Thursday, April 19, 2007

Inner Conflict

This is a continuation of our series on Character Development Sheets.

If you were writing a tragedy, this would be the tragic flaw. In
Aristotle’s Poetics (which was his response to Plato's attack on Greek tragedy for encouraging a shameful indulgence in sorrowful emotion) this would be Hamartia – the mistake, the flaw, the failure, the fault, or the sin of the protagonist that would lead to his or her downfall. This is where we find in Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Shakespeare's Othello men who fall into pride, error, and in the end, self-destruction.

In non-tragic contemporary terms, this is the weakness of the hero, the internal obstacles of characters that keep them from achieving their
end goals. It is the adventurer with the deathly fear of snakes, the spy who can’t resist women he knows will ultimately betray him, the mobster who believes in "family values," or it’s the romantic with that one little hiccup that keeps him/her sidelined in the game of love. Or it’s what characters think they want and what they really need. It’s poor Willy Loman who wants to look at his life with a sense of pride and accomplishment, but he just cannot emotionally accept his failure as a breadwinner, his failure as a faithful husband, and his failure to bring up decent sons. And it is our job to not only define what the inner conflict is but also exploit that conflict in an external way, usually through relationships, in order to maximize its dramatic potential.

There was a great post by
Nienke Hinton last January over at the Writing Life on Inner Conflict. I loved this quote from Caro Clark:

“A character's inner conflict is not just being in two minds about something, not just being torn between obvious incompatibles (“I want to be a priest, and yet I love her”) but is about being in a new situation where old attitudes and habits war with and hinder the need for change. For instance, a man who drives himself to succeed because he doesn't want to be like his happy-go-lucky father is suddenly confronted with a situation where he isn't winning. Or an executive discovers that her ambition to be vice president of her company is being thwarted by her own self-doubt. This war inside each of your characters makes them act and react in complex ways.

“You show these internal conflicts not by means of internal dialogue (which is a cop-out and is dull), but by showing your characters responding to their own inner compulsions. She, for instance, decides to confront her own self-doubts by taking on a no-win project where the local people are opposing a development. She is determined to be hard-nosed, prove she's vice-president material. He is always confrontational, fearing that one minute of negotiation would be the first step to becoming a wimp like his father. You have a grade-A opposites-attract situation here, yet it is believable because we understand why each of them is acting the way they do, why they are foolishly stubborn, by it's important for each of them to win.”

And finally, I discovered a wonderful webpage,
Shy United, who posted a list of inner conflicts that might help inspire you:

1. One part of ourselves may feel we need to spend more time on our professional life while another part may believe we should spend more time with our family.

2. A part of ourselves may want to open up to a conscious love relationship, while another part fears being abandoned, hurt, suppressed, manipulated, or being unable to be ourselves in that relationship.

3. One part of ourselves may want to give those around us (children, spouses, friends) total freedom to pursue their happiness in their own ways, while another part fears losing control.

4. The part of ourselves that wants to please others may come into direct conflict with our desire to satisfy our own needs.

5. Part of ourselves may want others to support us, while the other feels restricted by their support or advice.

6. One part of ourselves may want spiritual growth, while another may feel the need for material security.

7. One part of ourselves may want to help loved ones or friends, but the other may feel that perhaps we are doing them harm by continuously bailing them out and not letting them solve their own problems.

8. One part of ourselves may feel a need to protect the planet by living a simple life with very little consumption of energy and products, while another part may want to enjoy all the comforts of an energy consuming, pollution producing lifestyle.

9. One part of ourselves may want to take a new job or leave a job that we have, while another part wants the opposite for different reasons.

10. One part of ourselves may believe in cooperating with others, while another finds that difficult.

11. One part of ourselves may have a desire for various objects or situations as a source of pleasure, while another part may feel, this is a sin, or that we are not spiritual if we partake of such pleasures. It may feel this type of pleasure seeking is a waste of time and energy considering our spiritual goals.

12. One part of ourselves may feel the need to have an exclusive relationship in which our happiness and security depend upon another person (usually a mate). Another part may find this an obstacle toward its need for independence, self-sufficiency, and freedom.

13. Our need for personal love may conflict with our need to develop universal love.

14. Our need to forgive may conflict with our need to hold on to negative feelings toward someone.

15. Our need to employ various disciplines may conflict with our need to feel free to do whatever we please whenever we choose.

16. Our need to follow our inner voice may conflict with our need to be like others and be accepted by them.

17. Our need to express our feelings as they are may conflict with our need not to hurt anyone.

18. Our need to express our real feelings and thoughts might clash with our need to have the others? acceptance.

19. Our need to follow a spiritual guide might conflict with our need to rebel against all types of advice or control.

20. Our need to control persons and situations in order to feel secure may conflict with our need to let things flow and allow others to act freely.

