Torture your Character - The Three Most Effective Types of Inner Conflict

At Writers Write, we spend time trying to get writers to create a living, breathing antagonist. We also show writers that the protagonist should not be his or her own antagonist. This goes without saying. We are all our own worst enemies.

For a book to be brilliant, we should be fighting an antagonist and creating external conflict. We should also be battling our own demons and creating internal conflict. Great writers, whether they are literary or commercial writers, do this all the time. They layer stories. 

What are the three types of inner conflict you can put your characters through? 

  1. Mental – Can I do this? Am I strong enough – mentally and physically? Do I have the right attitude? Am I intelligent enough? Can I hold my nerve? Often the people who overcome in life are the ones who are mentally resilient. They use their wits and think things through. Your characters are no different. Example: in Time and Time Again by Ben Elton, Hugh has to travel back in time to change something. He has to constantly use his wits to cope with the unfamiliar world and unforeseen obstacles as he relives and remakes history.
  2. Emotional – Can I overcome my emotions to do what I have to do? Can I use my emotions to my advantage? Use your characters’ fears, loves, and hates to manipulate them. Use a situation that triggers off a traumatic incident from his or her past. This will increase the tension in your book. Example: In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal torments Clarice with memories of lambs being slaughtered on the farm where she lived as a child.
  3. Moral – Can I achieve my story goal without compromising my morals? Will I have to do things I never thought I would have to do? Ask your character how far he or she would go to achieve his goal. It is important to make sure you have chosen morals that suit your characters. Example: In The Hunger Games, we know Katniss will do anything to protect her family. She is strong and she is a hunter. She is a survivor who is traumatised by what she does, but she cannot afford to lose. It is believable that she wins in the arena. 

So think about which one of these you want to test your character with, and think of a situation that will set it up for him or her. In a great novel, your character will be tested in all three ways repeatedly, while battling an antagonist and the elements.

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Amanda Patterson by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Pinterest,  Facebook,  Google+,  Tumblr  and  Twitter

© Amanda Patterson

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10 responses
I just love your great articles! They always seem to either confirm what I know or teach me something new!
Thanks for this. Always looking for new ways to torture my characters! Sometimes I go a bit soft on them...
Thank you for another thoughtful and very helpful article, Amanda! Even the authors who are well familiar with the task of "torturing their characters" can now do this much better! :-) I agree with you that that the best works of prose usually offer the reader a complex combination of internal and external conflict (think of Dostoyevskiy, Maugham, Salinger, Nabokov- ah, all of them!) In fact, it is the brilliant skill of creating, developing and resolving complex web of the characters' internal and external conflicts that can make a work of literature a real piece of art, isn't it?
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