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Sunday, October 15

Day Fifteen: Idea to Novel Workshop: Discovering Your Internal Conflicts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Fifteen of Fiction University’s At-Home Workshop: Idea to Novel in 31 Days. For the rest of the month, we’ll focus on plot and the major turning points of a novel.

Today, we’re heading inside our characters to discover their internal conflicts.

Discover Internal Conflict


Internal conflicts are the issues the protagonist faces on a mental or emotional level. They’re internal battles that require emotional sacrifices and tough choices that challenge a personal belief. The internal conflicts help make the external choices more difficult, as well as help create the character arc.

The internal conflict is most often a personal struggle that deals with the protagonist’s self-worth or beliefs in some way. This is the conflict that will allow the protagonist to grow however she needs to in the novel. In character-driven stories, this is where the main focus of the novel lies.

For example:
  • A girl must take advantage of a smitten boy to survive in a battle-to-the-death televised combat (The Hunger Games)
  • A terrified hobbit must leave his home and find his inner hero to destroy a magic ring (The Lord of the Rings)
  • A girl with a power she must keep secret has to use it to find and save her missing sister (The Shifter)
Why internal conflicts are important: Internal conflicts drive the character growth and character arc by giving the protagonist something personal to overcome. They also help create unpredictability in the protagonist. If she always does the right thing (as heroes often do), then there’s no doubt how she might act when faced with a tough situation. But if her beliefs conflict with “the right thing,” then her actions become uncertain. Will a protagonist who’s been oppressed her whole life risk her life to save the son of her oppressor?

On Day Eight, we looked at creating the character arc, and internal conflicts are key factors in creating internal change. If your story has a strong character arc, you’ll want strong internal conflicts to support it.

Explore the major conflicts driving your characters and your novel:

1. What are the internal conflicts in the book? List five possible ways your characters can be conflicted.

2. How might the protagonist’s personal beliefs hinder her in achieving her goal? List five possible ways her personal goals might conflict with her plot goals.

3. Are the internal conflicts part of a character arc? How?

EXERCISE: Summarize your internal conflicts.


Not all stories will have a character arc, but you’ll usually see some type of internal conflict. Describe the issues that will make it emotionally or mentally harder for the protagonist to resolve the challenges of the novel, and why that matters to the overall story.

What makes external and in external conflict work so well together is how they can pull the protagonist in different directions. The internal conflict drives the character growth or emotional layer, while the external conflict drives the plot. In other words, the external conflict decides the plot and creates the goals, while the internal conflict makes those goals harder to accomplish and teaches the protagonist a lesson in the process.

Those following along with the PYN book: Workshop Five goes into more detail on creating conflict and developing a strong story structure to illustrate that conflict.

If you’re struggling with conflict, I recommend my new book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means). It goes into great detail on what conflict is (and isn’t) and how writers can use it in their fiction.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at creating the stakes.

Follow along at home with the book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Get more brainstorming questions and things to think about, in-depth articles, and clear examples of every step from idea to novel.

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A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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