Okay, yesterday we looked at external conflict, now we're going to take a peek under the surface and talk about internal conflict.
What is internal conflict?
Let's go back to our car-racing hero from yesterday:
We have a hero who wants to win a race so he can get his hands on a cash prize so he can use it to pay a ransom for his son, who has been kidnapped. Unfortunately, he had an unscrupulous opponant will do anything to get to the finishing line first...
What if our hero had a terrible accident a few years back? (Possibly injuring someone he cared about?) He hasn't driven since, and he's petrified! He'd rather be going 10 miles an hour in a car park than 100 miles an hour down a crowded city street.
Now our hero has another obstacle, and this one is not from outside himself. It's not traffic lights and speed limits or an opponent in a faster car. This obstacle comes from INSIDE HIMSELF.
To achieve his goal he has to conquer his fear of driving to win the money and save his son.
Now we’re much more engaged in the outcome - If the stakes get too high, if the speed gets too fast, the stunts too dangerous, will our hero crumble? And how will he feel if his son his hurt because of his own weakness?
This inner conflict has added an extra layer of complexity to the story. Our protagonist will have to grow and change to reach his goal (happy ending) or he can refuse to grow (tragic ending).
An Internal story also needs internal goals
The hero often has to face some internal conflict to achieve his extra goal. However, external goals (plot goals) are not the only goals in a story.
EXTERNAL GOALS have a tangible, visible finish line: Win the race, get the job, find something they’ve lost…
INTERNAL GOALS are intangible, less easy to measure: Success, freedom, security…
Finding your characters' internal conflict
Pick one of your protagonist's (hero or heroine) and ask them a few revealing questions to get to the heart of their internal conflict:
1. What is your character’s internal goal?
We need to know what our character both wants and needs – and sometimes these are not the same thing!
What do they want, deep down? What do they long for? Sometime a character knows what is missing from their life, what is out of balance – they just don’t know how to go about finding that missing element or restoring that balance. And, in these cases, the character only has and inkling of what is wrong, and if they understood the scale of the problem it would probably scared them witless!
But sometimes a character is too afraid to even admit anything is wrong and they ignore the problem; they tell themselves that something else is the solution to all their ills and go after that instead. The problems is that if we were to give our character what they want it would probably destroy them. However, as a writer we should understand what that character really needs, even if they don’t.
I'm going to use the heroine of my upcoming book 'Dancing with Danger' (UK title)/'The Ballerina Bride' (US title) as an example.
Allegra's internal goal - freedom. But it's good to be specific about what that means to your character. Freedom will mean different things to different people. For Allegra, freedom means escape and the chance to make her own choices.
2. What is your character’s internal motivation?
We will find or explain our character’s internal motivation by looking into their history (backstory). Our experiences also shape our thoughts, behaviour and perception of how the world works. Those events can bring out the best in us or they can cause us to show our negative sides. Unfortunately, it seems that the painful experiences are much easier to carry forwards into our futures than the positive ones.
So, to understand why our character wants something we need to know what that emotional baggage is. And don’t be satisfied with the superficial things - keep digging until you find the root!
Allegra's motivation: she's a ballet prodigy who's been working hard since she was sixteen. Ballet has been the focus of her very rigid, very structured life. However, the strain of all this hard work is starting to show, and Allegra isn't sure ballet was ever her choice - she's followed in the footsteps of her famous mother because it pleased everyone she did so. Even worse, the sense of suffocation that is threatening to overwhelm her is affecting her dancing. The critics are saying she's burned out at the age of twenty-three. Ballet has been her life, and if things don't improve she might not even have that...
3. What is your character’s internal conflict?
Hopefully your plot will your character in a situation where both their inner and outer goals are under threat. Be careful you don’t concentrate so much on the outer goals that you forget about that inner conflict - know how your character’s internal issues are going to help them sabotage their own attempts to achieve their goal.
Allegra's external conflict: her external goal is literally to escape, to run away. She wants new experiences, to travel. Up until now she's not had that opportunity - her career demands a huge amount of her time and her domineering father has kept her on a very tight leash. What's stopping her? She's just about to star in a brand new production, and the workload is tougher than ever. No chance of escape for now. Apart from the new steps (which she's rehearsed a thousand times) it's the same old same old.
But identifying the internal conflict can be a bit trickier than sorting out external conflict, so tomorrow I’ll have a few hints to help with the discovery process…