Friday, March 6, 2015

The Root of Internal Conflict

Self-doubts, insecurities, fears, and faulty beliefs are the root of internal conflict. They are the wounds that every human being carries.

Internal conflicts are deep, unexamined beliefs like:

  • If I tell someone I love how I feel, I'll be punished for it.
  • Daddy was a police officer killed in the line of duty, if I love a police officer, I'll end up burying him or her and I'll be alone.
  • If I make more money than my parents/loved ones, I've betrayed them by surpassing them.
Or the nagging fears and insecurities like:

  • Never good enough
  • Not strong enough
  • Not smart enough
But what's the point of internal conflict? Why do we even care about having it in a story? Because it is the backbone for character development. In order for your story to have an arc, a character must change. That implies a starting point and an very different end point.* Where is your character? What is he/she doing? Why? And don't settle for 'getting a paycheck to pay the bills' that's a surface answer. Maybe your character is working fast food because she's desperate to catch up with her little sister's medical bills? Or he's breaking his back carrying hod because he refuses to let anyone know he's two months behind on rent.

From each of those examples, if you look closely, you can identify the belief underpinning the situation. In the first one, the heroine believes she is responsible for her sister - maybe she is. But the belief goes further - if her sister isn't cured or if she dies, the heroine has no worth or is the worst sort of failure. In the second, the hero believes he can't ask for help or admit any kind of momentary weakness. Any decisions these characters make in the beginning of their stories are going to come from their faulty belief systems. At the beginning of the story, though, a character is going to make a decision based on the faulty belief system and it's going to turn out NOTHING like they thought it would.

This is where external conflict comes in to force these people to shake out their unconscious belief systems and change. External events must force characters to realize (on some level) that their beliefs, fears, doubts, etc are actively stabbing them in the back. That doesn't have to mean tons of navel-gazing and angst. If you're into that, great. I prefer explosions and lots of laser fire. You, as the creator, get to decide. Do you rip that bandage off the character's wound in one swift tear? Or do you pry it up an agonizing piece at a time?

But, like I said last week, no matter what, it's your job to rip those bandages AND scabs right off your characters' wounds. Identify their deepest, darkest fears (internal conflict). Use your external conflict to dump them straight into those fears. This is why it's almost impossible for me to talk about just one kind of conflict. For me, they are inextricably linked.

How does it work for you?

*Unless you're writing literary fiction which in general doesn't believe people can or do change. It's more interested in illuminating some aspect of the human condition.

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