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May 22, 2024

Inner Conflict: How to Resolve Our Character’s Internal Arc — Guest: Angela Ackerman

Pensive man standing in front of plywood with text: Building Up & Resolving Inner Conflict

As storytellers, we often hear about adding conflict to our story. However, our first instincts for adding conflict typically rely on external conflict, the obvious plot-driven obstacles and events that feel tangible: car chases, arguments, betrayals, kidnappings, etc.

That’s understandable, as their tangible nature makes them seem like easy fixes for improving pacing or other story issues. But many times, internal conflict can also fix those same issues, and in addition, add depth to our story and our characters.

In other words, our story will be better off if we can broaden our instincts to also rely on inner conflict, yet adding internal conflict can be tricky, simply due to its intangible nature. So let’s get more practice with internal conflict today and learn how to add layers, create hard choices, and force our characters to take actions with tension and stakes as they try to resolve their issues.

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 with an in-depth example to help us understand:

  • what creates and drives inner conflict throughout our story,
  • how to add layers to that conflict, and
  • a strategy to force our characters past the hemming-and-hawing stage toward a resolution that forms our character’s internal arc.

Please welcome Angela Ackerman! *smile*

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How to Push Characters to Resolve Inner Conflict

By Angela Ackerman

When it comes to conflict, we love putting characters in danger. Placing threats in their path, hurling adversaries at them…these things power the plot, jack up the tension, and cause readers to worry the protagonist will be unable to achieve their goal.

Outer conflict is loud and sexy, and to an outsider, might appear to steal the show. But it’s not the crazy car chases or night stalkers that carry a story, it’s the protagonist and the personal turmoil churning within them. Their struggle over what to do, what to believe, and how to embrace courage in the face of uncertainty and fear is what keeps readers turning pages late into the night.

What Is Inner Conflict?

A character’s inner conflict is a battle of opposites—wants and dreams face off against fears and duty. Beliefs and values clash, vying for importance. Identity and self-acceptance go to war against the societal pressure to fit in.

For example, maybe our character dreams of being a teacher, but to make parents proud, they’re in med school (duty). Or they yearn to embrace their identity, but fear being cast out for it. They may believe in both loyalty and lawfulness, but when those clash, feel paralyzed over what to do.

How Does Inner Conflict Affect Our Story?

What is inner conflict (and how does it affect our story)? @AngelaAckerman shares her insights Click To Tweet

When a character is being pulled between opposing things that matter to them, they experience psychological discomfort. This cognitive dissonance arises when a person has contradicting thoughts, perceptions, values, or beliefs.

Their discomfort can be ignored for a time, but as it grows, so does their need to resolve it, especially when it touches their self-perceptions and who they believe themselves to be.

3 Potential Layers of Factors that Affect Inner Conflict

Resolving inner conflict involves something called emotional reasoning, which is the weighing and measuring of different factors unique to the character and their situation. Each factor is examined, weighed, and will ultimately help build a story in the character’s mind as to why X is ultimately the right thing to do in this situation.

For example, let’s say Carol is the character who dreams of being a teacher but instead she’s in med school to please her parents. Each day she struggles to focus, and her grades are slipping. She’s smart, and knows she has what it takes to be a doctor, but her heart isn’t in it.

Layer 1: The Basic Factors Affecting Emotional Reasoning:

She starts to question whether it would be better to disappoint her parents and switch to teaching, a career she is certain will bring her happiness and fulfillment. After all, if her parents love her, won’t they want that for her?

So here, the factors are:

  • What her parents want
  • What will make her happy
  • What do her parents value more – a daughter who is a doctor or one who loves what she does

Layer 2: Complicating Factors (Optional):

Want to layer more inner conflict for your characters? @AngelaAckerman shares her tips! Click To Tweet

But let’s say it’s not this simple, and there are other factors to weigh. Maybe Carol’s parents sacrificed a lot for her to get into med school, making sure to make the right connections and get her in the best schools.

Or perhaps being a doctor is a family legacy, and Carol promised her dying brother than she would become a doctor because he could not. If she breaks her promise, what does that say about her? Will the guilt she’ll carry ultimately steal any joy teaching would bring?

More possible factors:

  • Parents who sacrificed a lot to make this opportunity happen
  • A promise given to someone on their deathbed
  • The expectation of carrying on a family legacy

Layer 3: Higher-Stake Factors (Optional):

Perhaps an even darker factor is at play. What if Carol’s family of doctors serves the Italian mafia, and if she doesn’t follow through with med school, it could cause blowback for her parents? Then, wouldn’t it be better to sacrifice her dream and ensure the safety of her mother and father?

