I sat in on an amazing workshop while I was at RWA that made something typically vague very clear and applicable. Michael Hague's Using Inner Conflict to Create Powerful Love Stories. It was one of those workshops that discussed what I already knew, but Hague presented it in such a way that I clearly saw a super easy way to apply inner journeys to my stories.
While the workshop was about romance specifically, the pieces of Hague’s inner conflict really work for any character journey. He calls the overall arc the “journey from living in fear to living courageously.” To put it in more familiar terms, the character arc: the growth the protagonist undergoes over the course of the story.
This is a biggie because we all know our characters should grow, and often even know what that growth should be. Selfish to giving, shy to outgoing, distrustful to trusting. But taking that general growth theme and making it part of the story? Having it actually help drive the plot? That’s a lot harder, and it's not always clear how we should approach it. Does it need its own subplot? Is it something that drives the story at all or is it just emotional internalization? Things just got a lot easier.
Let's take a peek at Hauge's basic inner conflict arc:
Longing or Need: The thing the character longs for or needs in the story.
Hague describes the longing as the desire the character is aware of, wishes for, and could change if they actually acted, but they never do. The need is the thing that will make their life better, but they don’t know they need it yet. They can’t identify what’s “missing” though they know something is and that makes them unhappy.
If this doesn’t say “inner goal” I don’t know what does. Your protagonist will have a clear exterior goal (plot), but their dream, their wish, the thing that will save them if they only realized it, is the interior goal. The longing or the need.
(More on goals here)
Wound: A past wound or hurt that is a current unhealed source of pain.
Can you say backstory? Something bad happened in the protagonist’s past that affected them so profoundly it shaped them as a person, and still influences their decisions and actions today. Talk about character motivation.
The wound might be some deep dark secret, or it can be how the character grew up. It changed them, and had this not happened, they would have become a different person. This is often the thing you want to explain at the start of a story so the reader “gets it.” (but trust me, don’t do it).
(More on backstory here)
Belief: What the character believes due to the wound. How it shapes their worldview.
Now we’re talking serious point of view filters. Whatever happened to your protagonist, the thing that shaped them, was so profound it created an entire belief system for them. This is the filter through which the protagonist sees the world. Their past experience (the wound) colors how they view their current life. They’ll make decisions based on or influenced by this belief.
Hague used Shrek as an example. Shrek grew up as “a big scary ogre” and everyone ran away. So in his mind (his belief), he’s nothing but a big scary ogre and unworthy of love. He expects people to run from him. He expects people to hate him for who he is (or thinks he is). He learned early on that people run from him, and this has shaped who he is and how he interacts with the people and world around him. But as we learn later in the movie, this isn’t true.
Fear: What terrifies the character emotionally; some version of experiencing that wound pain again.
This is another way of saying “stakes.” This is the hard part in many inner conflicts because it’s not always clear what’s at stake. This format helps you figure out what the protagonist is afraid of experiencing again. They’ll do anything to prevent that.
Shrek is afraid of rejection, so he’ll isolate himself and chase people away before they have a chance to reject him. Being rejected by someone who matters to him is his fear. What’s at stake is him opening himself up and having people run away again, proving that he is truly a big scary ogre unworthy of love. What’s at stake is proving the fear is true. This works especially well for inner conflict because the risk is typically emotional.
(More on stakes here)
Identity: The false self the character presents to the world. The emotional armor that protects from the fear, created by the belief, that came from the wound.
This is where it gets fun. A character’s identify is what they want everyone to see. (the ogre). It's the wall they’ve built to keep people from seeing the real them, the person who was hurt so long ago and still feels that pain. How they show themselves to the world.
This is how your character acts and interacts with others. This is who they’re going to be at the start of the story. This is the person that needs changing, because this person is based on lies, on that wound and belief system. It’s not a “real” person even though the character has spent a lifetime making them real. But this fake persona, this identity, is what’s making them miserable. It’s the starting line for the emotional character growth and the beginning of the character arc.
Essence: What lies under all the emotional armor. The real self.
And here’s the finish line for that character arc. This is the person the character truly is or wants to be. They discover who they are over the course of the story by what they experience. By the end of the story, they make a choice/realize/come to accept this and act in a way that allows them to win. (The acceptance of the essence is often what allows them to figure out the plot piece they need to win in the climax, so this is closely linked to the plot arc)
So how do you take this and apply it to your plot?
After you’ve figured out all the pieces to this inner journey, you can look at your plot and see where you can push the character’s buttons. Whatever the fear is, make things happen that force that character to face and experience that fear. Make that fear the thing they need to overcome to succeed in the external plot. Look for ways in which acting from the character’s essence (who they really are or want to be) allows them to win, while acting from their identity (the false persona) makes them lose.
Since you’ll want to establish that fear and identity (the starting point for the character growth arc), at some point in the beginning of the story you’ll show an example of them getting an opportunity to face that fear, but running from that fear instead. Set up the status quo, and introduce that longing or need. (And no, you don’t explain how they got the wound, you just show the affects of that wound and fear. Show the belief by how they live)
Since they’ll need several steps to show their growth, show examples of them failing (by acting from their identity due to fear of the wound) and then gradually winning (by acting from their essence and facing that fear).
Since overcoming that fear is what allows the protagonist to make the switch from living in fear (where they hide behind that identity to avoid the wound) to living courageously (where they live in their essence and be who they really are), then at the climax that fear is going to be present in some way.
Major plot turning points are great moments to layer in the conflict by having the plot decisions conflict/hinge on something that also forces that character to grow. To summarize:
- Inciting event (first failure establish identity)
- Act one climax (second failure, a hint of the essence is revealed)
- Mid-point reversal (first attempt to live in the essence, doesn’t go well, but the essence is seen and realized)
- Act two climax (fear of failure makes protagonist run from their essence instead trying to embrace it like they did at the mid-point)
- Climax (protagonist digs deep down, embraces their essence, and wins)
If you want more, Jami Gold has done two great posts inspired by the same workshop:
How do you handle character arcs and inner conflict?