A common piece of advice is to include some type of conflict on every page. For new writers, that advice might bring to mind scenes of characters fighting, but the truth of what counts as conflict is much broader than that. We’ve talked many times about different styles of conflict, from antagonists vs. villains to characters’ external vs. internal arcs.
Conflict is what creates the story and not just a tale of “she wanted X and she got it. The End.” Why does it take them pages and pages to reach their goals or fulfill their desires? (Assuming they do succeed and we’re not writing a tragedy.) Whatever those obstacles standing in the way of their goals are, that’s conflict.
However, it’s often still easier for us to think of conflict in the context of villains or “bad guys,” as that type of conflict feels more immediate and tangible. But it can also force the focus onto the plot and not our characters.
So if we’re writing a story with a character focus and/or an internal/emotional arc, we need some type of internal conflict. Inner conflict can get far deeper into who our character is, with all their hope, fears, and false beliefs. This internal conflict can seem nebulous and intangible, but it’s often how our character’s backstory wound affects the here-and-now of our story.
How can we nail down our character’s inner conflict and incorporate it into our story? The fantastic Angela Ackerman—one half of the duo behind the popular writing Thesaurus collection, the Writers Helping Writers site, and the One Stop for Writers resource—is here to help us discover our character’s internal conflict.
Please welcome Angela Ackerman! *smile*
How to Find Your Character’s Inner Conflict
By Angela Ackerman
Conflict is a powerful element within the story and can be loosely categorized as either Outer (external) Conflict or Inner (internal) Conflict. The difference is that outer conflict is something external keeping the character from his goal, while inner conflict is a mental struggle over wanting things that are at odds or compete.
Internal conflicts might be:
- Opposing or competing wants, needs, or desires
- Confusion about how to feel
- Questioning beliefs or values
- Suffering from indecision, insecurity, self-doubt, or another emotion that puts the character at odds with themselves
- Conflicting duties and responsibilities
- Grappling with an aspect of mental health
Internal Conflict Is Relatable
Internal conflict draws readers in because it’s a type of struggle common to us all. Confusion over what to do, feel, and believe, can make us feel exposed. To find a path forward, we must weigh and measure personal beliefs, ideas, and needs. Characters, like us, must do the same, and as they look within themselves for answers, they reveal their vulnerability and humanity to readers.
Scene-to-scene, you’ll usually see inner conflict. At times it’s a heavy weight, other times, indecision over what to do, or deciding what’s better, option A or option B.
Where inner conflict really takes center stage is at the story level. Character vs. Themselves conflict will create a war zone inside your character throughout the story, and they must resolve it successfully to achieve their goal.
5 Ways to Find—and Use—Inner Conflict
This primary inner conflict might be something you need a bit of help to brainstorm, so poke around the psychological side of them to see what shakes loose.
#1: Their Greatest Fear
Fears are highly motivating. The inconvenient, everyday ones? Sure, because no one makes split-second decisions better than an arachnophobe who’s just stumbled into a spiderweb. (This is the voice of experience talking.)
But in storytelling, it’s the larger fears that drive both character and story. Fear of failure, being alone, losing a loved one … these can push the character to embrace unhealthy habits or paralyze her into maintaining the status quo and resisting needed change.
Imagine, for instance, a character who is afraid of letting others down. This fear will insert itself into every situation where she’s accountable to others, steering her toward doing what others want rather than what she wants, or causing her to step back instead of stepping up. She may worry that if she takes on something big, she’ll screw it up, so she discards goals that could result in personal fulfillment, such as having children or leading a beloved charity group or event. This fear of disappointing others can influence her choice of career or who she marries. It can lead to her sacrificing her own joy for the happiness of others. Then, before you know it, an important human need has been compromised, leading to more problems.
