Writing Internal Conflict

It’s been said, your worst battle is between what you know in your head and what you feel in your heart. This inner conflict drives our decisions and the paths of our lives. In fiction, capturing internal conflict is key to creating vibrant and believable characters.

Donald Maass says every hero should have “a tortuous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an irresistible plan, a novel ideal, an undying hope, or whatever it is that drives him beyond the boundaries that confine us, an brings about fulfilling change.”

This fulfilling change is accomplished through Internal conflict (AKA: inner conflict; emotional conflict; Man vs Self). Internal conflict is the tension a character experiences within themselves. It is the battle between hearts and heads, feelings and knowledge.

Effect of Writing Internal Conflict

Writing the conflicts within a character creates empathy and makes the reader take sides in the decision a character must make. Seeing the character struggle internally raises the stakes, creates suspense, and helps the reader become invested in the story and the character.

The conflict presents itself when a character has two conflicting goals, decisions, or forces. The two goals must be mutually exclusive—the character can only choose one or the other and can not have both.

John Vorhaus (writerunboxed.com) says the easiest way to grasp internal conflict is to create an equation containing the word ‘but’ and assign opposing values to either side.

I want to ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________ but I have to/I must _____________.

The greater the war between these two choices, the more emotionally satisfying your story will be.

Kinds of choices your character could be faced with:

  • choices they must make.
  • choices they have already made.
  • too many choices.
  • no choice.
  • how to reach a desired goal.
  • how to overcome opposition.

Some examples of types of internal conflict your characters may struggle with are:

Relationships

  • Face a decision that will hurt someone they love.
  • The decision may or may not benefit the loved one.

Self-Perception

  • Struggle with authenticity of self.
  • Do they have a different persona inside than what they present to the world?
  • Struggle with sexual identity.

Moral

  • Struggle between two opposing values.
  • “Should I go against my morals to get something I want or need?”
  • Can coincide with a religious struggle.

Religious Beliefs

  • Thoughts or feelings that contradict their religious beliefs.
  • Crisis of faith —
    • That can prove to strengthen their faith.
    • Or diminish it, even to a point of faith rejection.

Political

  • Agreeing to a politician’s policy, but disliking their personality.
  • A policy they oppose within their own party.
  • May coincide with religious and/or moral struggles.

Societal Systems

  • Their own role in society.
  • How does the character not fit in with societal norms?

Existential

  • Question your place or purpose in the world.
  • Question the meaning of life, nature, or the world.
  • Can be caused by grief or a traumatic loss.

The internal conflict about these choices happens in the mind, but it manifests in a character’s emotions and behaviours. It may be displayed as:

Emotions:

  • Worry.
  • Panic.
  • Sadness.
  • Anger.
  • Hopelessness.
  • Powerlessness.

Behaviours:

  • Suppressing or denying physical discomfort or stress.
  • Do what they are told to do, instead of what they really want or need to do.
  • Struggle to make decisions.
  • Doubt decisions already made.
  • Feel guilt or shame about past events or behaviours.
  • Be easily influenced by others.
  • Entering into relationships that are dysfunctional or full of conflict.
  • Be unstable or volatile, especially when challenged.
  • Lack of self-esteem.
  • Abrupt mood or personality changes.
  • Seek distraction through alcohol, drugs, sex, entertainment, gambling, etc.

Once you’ve decided on the internal conflicts, your character will face, aligning them with the external conflict and plot can help you create a richer character experience.

Specifically, the solution to the external (or plot driven) conflict is blocked by your character’s internal conflict and a misguided goal. The struggle in their mind directly hinders their ability to solve the outer problem. The rising pressure of the external conflict catalyzes a solution to the misguided goal. Here is where the character makes a major decision that causes change. This leads to a resolution of the internal conflict. By solving the internal conflict, the character now has the ability to resolve the external conflict and does so. The two conflict resolutions together demonstrate the theme of the story.

BY ALLISON GORNER

Allison is a short story author and screenwriter, She has diplomas in Cinema, Television, Stage & Radio, and Writing For Children, and is a member of Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA) and Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (CSIF).

Read more by Allison Gorner:

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