One thing I love about internal conflict is that a character recognizes she is emotionally protecting herself from something and thinks she knows why, but as the story progresses, she realizes the reason goes deeper. Until she’s willing to be vulnerable and admit the emotional walls she’s erected are stifling her, she won’t be able to emotionally grow.
Does it matter if she grows?
YES! When I’m reading a book, I fall in love with characters. I WANT to see them succeed. I want them to become their best selves and live full lives. If a character ultimately stays the same and shows no growth, I’ll be disappointed.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the character starts off with massive flaws that turn everyone off. No one will stick around long enough to read about her growth!
Internal conflict starts with a deep emotional need. This need has been complicated by previous experiences. The character has convinced herself the need will not be met because of the past complications. Throughout the story, this belief is challenged until she chooses to be vulnerable enough to have the ultimate need met.
Here are some questions to dig deeper with internal conflict:
- What happened in the character’s past that caused him to erect emotional walls?
- What reason does he give himself to emotionally protect himself?
- What deeper fear underlies this explanation?
- How can the plot further challenge and develop his conflict?
- How do other characters force him to question if he needs to continue to protect himself?
- What will be the catalyst for him to acknowledge the deep fear keeping him from living his best life?
- What decision will the character make to tear down the emotional wall for good?
Let’s take an example. We’ll look at Lauren’s internal conflict in my book, Hometown Hero’s Redemption.
- A former social worker, Lauren feels she failed to protect the two boys she’d been assigned.
- She can’t forgive herself and doesn’t want to work with troubled kids ever again, lest she repeat her failure.
- As a former foster child, she was shuffled to different homes and as a result, grew a false belief that she had to be perfect to be loved.
- She is asked, refuses, and is finally convinced to babysit a kid who has been emotionally devastated. Being around Wyatt challenges her beliefs–at times she feels like she’s failing him, other times she knows she’s helping–and it confuses her.
- Drew, Wyatt’s guardian, thinks she’s amazing. And as they grow closer, she opens up to him about her regrets. He helps her see herself in a more accurate light, and as she spends time with him, she starts to realize her emotional walls aren’t just because she failed the boys. She unpacks her childhood and sees how she’s equated being perfect with being worthy of love.
- Wyatt vanishes. In Lauren’s mind this proves she was right–she should never have worked with a troubled child. And it reinforces her fears that this is the proof that will drive Drew away. He’ll see she’s not perfect. She failed him and Wyatt and is not worthy of their love. She pushes Drew out of her life.
- Lauren comes to terms with the fact she’s not perfect, never will be, and doesn’t have to earn anyone’s love.
Internal conflict is rooted in fear. The character doesn’t want to face this fear and often tells herself a half-truth to explain it. But as the plot progresses and her beliefs are directly challenged, she is forced to acknowledge the real fear holding her back. And ultimately, she chooses to be vulnerable, allowing this deep emotional need to be met.
How do you deepen internal conflict? I’d love to hear YOUR best tips!
Have a terrific day!