#2: Their Core Moral Beliefs
Nothing causes psychological turmoil quite like a challenge to one’s core beliefs, and no beliefs are more central than the moral ones, because they define who we are.How can we add internal conflict to our story? @AngelaAckerman shares 5 ideas Click To Tweet
This is the situation Paul Edgecombe encounters in The Green Mile. As a death-row prison guard, experience has taught him that the men in his charge are guilty and deserve their punishment. But then he encounters an inmate who doesn’t fit the mold. Could John Coffey, a man found guilty in a court of law, actually be innocent? If so, how can Paul execute him?
Think about what your character believes on the deepest level—his thoughts about right and wrong, good and evil. Then introduce an event that challenges those ideas. If his inner turmoil surrounding this issue or theme is what the story is really about, if it’s something he could struggle with for the story’s entirety, it may be a good choice for his story-level internal conflict.
#3: Their Existential Ideas
Another trait particular to human beings is our curiosity, particularly about big ideas: Who am I? What’s my purpose? Is there life beyond Earth? After death? These questions often aren’t answerable, but your characters grapple with them anyway because the answers will impact and define who they are.
If your character already knows what they believe about bigger life questions, that information will become part of their core belief system. Challenging them will throw the character into an emotional and existential tailspin. If they don’t have answers, the struggle to find them can lead to all kinds of internal strife.
#4: Their Wants and Needs
Wants are exactly what they imply: something the character desires but doesn’t necessarily need. By themselves they don’t generate much conflict, but when you set them in opposition to the character’s missing need or a core belief, internal strife explodes onto the scene.How can we create a character arc? @AngelaAckerman shares 5 ways to include internal conflict Click To Tweet
Dan Burns, the protagonist in Dan in Real Life, lost his wife many years prior and is now raising three girls on his own. He hasn’t been truly happy in all that time—but then he meets Marie. Finally! His need for love and belonging is going to be filled—except … his brother is already dating her.
Now his need (happiness and love) and his want (to be with Marie) are at odds, because for him to be with Marie, he would have to betray his brother. And how could he be happy doing that?
#5: Their Secrets
Characters jump through all kinds of emotional and logistical hoops to keep important secrets from coming to light. They may withdraw from people, organizations, and cherished hobbies to avoid questions that hit too close to home. You can imagine the inner turmoil that develops when a character must give up an area of giftedness or a close friend in order to keep certain information from getting out.
Many characters will drastically change their behavior to keep their secrets safe. Melinda Sordino in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is so determined to keep a certain event from being revealed that she stops talking altogether. After all, if you can’t talk, you can’t tell. If your character’s secret is one that must be protected at all costs, it can provide compelling fodder for internal conflict.
Bonus #6th Trick for Finding Inner Conflict:
Know Their Backstory Wound
These are just a few of the factors that can contribute to a character’s inner struggles. It should be noted that many of these will stem directly from a major wounding event in the character’s past, so it’s a good idea to know exactly what that is and the various ways it will impact your character.
Need More Help with Inner Conflict?
Be sure to grab the soon-to-release The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1). (Releases October 12th!)
It’s packed with ideas on how to apply meaningful conflict to reveal your character, challenge them, and keep the story tense and on track. It also digs into a plethora of conflict scenarios to help you plot fresh scenes.
Check out the list of external and internal conflicts covered in this Volume 1 of The Conflict Thesaurus. And here’s an example of one of the entries: Needing to Sacrifice One for the Good of the Many.
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Her bestselling writing guides are available in eight languages, and are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and used by writers around the world.
She’s also one half of the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, and co-founder of One Stop for Writers, a creativity portal loaded with one-of-a-kind tools, resources, and a Storyteller’s Roadmap that makes planning, writing, and revising a novel almost criminally easy.
Thank you so much, Angela! I love internal conflict for how it can develop our characters’ arcs. But it can be hard to know how to turn a backstory wound or other starting point into conflict that’s important to the story, so this breakdown of approaches is a great help!
Which of these approaches is your favorite? Which methods have you used in your writing? Do you struggle to include inner conflict in your stories? Or do you struggle to know how to make internal conflict relevant to the story? Do you have any questions for Angela?