How do you write engaging and relatable characters? How do you craft a compelling and impactful story? How do you keep readers turning the pages even when it’s 3am and they know their child will wake up in three hours?
The answer: INTERNAL CONFLICT
I provide an overview of the topic here. If you’d like to find out more about internal conflict then please see the following resources:
Story Genius by Lisa Cron (book)
The current article covers use of internal conflict in positive character change arcs. If you would like me to explore use of internal conflict in a negative or flat character arc in a separate blog post then please let me know!
WHY INTERNAL CONFLICT?
In storytelling, a character should have a story goal they are striving towards.
The word ‘conflict’ has connotations of fights and battles, but its meaning is actually broader than that, and refers to anything which gets in the way of the character achieving their story goal.
Internal conflict is the conflict that takes place internally within a character. This is different from external conflict, which arises from external sources, characters, and events. Both types of conflict impede the main character’s ability to achieve their story goal.
However, external conflict should be related to and driven by the main character’s internal conflict, not the other way around. External conflict is required for your story: however, your main character’s internal conflict should be the driving force behind your story.
It doesn’t matter how exciting and ‘Earth-shattering’ (sometimes literally) the external events of the plot are: these events are boring and inconsequential without internal conflict. The external events of the story are ‘what happens’. The internal conflict tells us why those events matter to the main character, and thus why they matter to the reader.
Internal conflict is summarised in the diagram below. We will explore these concepts in more detail within this blog post.
In order to explore your main character’s internal conflict, you first need to look at your story’s overall theme or ‘message’. You may or may not have a clear idea of what you wish your theme to be, but no matter where you are on the plotter versus discovery writer spectrum, it’s a good idea to get to grips with your theme early in the writing process.
What ‘lesson’ or statement do you wish to announce to the wider world via your story? What feeling or emotion or message is missing from the stories you consume? What do you find yourself ranting about at midnight when scrolling your Twitter feed (oops) and an idiotic take on an important issue shows up on your feed?
Your story may cover multiple themes, but I suggest you choose one over-arching theme as the primary focus of your story.
After summarising your main theme, the easiest way to work out your main character’s misbelief is to turn your theme on its head, and have the character believe the opposite of the story’s main theme (at least in the beginning).
At the beginning of your story, your main character has been living their life in accordance with their misbelief. The misbelief took root years before the main story began, and has been interfering with the protagonist’s life ever since. It affects the main character’s behaviour, actions, and decisions.
The main character’s misbelief may have helped them to an extent, and it may have shielded them from certain negative emotions and fears over the intervening years, reinforcing their faith in their misbelief. However, the misbelief also hampers the main character and, long-term, causes major problems in their life (whether they realise it or not).
EXAMPLE: TURNING RED
I interpret the central theme of the film Turning Red as being to accept and embrace every facet of who you are. When we flip this theme upside-down, we gain more understanding of teenager Mei’s character at the beginning of the story. Mei is an exceptionally bright thirteen-year-old girl who is well-mannered, well-behaved, and studies hard. However, she suppresses major parts of her goofy and fun-loving personality, especially around her strict mother. Mei’s mother (Ming) also embodies the opposite of the story’s theme: she is rigid and highly self-controlled, both in her own behaviour and in her high expectations of her daughter.
Turning Red touches on a number of themes and topics, including adolescence and puberty, the power of friendship, and societal expectations placed on women and girls. However, I argue the main theme (which relates to all these sub-themes) is around self-acceptance and celebration of every part of who you are.
At the beginning of Turning Red Mei is, arguably, winning at life. Her grades are exceptional, she has a loving home and family, and has several kind, fun, and loyal friends. However, there are hints of the pressure Mei is under to study hard, behave properly, and live up to her mother’s high expectations.
DESIRE VERSUS FEAR
Once you’ve worked out your protagonist’s misbelief, you can then work out their resultant desire and fear. I gave a general definition of internal conflict earlier in this article, but now it would be helpful to look at a more specific definition:
INTERNAL CONFLICT IS THE TENSION BETWEEN A CHARACTER’S DESIRE (OR GOAL) AND THE FEAR WHICH PREVENTS THEM ACHIEVING THAT DESIRE (OR GOAL)
At the beginning of the story, both the character’s desire and fear stem from, and are fuelled by, their misbelief. For example, a character whose misbelief is that ‘falling in love makes you weak’ may subconsciously desire to love and be loved. However, their fear of ‘being weak’ and making themselves vulnerable causes them to sabotage any opportunity they get for intimate connection with others.
A positive character arc will show the protagonist striving for the thing they want (a goal informed by their misbelief) without realising that this may be different from the thing they actually ‘need’ to live a happier and more fulfilled life. The process of the protagonist learning the story’s theme and re-framing their misbelief then helps them realise what they actually need.
In some stories the character’s want (desire) and need may be similar, as in the case of someone who desires (and needs) connection with others. In other stories the desire and need may be different, with the misbelief making the character think their life will be improved by something entirely different from their genuine, underlying need.
Your main character’s fear also stems from their misbelief. What are they most afraid of? What would be a disastrous outcome for them? This fear prevents the character achieving both the thing they want and the thing they need.