Still more possible factors:

  • Family is indentured to a dangerous crime family
  • Her family may be in danger if she doesn’t continue the legacy

Want Strong Inner Conflict? Ensure the Decisions Are Hard

Depending on the factors in your character’s situation, the weighing and measuring can get complicated. But inner conflict is called conflict for a reason – there will be hard choices to make, risks to take, and no guarantees.

Sorting through contradictory beliefs, responsibilities, emotions, and needs is never an easy job, which is why characters will attempt to distance themselves from their problems and put off decision-making. Avoiding hard decisions is fine for awhile (and even expected, sometimes!) but at a certain point, the pace begins to flag and the plot stalls.

After Their Delays and Avoidance, How Can We Force Our Characters to Face Their Inner Conflict?

A strategy to use to get things back on track is to employ an emotion amplifier. These states and conditions can act as a catalyst, becoming an extra burden or stressor that the character can’t ignore.

For example:

  • An injury or illness will force a character out of hiding because they must seek help. 
  • A competitor will force a timid character to confess his feelings to a love interest before he loses her.
  • Substance withdrawal can bring on such painful and obvious symptoms that the character’s addiction can no longer be hidden.
  • Scrutiny, hunger, or pain can cause an irritable and stressed character to finally explode.

In Carol’s case, what if she develops a physical health condition or illness similar to what her brother had before he died? This could push her to make her decision because life is too short to be unhappy. Or she might begin to experience panic attacks associated with med school, and the only way to free herself of them is to have a difficult conversation with her parents.  

How can we force our characters to do the hard work of resolving conflict? @AngelaAckerman shares her top strategy Click To Tweet

In both cases, an amplifier is making her situation untenable, and she comes back to the decision-making table. Like the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, the amplifier becomes the one challenge too many to handle, forcing her to resolve her inner conflict.

Amplifiers are brilliant at making a character unable to emotionally regulate, opening them up to problems and painful fallout when they act without thinking. But they can also provide the right kind of internal strain that even the most avoidant character will feel compelled to figure out their path forward in order to end their internal discomfort.

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Meet the NEW Companion to The Emotion Thesaurus:
Emotion Amplifiers!

Graphic of The Emotion Thesaurus and The Emotion Amplifier Thesaurus covers with descriptions and the tagline: What happens when your character loses control?

This guide is a companion to the popular Emotion Thesaurus and covers all the ways to push a character emotionally, setting them up for bigger reactions.

Emotion Amplifiers are specific states and conditions that can strain a character to the point they lose control. Pain, exhaustion, arousal, and competition are just some of the amplifiers that can send your character over the edge. If they give in to what they feel, they might lash out, take foolish risks, show poor judgment, and act in ways that take their situation from bad to worse. Hello, conflict!

To brainstorm an amplifier that can work for your story, check out this list of 52 amplifiers or pick up a copy of The Emotion Amplifier Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Stress and Volatility.

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Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a story coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. Available in nine languages, her guides are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this series has sold over a million copies.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers®, as well as One Stop for Writers®, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction.

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Thank you so much, Angela! I love the example you shared for how to add layers to our character’s internal conflict. And not only is the example helpful in that respect, but it also illustrates how much inner conflict creates and drives our character’s internal arc, as well as the story itself.

I also especially love your strategy of using emotional amplifiers to force our characters to confront the difficult decisions they face in resolving their inner conflict. If we ever write ourselves into a corner where we don’t know how to force our characters to take the next step, these amplifiers are a fantastic way to push them to the breaking point where they can’t not take action anymore. Love it!

We might have a grasp on what internal conflict means, but this post really drives home how it can help define the character aspects of our whole story. When we fully understand how to use and take advantage of inner conflict, our story will be stronger. And as a bonus, when we fully understand how to use emotional amplifiers, we’ll always have a method in our writing toolbox to force our characters to choose a certain path or to take action. *smile*

Did this post (and Angela’s great example) help you understand inner conflict and how it relates to our story? Have you struggled with how to add enough internal conflict? Have you struggled with how to force your characters to take action? Do you understand how emotional amplifiers can be a useful tool in our writing toolbox? Do you have any questions for Angela?

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Angela Ackerman

Thank you so much for having me here, Jami! I think the stronger and more engaging our character’s inner conflict is, the more readers are drawn in. Difficult decisions create huge amounts of tension when you care about the character as the stakes are naturally high. 🙂

Clare O'Beara

Thanks for the post!

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