Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Internal Conflict: The Horns of a Dilemma

I have been thinking about my main character. A lot. While I am doing the dishes and cooking dinner. Plotting how to utterly destroy her life. You know, the usual. 

An element of writing that is well covered is the character's growth arc. Most writers know that it's a good idea to have your character grow from the beginning to end of the book. Readers like that sort of thing. It provides a really cathartic experience to read about character growth, and that's generally considered to be a good thing.

An aspect that is important for this vital character growth, and doesn't always come up, is internal conflict. Internal conflict can turn an averagely interesting story into something you absolutely cannot put down.

Let's say Angela is your main character. You know that she's going to move from insecure to self confident by the end of the book. I actually write that under the character's name in my notes (Angela: Insecure---> Self Confident. Brad: arrogant ---> humbled). You can too. It's fun, and also a really great quick reference tool any time you're feeling bogged down in the story itself.

So now, depending on your writing process, you either plan or start writing. But whichever you do, I would advise you to take one more step. It's a little something I like to call Torture the Character. *mwhahahaha*

Only the best for my characters!

The Joys of Torturing Characters 101: Internal Conflict

Step One: Go to Youtube and play Lux Aertna. Also known as the song from Requiem for a Dream. It will get you in the mood to really make your character miserable. Just listen to the song and think about how horrified/miserable/conflicted you can make your character, and how awesome that would be.

Step Two: Decide on the different type of Internal Conflict you wish to inflict upon your character

You have given your character a goal. Something the character wants badly. Maybe you're writing Young Adult and Angela is the kid that gets picked on all the time, and falls in love with the captain of the football team, Brad. Angela's goal is to get Brad to take her to prom. You have your quick reference character arc for Angela and Brad.

If you want to take your story from good to great, you need to go one step further. You need to give Angela a reason to be conflicted. Not just the external problems she faces with trying to make herself attractive to a jock and the life lessons she learns along the way, but something else that tears at her. 

Ideally, internal conflict works the best if it comes naturally from the character. Not only are there external obstacles to Angela's goals, but internal (hence the "internal" part of internal conflict) obstacles as well.

There are a few ways to come up with internal conflict for your characters. In interest of giving you the best tools to torture your characters with, I will list them out for you. 

Tool 1: The Rack, aka Give your main character an equally compelling reason to NOT want to achieve her goal

This works the best when the goal is something that the character chose for themselves. Like going to a prom, or writing a book, or something like that. Less so than if the goal is forced upon the character, like "This bus will explode if it slows down below fifty miles an hour". It's because it's obvious why the character doesn't want to explode, so there's not a lot of tension beyond that. You could pull it off, but it's a little harder. And depending on your plot, might seem forced (as with the example, it would be hard to believe that the character would want the bus to explode).

This also works better for your story if this reason isn't based on a complication from her trying to achieve her goal. For example, since that probably sounds like gibberish:

Angela decided that she wanted to get Brad to take her to the prom. This is her story goal. There are complications, like her insecurity and her perception that she isn't pretty enough (and please, for the love of all that is good in the world, if you do write an ugly duckling plot, don't make the nerdy girl just take off her glasses and POOF! She's pretty after all!).

If your only source of internal conflict is from giving her crippling insecurities, or a traumatic event in the past that would cause her to think she's not good enough, this works only until she overcomes her confidence issues. So when you resolve her main conflict, you also resolve her internal conflict as well. 

I am not saying to ignore such conflicts. I am simply suggesting you categorize those conflicts as complications to the main plot, and not part of your internal conflict. 

An example of a reason why she wouldn't want Brad to take her to prom could be Angela's best friend has been in love with Brad her entire life, and wants Brad to take her to the prom as well. Both girls can't take Brad to the prom (they could if he was a playa though! But this is YA, so let's keep it clean). Making something rare or mutually exclusive is a fun way to create some conflict. 

Now, Angela worries about her friendship with Mary Sue (get it? Mary Sue? Anyone? *cricket*), and this makes her feel even more insecure about how she looks, because Mary Sue is way prettier than Angela (or so she thinks). So not only does this create internal conflict for Angela, but it makes her initial problems of self confidence even worse. This is why I suspect there are a lot of love triangles in fiction, because it creates instant internal conflict.

Another example of this type of internal conflict is the character wanting something that is not accepted by their parents or society, like dating the wrong guy or stepping outside of her religious faith or social norms. Angela wants to go the prom, but her parents are utterly opposed to her going, because they think she's just going to get drunk and have sex. 

So now Angela has the main problem of getting Brad to take her to the prom, but she also struggles with whether or not to obey her parents. If she goes, she defies her parents. If she doesn't go, she will feel like she's missing out on her life as a teenager.

Tool 2) The Iron Maiden, aka Mutually Exclusive Goals

We just talked about making things mutually exclusive. If you make something rare or hard to obtain, you instantly create value and conflict for it. Two characters competing for the same job, the same guy or girl, the same piece of toast. 

In all fairness, it was a really good piece of toast.
Whatever it is, if one person gaining it means no one else can, it's mutually exclusive. Bonus points if both people have an equally good reason for wanting that job, guy/girl, or piece of toast.

Tool 3) The Thumbscrews, aka Create a Time Conflict

You can also look at it another way, and make it a mutually exclusive event. Like Angela's prom. She's never going to have another one. Period. Even if she went to someone else's prom, it's not the same. Humans put a lot of value on the "first time" you experience something. Like your wedding, or prom, or having a baby. These first events are given special significance, so it's considered tragic if something happens to ruin them. 

Playing with time gives your story an extra edge. A character has to be at two different, equally important places at the same time. Maybe on the same night as her prom, Angela was also asked to attend another event. This other event can give you a lot of opportunity to show more of Angela's character. If you want her to be religious, then it can be a church fair. If you want to show Angela's family, maybe it's her little brother's soccer tournament.

Whatever this other event is, make sure it's equally important to the character, and that by having one she cannot have the other. She will agonize over which event is more important for her to attend. You could show her trying to attend both, with hilariously disastrous results (Hilarious for you, disastrous for the character). 

Step 3: Cackle manically and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Watch your character squirm. 

You can focus on one of these internal conflicts, or you can sprinkle in different types, depending on how layered you want to make your story. But whatever you decide, recognize internal conflict as the gold mine it is for creating a character that readers will follow to the end of the book, simply because they have to find out what the character decided to do.

I was going to include the benefits of internal conflict and how it impacts your story, but this post is already getting long. So I will talk about the Whys of Internal Conflict tomorrow. Stay tuned!

**By the way, I have another snow day today. Yay for me!

***Reminder! I have a blogfest coming up on the 25th! It would be great to have more people join! Act now while supplies last!

****Welcome new followers! We have a good time here on my blog, and it's great to see some new faces!

What about you? How do you create internal conflict for your characters? Is it something you do consciously or do you just allow it to rise out of the story?


  1. Wow! What a detailed post. This has definitely given me a lot to think about. I write YA, so for my characters there's always a ton of internal conflict (ah, to be a teen again). I spend a lot of time remember how things were for me, and remember how everything felt like the end of the world.

    I've not really played with the time element before, but my current project is a detective mystery with a big countdown timer. My protaganist has to grow up fast!

  2. Oooo, I like the idea of pulling from your personal life! I will have to keep that in mind.

    Thanks for the comment!