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This question is similar to this one. However, it is different based on what I am looking for.

I know what inner conflict is, and I know why I need it. I have tons of examples, and I can usually generate perfectly fine inner conflicts (hereafter called ICs) for my characters. Until now.

For some reason, the ICs I've been generating lately seem weak. It might just be that I'm getting used to characters being pulled in two opposite directions; I don't know if that's normal for writers. Then again, it might be that I am genuinely developing weak ICs.

The difficult part is that I don't know how to describe it. I don't see anything wrong with the ICs I am developing. They seem just as potent at first glance as any other IC, even those in well known books. This might mean that the problem lies in my writing: maybe I don't know how to properly incorporate IC into the character in a powerful way.

Long story short, I can't identify the problem. And since I can't tell you what the problem is, I can't very well ask for an answer. So I've decided that I must be doing something somewhere wrong.

Question:

On that note, can anyone give me a clear and concise method for developing strong inner conflict? Hopefully studying the methods will shed light on where I am going wrong.

Note: Despite the above, and the below comments, I'm still looking for a clear method for developing powerful inner conflict. If you know of one that works for you, please post it here.

Edit: I have marked what's reply as the answer; however, the reply by Chris Sunami also contains some great counter examples, and should be read as well.

Further edit: 2 years later, I finally realize the problem: while the inner conflicts I was creating were fine, I wasn't showing them enough. If the plot doesn't show the inner conflict naturally in all its detail, you need a subplot. I wasn't working with subplots, thus my IC's came across as lacking.

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    Can you give us some examples of inner conflict (no hyphen, by the way, and no apostrophe on ICs) which you think are weak? – Lauren Ipsum Mar 25 '15 at 20:10
  • I could, but the problem is that I see no difference between them and working conflicts. They seem perfectly fine if I just list them, but when I write the story, they seem weak during reading (which is why I'm beginning to wonder if it's just how I incorporate them). For an example of a recent IC: The world is at war. The protagonist wants the fighting to stop. However, she at the same time wants revenge for the deaths of her parents, who were slain by the opposing side. She therefore both wants to stop the fighting, and fight herself, at the same time. – Thomas Myron Mar 25 '15 at 21:51
  • Sounds like an awesome, juicy dilemma. For one thing, the stakes are very high. And (I'm guessing here) the character is profoundly attached to each horn. Very powerful. Can you say what makes it seem weak to you? – Dale Hartley Emery Mar 26 '15 at 1:12
  • @ Dale Emery I can't say. However, if this IC seems good to you, that's encouraging. It means the problem is at least not in developing it. It may be in how I put it in the novel. Part of the problem may be that the book is about stopping the war, more than wrestling with wanting vengeance. Do you think that might be a contributing factor? (Of course, the problem might simply be in my head, as well) – Thomas Myron Mar 26 '15 at 1:25
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You seem to reduce inner conflict to "characters being pulled in two opposite directions". That is, a person who wants two different things, is "conflicted".

We can imagine a person wanting both to lose weight and to eat a creamy cake to be conflicted in that manner. This is of course boring and not worth a novel. We can also imagine stronger, more tortuous conflicts, such as truly loving your wife, but yearning after sex with another partner, after being married for thirty years. A lot of inner and outer conflict can ensue from this want, but it is still not an exciting conflict (except for the person feeling it).

The first weakness in these kinds of conflicts is that often they can be resolved. After all, the person could eat this particular cake and still lose weight by not eating cake the other six days. Or the husband could talk his wife into a threesome. The character simply gets both things, and there is no more conflict. Many readers will see these easy solutions and feel irritated at the character worrying instead of resolving his issues.

The second, and more fundamental weakness, is that these kinds of conflicts rise from a person wanting two (seemingly opposed) things. But wanting is a subjective problem, and it suffers from the problem that the readers will ascribe a weak character to the person unable to abstain from cake or from cheating his wife. It is a pseudo-conflict that does not exist for a person with integrity and willpower.

So what is a conflict worthy of a novel, if conflicts of wanting are not?

What a great novel is about is a conflict of necessities. The protagonists of a great novel must do two things that are mutually exclusive.

