Ode to Internal Conflict

In real life, people have internal conflict all the time.  Sometimes it’s more apparent than others.  Sometimes it’s over a triviality, and other times it’s about something life-changing and complex.  But it’s there, and it affects our words, actions, moods, relationships, and worldviews.

If you want your characters and their problems to come alive for readers, you’ve got to give the people in your story some internal conflicts.  Of course, it’s most important to show in your main character(s), but secondary and “bit” characters can come through richer and stronger for a little dose of internal conflict, too.

How you go about showing that conflict will depend on a few factors:

  1. If you’re writing in first person, your readers get direct insight into the main character’s thoughts and feelings, even if he/she is an unreliable narrator.  Your other characters will be viewed through the lens of your narrator’s opinions and observations, but you, the writer, should know the real deal about your secondary characters – not just what your main character knows, thinks, and feels about them.  That includes knowing what makes them tick and what internal conflicts may be affecting them in any given scene.
  2. Third person can be done in a few different ways, but generally there’s some balance between omniscient narration and a sort of journalistic telling of the facts (just what is said and observed, with no direct insight into the characters’ minds or emotions).  If you go more for omniscient narration, you can reveal characters’ thoughts directly, and show inner conflicts that way.  If you stick with “just the facts, ma’am,” you’ll need to make sure to use facial expressions, hesitations, nervous habits, body language, tone of voice, etc. to communicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings, including their inner conflicts.
  3. If you have a character who just isn’t introspective, who doesn’t (or can’t) face his/her own flaws or mistakes, or who dislikes communicating his/her inner workings (even in his/her own thoughts), again, you’ll have to bring out internal conflict through responses to external factors:  other characters’ actions, dialogue, events, etc.

Now, about different kinds of inner conflicts.  There are inherent, long-term issues, such as the desire for freedom and independence battling with the desire for belonging and love (which could apply to a character’s family background or love life or both).  That kind of deep-rooted conflict is almost a character trait, and can be the foundation for the entire plot or can simply be a factor in your character’s behavior and attitude.  You can resolve it as a subplot, give your character new insight into the problem as the main story goes on, have your character come to terms with it by the end, or leave it hanging over his/her head.

There are also smaller, more specific inner conflicts (do the right thing, or the easy / profitable / fun thing?)  That kind of internal conflict is the spice of fiction, in my opinion.  When an author weaves together the events of the book and the conflicts and tough decisions of their characters, everything pulls together until you can’t separate THOSE characters from THAT plot.  It had to be [Character A] faced with [Event 1], because only he would’ve reacted by doing [this], which caused [Event 2], which set up [Character B] with [that] decision, and…so on and so forth.

So there are lots of reasons to give characters internal conflicts of various importance and scale.  It gives them depth, keeps them from being too predictable or stereotypical, lends tension to the story (because people don’t always make the right choices, or even know what the right choice is), plays characters off one another, and is an excellent catalyst for both main plot and subplot.

Even if you’re never going to mention a particular character’s hang-ups in the story, you should know what they are.  Your characters, dialogue, and story will all be the better for it.

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