21. Our need never to show weakness may conflict with our need to share our weaknesses with others or seek their help.

22. Our desire not to ask anything from others may conflict with our need to have their help and support.

23. Our need for a stable routine for our balance and growth may conflict with our need for variety and change.

24. Our need to play our familiar emotional relationship games may conflict with our desire to get free ourselves from them.

25. One part of us wants to face and overcome our fears and blockages while another prefers to avoid and ignore them.

Your thoughts?

9 comments:

Laura Deerfield said...

I think nearly all of those apply to me...

Actually, I've been thinking about internal versus external conflict. The internal stuff is easier for me. My characters are internally conflicted as hell. All mixed up. It's the external conflict that I have to make sure I keep on track - because a conflicted character needs external events to draw out and exemplify those conflicts.

Many years ago, I took part in a sf/fantasy/horror writer's workshop that consisted of several professional writers (including the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine,) and a couple of wannabes like myself.

The consistent criticism I received was that nothing happened in my stories. They were elegantly written snapshots of fascinating characters... but my idea of conflict was not the kind of thing that drove stories.

So the key, I suppose, is not just having a character who is torn in two (or more) directions, but putting them in circumstances that force them to choose.

oneslackmartian said...

Okay, I know this is a bit obvious, but let me just get on the record here . . . .

It is good to understand the inner conflict of your main character (or characters in general for that matter), but inner conflict alone makes for poor drama. It must manifest itself in some external conflict or add to an external conflict.

Putting it another way . . . .

You need internal conflict to develop good character, but you need external conflict to have good drama (or story).

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

And it is our job to not only define what the inner conflict is but also exploit that conflict in an external way, usually through relationships, in order to maximize its dramatic potential.


That's the key right there and it's very difficult to pull off. Even though I've understood it for years, I'm only just now, with the seventh book, starting to be able to apply it.

Jennifer Crusie gave a great lecture where she explained that, in romance, not only must the individual's inner conflict be expoited by the outer conflict, the hero and heroine should have conflicts that exploit each other's.

For example:

My current heroine lost a loved one to substance abuse. The hero is--guess what?--an apparent addict.

The heroine is a nanny for a gifted child. She couldn't protect her loved one, but she WILL protect this child.

The hero needs to steal this child to save his nation.

There's more, but you get the idea. Gah!

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

BTW, MM, thanks for the link. I'm honored and appreciative!

bob said...

Most people live and make do with their internal conflicts. When the external conflict MAKES those internal conflicts oppose each other and force the character to act, then it's relevant. I think I've read too many stories (and probably written them too!) where the internal conflicts of the character don't really interact with the external conflict. Then you just have a quirky or confused individual but their quirks don't contribute to the story conflict.

Mystery Man said...

Laura - I loved this line: "So the key, I suppose, is not just having a character who is torn in two (or more) directions, but putting them in circumstances that force them to choose." I agree! Thanks for that.

onslack - "You need internal conflict to develop good character, but you need external conflict to have good drama (or story)." I agree! Great comment. I would add that inner conflict isn't the only aspect of a character. This is just one of many aspects for consideration in the Character Development Sheet. The big point of the whole study is that as writers, you have to ask yourself these questions about characters before you sit down to write and too often with newbies, the characters are flat and bland BECAUSE they neglected to ask the important questions about goals, inner conflict, character arcs, etc. Thanks for that.

Ann - I loved this comment: "...in romance, not only must the individual's inner conflict be expoited by the outer conflict, the hero and heroine should have conflicts that exploit each other's." That's beautiful. I agree! It's not easy. But when you really "get" those characters, when they're really in your blood and unique as individuals, and you really have a feel for how they would interact and affect each other, it's SO much to write.

Bob - Exactly. A lot of newbies, I think, just jump into screenwriting without thinking about exploiting inner conflicts and almost always done through interaction and the choices that character makes. You really learn a lot about someone not so much by what they say as by the choices they make. Ya know what I mean?

GameArs said...

Such a great resouce this will be. I think one of the hardest things to do is to see these kinds of flaws/struggles/conficts within oneself, which is something we need to do if we truly want to create the most memorable and empthic characters we can.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks so much, Carl. I hope it'll be helpful. I appreciated your comment.

-MM

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

one of the hardest things to do is to see these kinds of flaws/struggles/conficts within oneself, which is something we need to do if we truly want to create the most memorable and empthic characters we can.

How true. Yet, I think, this is where alot of writers trip up. It's almost impossible for most people to admit to themselves that yes, they've manipulated, yes, they've hated, yes, they're afraid, weak, whatever...

Then once acknowledged, to remember how shameful those things felt and translate it onto the page. It hurts! We naturally shy away from pain. Yet we need to feel it to write it.

And yeah, MM. When you really get them, it's a high. Ain't it?