development. When you really learn something new, there is always some level of internal conflict; that new knowledge challenges what you knew previously. To resolve such conflicts, you — the main character — must to reconcile and incorporate new knowledge into your perspective.
Conflict and Introspection, Not Resolution
Many readers of my self-published book, The Pursuit of Purpose, are surprised by the subject matter and by some of the ideas addressed in it because of my age. Their surprise is evidence that people associate life lessons with lived experience and figure that I haven’t lived long enough to have that many impactful experiences, or that I must have already had some real doses of formative trauma.
In other words, they expect that I have faced some life-altering external conflict(s), through which I arrived at my perspective. For many, that is the case; people have challenging or traumatic experiences that shock their system and force a reboot, causing them to run a full diagnostic of their worldview. While I have experienced loss and faced challenges, no event stands out as an earth-shattering pivot-point that prompted me to reframe my perspective. When asked things like “what experience led you to think this way?” I really don’t have a good answer, other than that I made a habit of recording my thoughts and of considering certain questions and ideas.
My point in bringing this up is that a life-altering external conflict isn’t the only path to personal development. Address internal conflicts so that your perspective isn’t later shattered by some unexpected, external conflict that forces you to learn what you could have learned on your own terms. The negative extremes of experience, like trauma, are certainly catalysts for introspection, but they are external conflicts, which aren’t necessary for personal development.
If you accept and welcome internal conflict, by pursuing new knowledge — by pursuing truth — then there is no limit to your growth. There’re no rails guiding your character arc. Set the intention to invite challenging thoughts and trust yourself to smooth out discrepancies in your perspective, instead of rejecting new knowledge to avoid internal conflict.
Channel your favorite protagonist by choosing to use internal conflict as an opportunity for growth. Be open-minded, always inviting new ideas and seeking knowledge. Make your perspective malleable, while understanding and believing in it entirely. And engage in introspection, applying your knowledge of the world to your journey of self-discovery.