Advanced Storytelling


Inner Conflict

Read the following excerpt from the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (pp. 36–39)

When a character's will collides with an obstacle that occurs within the character himself, as when duty collides with fear, love with guilt, ambition with conscience, and so on, you have inner conflict. Characters suffer inner conflicts just as real people do. Real people often vacillate. Wracked by indecision, they have guilt pangs, fears, misgivings, doubts, second thoughts, and the like. These are all manifestations of inner conflict. Inner conflicts make characters not only interesting but truly memorable to the reader. Whenever a reader experiences profound empathy with a character, it is because the character is in the throes of intense inner conflict. A character may be in the most pathetic straits in the history of literature, but if he has no inner conflict, the only emotional response the writer can expect from the reader is pity.

If your characters have no inner conflicts, your work will be a melodrama. Inner conflict confirms that the characters are involved, that something is at risk for them.

Say you're planning to write a story about a man who wants to marry a woman. He woos her; she resists. It is difficult, but she finally says yes. That's the core of the story. The insistence (wooing) and the resistance make it dramatic, but it is not as dramatic as it could be. This situation would tend towards melodrama because the central characters have no inner conflicts. So you start brainstorming for ideas to build inner conflict into your characters. You ask yourself, what if he is Zen Buddhist and takes his religion seriously, but she is not Zen, and his parents and his Zen community oppose the marraige? Now he has inner conflict over going against his family's wishes. She loves him but has inner conflict over coming between him and his family. Then you would have the makings of a truly dramatic novel.

Inner conflict need not arise only over religion, of course. It might arise over anything: cultural or racial differences, class, ethnic background, temptations, sexual desires or fantasies, omissions of duty, patriotism, loyalty, laziness—anything a character might feel strongly about.

If a wicked monster threatens a man's family and the man kills the monster, he will not suffer remorse, pangs of guilt, doubts, or misgivings. When Godzilla is eating Tokyo, it is okay to kill Godzilla. There are no moral choices to be made; characters either run away or stand and fight. Either is an acceptable moral choice. No one is called chicken for running away from Godzilla. The battle against Godzilla might make a good action yarn for the Sudnay comics, but it is not suitable material for a dramatic novel. No inner conflict.

To have inner conflict, the opposting forces need not be great or the issues earth-shaking. They need only be great in the minds of the characters involved. One man may torutre himself over having stolen a dime, while another steals a million bucks and doesn't lose a wink of sleep. There is more inherent drama in the story of the man who steals the dime if the theft means the loss of his integrity, honor, self-esteem, and the like, than in the story of the million-dollar thief who is indifferent to the moral consequences of his actions.

Exploiting the inner conflicts of your characters is a tricky business. If your protagonist is called upon to go to war, make certain he is reluctant to do so for a powerful reason. He might be a pacifist; he might be a coward; he might be opposed to his country's policies. If your protagonist is to fall in love with an Irish Catholic, make him an English Protestant. If you're going to test a man's patriotism, be sure patriotism matters to him. This is called "impaling your character on the horns of a dilmma."

You have impaled your character on the horns of a dilemma whenever your character must have or must do something—for very powerful and convincing reasons—and yet can't have or can't do that something for equally powerful and compelling reasons. You'll know your character is impaled when he's being ripped apart by equally powerful forces pulling in opposite directions.

Say a young man feels compelled to kill his mother's new husband to avenge his father's death, yet he is intensely moral and opposed to killing. Moreover, he has doubts that his step-father is guilty, despite the fact that his father's ghost tells him his stepfather is the murderer. A character impaled on the horns of such a dilemma could be the star of a gripping drama. Of course, such a drama has already been written. It was called Hamlet.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.