At a recent writer’s group and workshop, we were giving feedback and sharing ideas on a new story idea from one of the authors. He was developing characters and conflict and we were trying to help him explore what was working and what wasn’t. In the course of that session, one of the other authors discussed the concept of layers of conflict, and how they interplay with one another. She really got me thinking and I decided to focus on it for a while.
Four Layers of Conflict
We all know that stories require conflict: a story without conflict is one that has no forward momentum and is ultimately boring for the reader. Sometimes it is difficult to establish where or how this conflict could come about, and sometimes the conflict feels lacking in either resonance or authenticity. The idea of this post is to explore four layers of conflict: internal, personal, external and political. I want to look at how these four distinct areas of conflict are all necessary, and how they all interplay with one another. I’m also going to be looking specifically at how this works in Marvel’s Black Panther.
1. Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is when the character is grappling with their own motivations, desires and demons. This is not specifically driven by external forces, though it can have its root in some external actions. Rich, three-dimensional characters should exhibit some kind of internal conflict. Let’s look at some examples of internal conflict in some famous literature:
Kaladin Stormblessed - The Way of Kings: Conflicted between his cynical realisation that everything in the world is terrible and nothing ever works out for anyone and his deep-seated desire to help people. He struggles to resolve one with the other, and therefore is never completely cynical or completely altruistic. This is very internal.
Frodo Baggins - The Lord of the Rings: Conflicted between his desire to destroy the ring and save Middle-Earth and his slow realisation (mainly through Gollum) that the quest will destroy him completely and utterly and there is no hope for his own personal salvation. Gollum becomes the symbol of his internal conflict as he quite literally puts his hopes for salvation in this damned creature.
Harry Potter - Harry Potter Series: Conflicted between the excitement at becoming a wizard and being saved from his terrible orphaned life with the Dursley’s and the fact that he is quite literally the Chosen One and the responsibility for saving the world from Voldemort rests on his shoulders. He is also conflicted about the fact that his parents died to save him, but seemingly to no avail as Voldemort ultimately comes back. There’s some levels of guilt there.
Guilt can be good for internal conflict, sure. But overall, the driving factor of internal conflict is a fundamental clash between the desires and wants that the character has for themselves and the world’s wants for them. It is between the idealisation of what could be and the realisation of what will be. Sometimes one wins over the other, sometimes it doesn’t.
Your character needs internal conflict. Make sure they have some.
2. Personal Conflict
This is conflict between individual people - friends, family, co-workers, classmates, etc. This can come in two different forms:
It can come in the form of the personal antagonist, someone who is not the main antagonist, but provides a lot of personal conflict on a scene to scene basis. Think Malfoy from Harry Potter or Ambrose from The Name of the Wind.
It can also come (which I prefer) from deep conflicts between people who are close, like fathers, daughters, best friends, whatever. Having these people fall out because of fundamental differences adds a lot to the emotion and the stakes of the story.
This can often be achieved if they are working together towards a common goal, but have issues with either the methods they use to get there or their motivations for working towards it. You can also have it based around events and stupid decisions, like sleeping with someone else's girlfriend, if you want.
3. External Conflict
These are the physical threats, be it a Dark Lord coming to kill you, an asteroid headed for Earth or a stalker serial-killer hunting down your girlfriend, every story needs external conflict. I don’t really need to give many examples for this as it is the most obvious one: orcs, monsters, murderers. External conflict keeps a story exciting, pacy and gives it stakes.
Remember that external conflict should have high-stakes in the threat. What would happen if your protagonist didn't do anything about this external threat? There needs to be consequences.
4. Political Conflict
This last one is less character based and more story/thematic. Where possible, the conflicts that are developed over the course of your story should be mixed in with a larger political context. This doesn’t necessarily mean nation-state level wars or government backstabbing, it just means that there is a larger thematic point to your story.
A story about a stalker who turns into a murderer might have some quite explicit things to say about domestic abuse, for example. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (anything after the rise of Voldemort, really) has quite a lot of political commentary on the inefficiency of bureaucratic rule and the useless nature of the government (i.e. ‘Ministry of Magic).
It doesn’t need to be the central point of your story, but it should tie in to your other conflicts.
Mixing Them Together
The best stories come from when all four layers of conflict are present and seamlessly mixed together into a central story. A story that is just about the political and external conflict and someone fighting a dystopian government, but lacking in internal and personal conflict, can feel inauthentic and false. Similarly, a story too focused on internal conflicts can feel self-indulgent and unexciting.
A wonderful example of how these four are mixed can be seen in Marvel’s Black Panther. It is now one of the highest-grossing films of all time and has been lauded by many for its excellent portrayal of the narrative. I strongly believe that Black Panther was as successful as it was because it managed to deftly blend together all four of these layers of conflict so as to give high-stakes and make sure that there is something for everyone to take away. Each one of them is very explicit:
There are small spoilers for it below (but if you haven’t seen it yet, you should).
T’Challa is placed in the new position of King, not being given much time to mourn his father. He already feels like it is a huge task to try to live up to his father (who he idealises) but he starts to discover that his father wasn’t the perfect man he made him out to be. After discovering that he killed his uncle, he starts to question his father’s rule.
Simultaneously you have a conflict between T’Challa’s idealistic image of his father and the truth of the matter, and on top of this T’Challa is struggling with the expectations placed on him now he is King and how to live up to it. There’s lots of internal conflict here (which we are allowed to explore explicitly through the soul/dream sequences).
T’Challa is having to argue with Nakia about Wakanda’s state in the world as they disagree on a fundamental level about what Wakanda should be (this ties into the political conflict, but it is also a personal one). At the same time, T’Challa clearly loves Nakia but cannot be with her because of what she wants to do with her life.
There is also the difference of opinion he has with his friend W’Kabi about how to rule Wakanda, and the conflict with the head of the Jabari, M’Baku, about who should rule the country.
This all links well with his internal conflict, as just as he is feeling uncomfortable and unsure about being King, all his friends, loved ones and political affiliates are questioning how he chooses to rule.
This clearly comes in the form of Erik Killmonger, a wonderful villain, but also in the form of Klaue. It culminates in a few excellent action scenes, including the one where T’Challa is defeated. By creating a character who has trained his whole life to defeat T’Challa, we have a well set up physical, external conflict.
NB: As a side note, another reason Killmonger is such a fantastic villain is that he has such well realised motivations. His story is, from his perspective, the classic hero’s story. He watched his uncle get murdered by his brother and his cousin take the throne. His is a classic story of vengeance. He is Simba, or Hamlet, except the story isn’t told from his perspective - so he is the villain.
Finally, weaved into all of the above conflicts is the political conflict. The big question: if Wakanda has all this wealth and technology, shouldn’t they be doing more to help people around the world?
This gets tied into Killmonger’s motivations and the history of black slavery and subjugation. It gets tied into the personal conflicts with W’Kabi and Nakia, and it gets tied into T’Challa’s own internal conflict which he is eventually forced to resolve.
It is very cleverly put together and in it there is a lesson to learn for all storytellers.
Look at your story, whatever stage of development it is in, and think about the following:
Great stories mix together all four. If you feel like you are missing one, think about how you can tie it into your current conflicts and introduce another layer to your story.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.