How to Bring Your Characters to Life: Part 9 – Intensifying Your Character’s Internal and External Conflict
Every week, we update our current how-to series about creating realistic characters, entitled “How to Bring Your Characters to Life,” providing a handy activity to help you turn your characters into realistic “people.” Last week’s post focused on giving your character a voice. This week, we will work on intensifying your character’s internal and external conflict.
Intensifying Your Character’s Internal and External Conflict
Over the past eight weeks, you have made a lot of important decisions. You have given your character a unique personality, some quirks and idiosyncrasies, a physical appearance, and a unique voice, among other things. Now it is time to work on intensifying your character’s internal and external conflict.
Internal conflict refers to the inner struggle (or struggles) that you character faces when making important decisions during your story. For instance, if your character’s ultimate goal is to attend a medical school on the other side of the country, but her longtime boyfriend wants her to stay in her hometown, then she must grapple with a difficult internal struggle between love and success. Which does she want more? Why? Any great literary character must struggle with at least one or two strong internal conflicts during the course of a story. Usually getting what they want requires them to make some kind of important sacrifice, often of another goal or desire. Having to choose makes the story difficult for your protagonist and interesting for your readers. Everyone has had to make tough decisions at one time or another, so your readers will be likely to relate to your main character when he or she faces internal conflict.
External conflict refers to the drama and/or obstacles that your main character might face with the rest of the world. Some examples include an argument with the antagonist, a sports injury, or your character’s car breaking down on the way to an important meeting. If you want to up the ante even further, then you could even find a way to tie your character’s internal conflict in with his external conflict. For instance, if your character is having an argument with his wife, then you can turn this external struggle into an internal struggle by having their child come in. This will cause the parents to have to decide whether continuing to fight is worth upsetting their child, hence making it into an internal struggle. Or you could take the same situation and make it into a more extreme external struggle by having one of the characters throw a lamp or knock over a bowl instead of just using words. Or you could have another adult come in and try to break up the fight or take one of the parents’ sides, turning it into a three-person conflict instead of a two-person conflict.
In Part 5 of our series, you mapped your character’s personal journey throughout your story. Refer to the outline that you created for the following activities.
Choose one of the events from the “Escalation” section of your Part 5 activity. Turn this event from just an event or obstacle into a true internal struggle by adding a twist or detail to it that adds more drama or difficulty for your character.
For example, if your character’s ultimate goal is to buy a bike for his paper route, but your obstacle is that you have someone steal his piggy bank, then intensify it by making the thief into a close friend or family member instead of an enemy or stranger. This way, instead of the character just being angry, he or she is torn between wanting justice and feelings of love or friendship towards the thief. Feelings of confusion or betrayal will be added to the anger, therefore making the character’s reaction into an internal struggle instead of just a regular external struggle.
Choose one of the events from the “Escalation” section of your Part 5 activity. Turn this event from just an event or obstacle into an intense external struggle by adding a twist or detail that adds more drama or difficulty to the situation.
For example, if your character’s goal is to make the soccer team at school, and your obstacle was that your character sprains an ankle, then intensify the obstacle by making it into a broken ankle instead of a sprain, causing your character to have to find something else to do for a longer time. Maybe your character will realize that there are more important things in life than soccer, or maybe she will decide to become a coach instead? A simple sprain wouldn’t have had as much effect on a character, so intensifying the conflict gives your character a stronger influence to change or evolve as a person.
Review the rest of your story outline to see how your changes from Activity #1 and #2 have affected the other events in your story. Update your outline (and other notes if necessary) as needed. Pay close attention to details to make sure that everything lines up