When choosing your main character’s desire and fear, you can be guided by the character’s past and the event(s) which led to the formation of their misbelief. You can also be guided by other aspects of the character’s core personality and values. For example, if the character is an Enneagram Type 7 then their desire and fear might be informed by the core behaviour patterns and values of a ‘stable’ or ‘unhealthy’ Type 7. See HERE for my posts on how Enneagram classification can help guide character development and character arcs.
In Turning Red, Mei’s story goal is to find a way to attend boy band 4 Town’s concert. Mei sees the concert as a fun-filled right of passage and believes attending the concert will make her happy. Around the same time, Mei’s red panda alter ego makes an appearance (which is both the inciting incident and a great symbol of the growth and chaos of adolescence). Ming encourages Mei to ‘hide’ this part of herself and to control its impulses. Mei’s fear is that her mother will discover she has been using her ‘fun and impulsive’ red panda to have fun and raise money for the concert tickets.
Both Mei’s fear and desire relate to a deeper internal conflict within herself: her desire (and need) to explore and grow into who she is as a person versus fear of her mother’s disapproval and possible abandonment. All of Mei’s actions in working towards her story goal, and trying to avoid discovery by her mother, stem from her (mis)belief that she should not want to attend boy band concerts and have fun because good girls study and behave and conform to their parents’ (and society’s) high behavioural standards.
It is the resultant friction between the protagonist’s desire and fear which generates internal conflict within your story. Internal conflict is the electricity, the life force, the magic ingredient baked into compelling stories, drawing us in and keeping us watching or reading late into the night. It is internal conflict which helps us relate to a character, no matter how ‘likeable’ or ‘unlikeable’ they are or whether or not they are anything like the reader.
Working out and utilising a character’s internal conflict can help solve many character development pitfalls. Without internal conflict you are far more likely to generate characters who are two-dimensional, flawless, and / or unlikeable. However, if you work out their internal conflict early on, then the main character becomes flawed, active, and engaging, and their decisions and actions drive the story forward. Their internal conflict automatically makes them realistic and relatable.
Even an antagonist can become likeable, or at least relatable, if we show their internal conflict. For example, in Turning Red, Ming instantly becomes more likeable the moment her own mother calls and she hides from the telephone. This moment shows the audience that Ming shares her daughter’s internal conflict, and also shows what the stakes are: that Mei and Ming could become estranged too if their misbelief is not resolved by the end of the story.
You should show the character’s internal conflict from the beginning. You don’t need to beat your reader around the head with it and have the character announce exactly how they are conflicted. Chances are they are not fully aware of it themselves. Instead, you show the internal conflict through the protagonist’s actions, thoughts, and interactions. Readers will detect the character’s juicy internal conflict and will be invested in their journey, even if they can’t articulate why they are drawn to the character and drawn into their story. For example, at the beginning of Turning Red, we don’t see Mei wondering whether she can live up to her mother’s expectations: we see her declining having fun with her friends because her mother expects her home.
External conflict is also important for your story, but only so far as it relates to your main character’s internal conflict. Otherwise, your plot is just a meandering series of stuff that happens. No matter how huge the explosions, they are meaningless without internal conflict. If you have meaningful internal conflict, then even a trip to the supermarket can keep you turning the pages until dawn. For example, in Turning Red, every decision Mei makes is informed by her internal conflict. The external events in the story are not random: they all symbolise, or are fuelled by, or framed by, Mei’s (and Ming’s) internal conflict.
When working out the external events of your story (no matter which method or story structure you use), you should constantly ask yourself how the events relate to, explore, and develop the main character’s internal conflict. Every scene and event, and every significant character action and interaction, should be relevant to, and powered by, the main character’s internal conflict.
Mei’s goal of attending a boy band concert seems small and insignificant, and is not something most viewers would desire, but to Mei her story goal is symbolic of a much deeper conflict within herself. Most of the audience are not Chinese-Canadian thirteen-year-old girls, and yet we are drawn deep into Mei’s story and her struggle right from the beginning: not because we care about boy bands, but because her internal battle between who she is and who her family (and society) expects her to be is so deeply familiar and relatable to so many of us. It isn’t the external conflict and external events which capture the audience: it is the internal conflict (especially if the conflict is reminiscent of a ‘universal’ struggle most humans relate to).
Internal conflict is the magic ingredient when it comes to writing compelling, exciting and relatable stories and main characters. A character’s misbelief informs and fuels their story-based desire and fear, and the friction between the character’s desire and fear generates internal conflict. External plot events should be framed by, and powered by, the main character’s internal conflict.
WRITING HACK SERIES
This is part of a series of blog posts featuring writing hacks which will instantly improve your writing!
BEFORE YOU GO…
What do you think of the writing hack outlined above?
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Disclaimer: generative AI
I do not use generative AI to produce or inform my blog, my images, or my fiction. All of my content is generated by the chaotic firing of my own (human) brain! (I have access to some images through my Wix subscription). I do not consent to the use of my content, images, or fiction to train generative AI models. Please contact me to discuss permission and compensation if you wish to use my content in this way.