No, that’s not a typo. That’s how I think of it—hellish. Infernal (or internal) conflict is the kind that arises from within as opposed to external conflict, which is imposed from the outside. External conflict isn’t too difficult—it can be anything from a violent storm to a sick toddler to an ax murderer. It’s the internal stuff that’s hard to come up with. It has to be believable, and the reason or motive behind it must be strong. The stronger the motive, the stronger (and more sustainable) the conflict.
All stories need conflict. Without it, a plot is merely a series of related events. It’s the struggle we like to read about. We want our heart to pound with the protagonist's and to feel the emotions she feels. But the conflict should be appropriate to the story. If you’re writing romantic comedy, you don’t want the heroine claustrophobic because she was trapped in a well when she was four.
The character must be in conflict with herself. Logically she knows the cliffside path is safe, but she can’t make herself walk it. For this struggle with herself to be believable, she needs a strong reason for her fear. If she dropped her favorite doll into a ravine and lost it when she was a child, it’s not much of a reason and shouldn’t cause such paralyzing fear. But if she fell into the ravine as a child (how bad do you want it to be? You can always raise the stakes—maybe she landed in a nest of snakes), the reason is much more believable. The stronger the reason, the stronger and more believable her inner conflict will be. So at the climax, when she needs to go out on that path to save the injured man, she has to overcome her own terrible fear. And we want to experience her struggle, feel what she feels, and empathize.
Internal conflict comes from backstory. It has to be there when the story begins. Usually it stems from something that happened when the character was an impressionable child. Otherwise, the reader may think she should just get over it. She may feel a little trepidation, but it shouldn’t stop her from going along the path. It can be a hard sell, making the reader sympathize and share the emotion. Irrational fears don’t cut it in fiction.
How do you handle infernal conflict? Have any examples?