Conflicted Character   Leave a comment

A Threatening Fragility Front CoverI like when my characters have internal conflicts — emotional, ethical, or mental struggles — while trying to decide what to do about the external problem that drives the plot. The challenge isn’t a physical thing, but a struggle within the protagonist to make the right choice.

Why?

An external task that’s easy to complete often lacks tension and unpredictability, which leads to boring stories. Adding an emotional roadblock makes the task much more interesting.

What needs to be done is clear, but the protagonist doesn’t want to resolve it that way for personal reasons. Either the right choice has consequences he doesn’t want to suffer, or there is no good choice—whatever he does has serious ramifications.

Internal conflicts require a fully-developed understanding of the character, because these conundrums are based on who the protagonist is because of what has happened to him or her in life, and this past makes it harder for him to make decisions and resolve external challenges. They typically come from the morals and ethics of the character, and, more often than not, choosing one side negates the other, and the protagonist can’t have it both ways.

So how do you set up internal conundrums for your characters?

Just as every real person has a set of morals or values that they like to think they would never violate, a character who is more than a plaster saint must also have lines they won’t cross easily. What a character thinks is true affect his behavior. If the “right” choice contradicts what the protagonist holds as true, he’s going to struggle to make that choice. Nothing builds conflict like some serious soul searching and nothing causes soul searching like being asked to contradict your deeply-held beliefs. That can create a lot of fun conflict to play with in a novel.

How a character believes other people should be treated will also affect how she makes a decision—and sometimes these are much harder to reconcile. For example, if the protagonist believes killing is wrong, any choice that requires killing someone will be met with fierce resistance. Morality is rooted in personal rules and laws about acceptable behavior. But if killing is the only way to save someone she loves or to prevent something terrible from happening, a character might be tempted. Doing a bad thing for a greater good can be a persuasive argument … and a slippery slope to disaster. There’s the post-traumatic stress disorder, the dark night of the soul, the belief that others are judging you for your actions, and that fact that now that killing is on the table, you might not be able to take it back. Think of Rick in the Walking Dead. “We don’t kill the living.” Once they had to kill the living, however, it became easier to justify killing the living, but not any easier to live with the guilt that follows.

Sometimes a character wants to do things he knows are wrong. It could be a lie or a theft. What he wants to do goes against what he knows is right, and a lot of conflict is possible as he tries his best to rationalize why it’s okay to do it anyway. Such ethical slip-and-slides can be compelling problems for your protagonist to regret and have to deal with at the worst possible time in the story.

Fear is a powerful motivator for stepping outside your morality. If a character is focused on survival, he might make bad decisions that go against his morality. Maybe a character who would normally intervene when a woman is being abused chooses not to step out of the shadows because there’s a mob doing the abusing. Being too afraid to do the right thing is a conflict nearly everyone can relate to.

Shame is also a powerful emotion. People can ignore their ethics and personal beliefs if it means saving themselves from a terrible secret being revealed. They’ll act to avoid standing out or looking foolish, which can keep them from doing the right thing at the right time to prevent a problem. Someone who witnessed a crime while doing something embarrassing isn’t likely to tell anyone for fear his own transgression will be exposed.

Internal conflicts are fun opportunities to put the protagonist in the hot seat and force him to decide who he really is and what he really stands for. How far is he willing to go to help a friend? What will he risk? What does he value? His struggles while making a decision shows readers who he really is as a person. And it all makes for a much more interesting story.A Threatening Fragility Front Cover

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