Great Characters Need Conflict: Internal Conflict!
Last week was all about the external conflict, so let’s do this internal conflict, shall we?
Internal Conflict places the character in a tug of war from an ethical or emotional debate occurring from within themselves. That means the character conflicts with itself by pitting their own heart and mind against each other.
How do we get readers to understand this conflict?
We must put the character in situations that pull at them (or trigger them) while simultaneously attempting to make crucial decisions. Authors, this style of conflict has the power to carry the full weight of the plot as an external conflict.
Here are common Triggers for Characters to Endure:
Fear: It controls the characters. Readers understand fear (it’s that human connection with fictional characters). Readers are whispering or shouting at the character to not fall into the trap and get beyond themselves.
Duty: The character’s moral compass leads them to do what they feel is right no matter what. This can also cause readers to roll their eyes or cheer them forward with the conviction that being loyal to a cause is a beautiful human trait.
Desire: The character wants something and is going to seek after it. How many of us desire things? This is a great human characteristic, and we connect immediately with the character.
Need: the need can be physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental in nature, but it is for survival.
Expectation: The character is driven through social self-preservation and doesn’t weaken.
Authors, your job is to have the character experience two or more of these triggers simultaneously. That gives birth to internal conflict. Suddenly we see our characters go back and forth in their decision of what action to take, but then the trigger occurs, creates the internal conflict. The character goes back and forth and begins to experience confusion, fear, anxiety, or mental or emotional conflict.
Time for an Example!
•In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Harry's internal conflict is that he doesn’t fit in or belong—especially to the Dursley family. He is an outsider. He is forced to live and comply in the muggle world, yet he is special, and there is no explanation when magical things happen to him.
Once Hagrid tells him that he is a wizard, he suddenly can’t believe the explanation. Arriving at school, he quickly feels that he doesn’t really belong here either. It takes the year of school, finding friends, understanding who he is through the external challenges that he finally accepts his gift that he is a wizard.
• In The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gollum conflicts because of the ring's external forces, but in so much that it has actually split him into two people: Smeagol and Gollum. The plotting that takes place for Gollum ultimately destroys him.
If we look at another character from the book, Aragorn, we discover that he is the long-lost rightful king of the realm of Gondor. Aragon should take up the throne, but he fears that the weakness that runs in his blood will succumb to his ancestors' temptations and lead his people astray.
How to use internal conflict successfully?
One word, consequences. Place your character in nearly impossible situations in which they feel they are only given options that will end in negative consequences. Readers will suddenly start asking questions:
“How will Harry fight off the Voice of Voldemort in his head?”
“Will Katniss really kill Peeta when the time comes?”
“How will Aragon ever sit on the throne?”
“Will Frodo really destroy the ring when it is time, or will give in to the power of the ring?”
Authors, eventually, your character must come to a decision, whether that be to take one specific action or to try to avoid any action at all costs. Whichever decision wins based on the trigger, this is your character’s motivation.
Great Stories have Internal and External conflicts interwoven.
Any story's basis should be a character, a goal, and an opposing force of either external/internal source to build the plot. However, your character’s motivation (their drive and reason for going after their goal) that will connect with the readers—motivation that is born out of internal conflict is the key to great storytelling.
The character must share the human experience that we all face in our lives to be relatable. This is the secret to bridging the gap between the world we live in and the character’s world. This is a human connection through the characters. This is why we love stories.
Through internal conflict and character motivation, you are inviting your readers to walk with your characters on their self-discovery journeys. You are developing the story's pacing; suddenly, themes emerge, you see growth in your character, all from weaving the internal and external conflicts together. This creates that dang good story!