If there is not conflict in your novel, you don’t have a plot. You have nothing for the characters to solve and nothing for the reader to look forward to or dread. Similarly, if your character has no internal conflict, he or she cannot change and thus will have a weak character arc.
Now, not every character needs a major arc to act as an important part of the story, but your lead protagonist definitely does. Remember, though, that undergoing a change doesn’t mean the character has to do a complete 180 in their thinking and actions. In fact, such a conclusion will often come across as forced and unbelievable, unless your novel is an epic. For the most part, people never completely change, and certainly not overnight. If a drastic change occurs, it’s a gradual process over years, even decades.
What you want is a noticeable rise or fall of a character. Did your hero overcome his internal conflict or succumb to it in the climax of your story? Is the heroine a better person in a happier place in her life by the end, or did her actions leave her the worse for wear? Either way, your readers get a payoff. They are not left exactly where they started.
This isn’t possible if your character is one dimensional and has no internal conflicts to face.
(If you want to learn more about how to outline multidimensional characters, check out part one of this series.)
So how do you map out internal conflicts and best utilize them through the course of your novel?
1. Create a Vice
Everyone has a vice, big or small. Your characters should, too. If you want to create a powerful story arc, your protagonist’s vice should come into play heavily in the plot. If you want a positive character arc, the character overcomes that vice to a degree by the end.
Vice is often equated with wickedness, but that is not its only definition. When I say vice, I mean a shortcoming, a weakness, or a bad habit. Yes, you can choose to make that bad habit something wicked, but it’s not required.
The vice you choose can be as harsh as alcoholism or a penchant for violence, or more mild, such as being a busy body or always thinking one’s way of doing something is the better way.
Your character doesn’t necessarily have to be aware of their vice to undergo change either, although if he/she is unaware, the change cannot realistically be as big as that of a character who understands their issues. You could also opt to have the character be unaware of this shortcoming at the beginning, but have it pointed out to them over the course of the story.
Let’s take an example from Part One of this series: Celaena Sardothien. She is an anti-hero assassin with many vices. One may think her largest vice is her anger issues, but really, it’s her selfishness. Celaena has the power to make change. With her skills, she could do major damage to the tyrannical rule of the king, but she focuses only on her own survival. Later, in the second book, she takes some steps to defy the king, but they are minor steps that, as her friend Nehemia points out to her, are things she’s really only doing to clear her own conscience. Celaena’s selfishness is a vice that drives the plot, and one that she must address again and again, making a little bit more headway each time. Her vice thus creates conflict within her self and with other people, making both her and the plot more engaging.
2. Present Hard Choices
Decisions say a lot about who a character is. More so, in most cases, than what they say or how they act in casual, day-to-day interactions. A decision is made internally, and a hard decision requires a character to dig deep within herself to discover what is most important to her. Hard choices also typically have larger consequences and will affect your plot in major ways.
Hard choices can be tied directly to your character’s vice. You can use them as a catalyst to allow the character to either progress or regress. Not every hard choice has to tie in directly to the prominent vice this way, but you always want to refer to your character’s personality outline to make sure he/she reacts and chooses appropriately. And the choice should always cause some sort of internal conflict, so that your readers feel empathy for the character and root for him to select the choice they think is right.
Stephen King fills his novel Needful Things to the brim with hard decisions. The choice between self-gratitude and moral correctness is the core of the whole massive novel. Each and every character who enters the villain Leland Gaunt’s store faces a choice: receive and keep forever the object of your deepest, strongest desires by promising to carry out what Mr. Gaunt calls a “prank” on someone in town, or refuse to harm another and give up what you want most. Readers learn everything they need to know about each character by what the object of their desire is, whether or not they choose to carry out the pranks, and how they react to the consequences of their choices. Thanks to a third person omniscient narrator, readers get to dive into every character’s head to watch them make and justify their decisions.
(Read How To Head Jump: Properly Implementing Multiple Characters’ Thoughts in Stories to learn more about how King successfully used this POV in Needful Things.)
3. Challenge Belief Systems
There is no internal conflict more ferocious than a character faced with a legitimate challenge to his core beliefs. Changing a belief is ten times harder than correcting a bad habit/vice, and that’s saying something.
The most powerful way to do this is with an empathetic antagonist who is similar to the protagonist in many ways, but radically different in one respect.
The best way to explain this is with an example, and one of the best recent examples is T’Challa and Killmonger (aka Erik Stevens, aka N’Jadaka) in Black Panther.
T’Challa and Killmonger have a lot in common. They are both princes of Wakanda. Both are fatherless. They are both powerful and headstrong. They both have a strong sense of justice. They both want what’s best for those they consider their people. And yet, one act of the past and one belief system set them worlds apart.
Killmonger grew up in poverty in America after his father was killed by King T’Chaka in a confrontation. His station and experiences instilled him with a hatred of the current Wakandan monarchy and a strong desire to help the black community rise above the hardships long-time prejudice has forced upon them. His solution? A violent uprising using Wakandan weapons. He is fueled by hatred, and thus is blind to the fact that he has become what he hates most. But, everyone in the audience knows he has a point. Wakanda is standing idly by while people suffer, even though they have the power to create positive change. Killmonger’s tragic past also earns him sympathy with the audience.
T’Challa was raised in privilege as a prince of a secret, thriving nation. His upbringing has taught him to protect Wakanda’s technological resources from those in the world who would use them for evil. The audience can sympathize with this viewpoint to a degree as well; we’ve all seen what powerful innovations can do in the hands of governments and criminals. But T’Challa’s focus is faced entirely inward, at himself and his nation. He is turning a blind eye to the world at large. T’Challa, however, is an extremely likable person, and we know Killmonger’s violent ideals are wrong (and the far worse of two evils), so we lean firmly into T’Challa’s camp.
The two stand on opposite ends of a belief system, with T’Challa’s love interest, Nakia between them. Nakia advocates for peaceful aid and healthcare to Third-World countries and oppressed peoples. Most of the audience knows that Nakia is right, but T’Challa and Killmonger are both firmly set in their ways.
Until T’Challa meets Killmonger. Learning about Killmonger’s past throws T’Challa into a tailspin. He questions his father, which opens him to the possibility that what his father taught him is not perfectly right either. Killmonger’s direct and vicious challenge to his belief system did what Nakia’s calm, logical arguments could not. Still, it is not an easy road. T’Challa undergoes emotional turmoil, and his decision to follow Nakia’s plans does not happen all at once.
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T’Challa’s ability to question his belief system and his ultimate willingness to correct its shortcomings is what makes him a stellar protagonist. This conflict is what drives the plot and endears the character to viewers.
A challenge to a belief system and an antagonist who acts as a foil to the protagonist are not necessary to create a good novel, but there’s a reason this method is used frequently. I would suggest strongly considering it when you sit down to start outlining a new novel.