Wednesday, July 10, 2024

How Your Character’s Internal Conflict Can Help You Plot

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you've been struggling with a plot, or you're looking for ways to deepen an existing plot, try looking at how your protagonist's internal conflict is driving her external actions.

A lot of focus gets put on the core conflict of a novel—the main problem the protagonist has to solve to win—and for good reason. It's the whole point of the book. But sometimes, when we look too hard at the external problems, we miss out on opportunities to let the internal problems muck things up. This is especially true in a character-driven novel, since that inner journey is what's driving the entire book.

While you can’t plot with a character arc, you can use it to create your plot, because what a character has been through and fears, if what determines how they face their problems and make decisions.

At the heart of every good internal conflict is a fear created by trauma.

 
Something bad happened to that character at some point to scar them for life, and this fear affects how they make decisions. This is usually the fear they must overcome by the end of the book to finally grow as a character and overcome whatever obstacle has been in their path. AKA, solve the external plot by growing internally as a character.

Look at your protagonist and ask:

What's their greatest fear?


Look at the big stuff, the personality-shaping issues that color who they are and what they do. These fears have to matter on a plot level. For example, being afraid of spiders won't cut it unless the novel is about defeating a giant spider. What are the fears central to who they are and why they live their life as they do?

How did they get this fear?


Explore their backstory and determine what happened to cause this fear. This information may not even appear in the novel, but knowing it will help you understand this character. For example, if they were trapped in an elevator as a child, they might avoid any situation that puts them in tight spaces or requires an elevator trip (so much for that dream job on the 45th floor).

This will affect how they’d solve the story’s problem, and anytime you need this character to balk at moving forward, just make the problem involve being in a tight space—or worse—an elevator.

(Here's more with The Core of Every Novel: The Big Want & The Big Fear)

How does this fear cause them to make bad decisions?


Anything this influential on a person's life will have affected it before the book ever opens. What have they done to hurt themselves because of this fear? What have they lost because they were too afraid to pursue it? For example, maybe a relationship went bad, or they didn't take a job they wanted. Maybe they didn't act when they should have and that mistake still haunts them.

Next, look at the core conflict of your novel and brainstorm how this fear might affect it.

What situations would cause her to face this fear?


Think about the situations that would cause the protagonist's internal fear to prevent them from achieving their external goal. If they’re scared of elevators, force them to ride in one to get what they want. If they don't trust people, put their life in the hands of someone they have to trust to survive. Make a list of possibilities and look for any situations that could build off each other and create a fun plot. Also look for situations that would cause additional conflict to your existing plot events and problems.

What critical decisions can they screw up because of this fear?


The first opportunity they have to face this fear will go very, very badly (because that's fun!). They'll screw it up, make the wrong choice, maybe even make the worst choice possible because they’re afraid and not thinking clearly.

This will get them into more trouble and the only way they'll ever fix it is to face that fear. Other things can and will happen, but this fear will be at the core of why they’re in this mess. They did this to themselves by their actions and choices, influenced by their fear.

(Here's more with 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions)

Three is a magic plotting number, so create three choices the character’s fear can mess up.


Put one in the beginning of the novel, one in the middle, and one near the end. These will be your major character arc turning points, and they'll coincide with your major external plot turning points.

Where would this fear make them want to give up and walk away?


At some point they'll start overcoming their fear (usually after several mistakes made in the middle). By that third turning point, they'll think they can handle it and face that fear. But they’re oh so wrong, and they fail miserably. They'll want to give up and walk away, but can't. The only way forward is to face that dang fear. This is commonly referred to at the Dark Night of the Soul and the All is Lost Moment.

How does overcoming this fear help them succeed?


Facing their fear is what will allow them to do whatever is needed to defeat the antagonist and resolve the main problem of the novel. It might be a small aspect of it, or it might be the single-most important aspect of the climax (it depends on the type of novel you're writing). They face the fear, overcome it, and are victorious.

Why this works.


Playing the internal and external conflicts off each other creates a strong plot because the mistakes the protagonist makes come from someplace real within that character—they aren't just mistakes because the plot said so.

(Here's more with Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

The internal conflict gives meaning to the external plot actions, and creates strong motivations for the protagonist to act. It also raises the stakes by making them more personal.


Understanding what a character fears also helps you narrow down the types of plot events to use, guiding your brainstorming sessions. Having a direction to go in makes it easier to find the right problems to throw at your protagonist.

When you use both the external and the internal conflicts to plot, you double your options and create more unpredictable outcomes. The more unpredictable a story is, the more likely it will hook your readers and keep them reading.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine how your protagonist’s character arc and/or internal conflict affects your external plot. Is it making the choices harder to make? Making the challenges more challenging? Do they work in tandem to raise the stakes and deepen the emotional layers of the story?

Do you use your internal conflict to plot with? Does your protagonist have an internal conflict?

*Originally published on Writers in the Storm, August 2016. Updated here July 2024.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.


Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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