For example, the protagonist can save his child only by killing his wife (or his wife by letting his child die). It is not what he wants to do, but that there is a choice to be made between two lives. The necessity of course is not objective. No one has to save their child (or their wife). But common values (and love) dictate that if you can, you ought to save them. It is not something that you want while the world frowns upon you (such as stuffing yourself to obesity), but something that most everyone would expect you to do and, more importantly, most everyone would feel conflicted in the same manner.

tl;dr

In short, a powerful inner conflict arises from an outside necessity to decide for one of two options, both of which have severely negative consequences. Both the necessity and the consequences must be common values shared by the readers.

Inner conflict does not arise from character, but from plot.

  • Thank you for that answer, what. I've also looked over @Chris Sunami 's answer. However, when I tried to generate an IC, I ended up combining the two into something like this: Could not an IC be, for example, part necessity, part desire? One side could be what must be done, the other what wants to be done. Wouldn't that be just as powerful, as either of the examples in the answers (answers by what and Chris)? I ask because I believe an IC like this is a lot easier to come up with than two necessities. – Thomas Myron Mar 26 '15 at 17:55
  • It works if the readers can follow you and the consequences for each decision are harsh. – user5645 Mar 27 '15 at 7:01
  • This is a excellent answer. Because the plot is determined by what a character needs. The story by what they want. Only through a necessary external conflict can an inner conflict be a meaningful link between plot and story at all, instead of filler. – Guido Jorg Mar 29 '15 at 8:05
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(I thought @what gave a great answer, which I upvoted, but it also made me want to look for counterexamples.)

In Remains of the Day the main character is a repressed butler who devotes his life to providing exemplary service to a family that may not deserve his loyalty. In the process, he misses a shot at love with the family's housekeeper. The conflict here is between the character's repression and his need to connect, and while the conflict is entirely internal, not notably momentous, and arguably unrelatable, it still provides compelling tension and drama throughout the course of the movie/book.

I think the decisive factor is not whether the conflict is "strong" or "weak", or whether it is character or plot-driven or both, it's how real it feels. If you are creating your characters and situations first, and then adding in inner conflicts as a way to add depth and drama after-the-fact, it may feel forced and cursory. In the example you gave in the comments, you admit that the vengeance subplot is a non-starter. "IC" can't just be a checkbox you hit on the way to the finish line.

Let's say that your character is a key figure in bringing an end to this disastrous war. Let's see her on the brink of signing the peace treaty --what's the real conflict here, what's true to her character? Maybe you can convert the weakness of the vengeance plot into a strength. Maybe her plan all along was to sabotage the peace, out of a misguided sense of family loyalty. She's told herself that everything she's done was just to maneuver herself into this position, but now that she's here, she realizes she doesn't really want to go through with it. She doesn't really want the war to go on, she just feels like she should. The point here isn't the specifics, it's that you have to seek conflicts that are inherent to your story, not ones that are tacked on.

  • This is an excellent point. Conflict does arise from plot, but it can also arise from a character forcing him/herself to act out of character. That's a stellar definition of "inner conflict." – Lauren Ipsum Mar 26 '15 at 15:33
  • Along the lines of counter examples: The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry centers around a detective who has lost his memory mid-case. However, as he tries to uncover who he was, he discovers he was a person he dislikes. He therefore both does, and doesn't, want to discover himself, at the same time. Both of these sides are more or less based on character, not plot, and yet this IC is one of the most powerful I have ever found. – Thomas Myron Mar 27 '15 at 17:17
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First, Imagine you are experiencing the same conflict as your character.

Next, imagine that your mortal enemy (seriously, think of somebody you really dislike) wants to go with Option 1, which would naturally make you want to take up Option 2. The beauty of this is that you are not your character and thus do not have an opinion or a preference either way; but by bringing somebody who you genuinly despise/hate/dislike/want to kill into the matter with a strong opinion of their own, tends to instantly make you want to take the opposite side and should open your mind to a line of thinking that you may otherwise not have explored.

Now play out the argument that would take place between yourself and your foe. Actually write down everything that you think would be said, be it offensive, expletive, sensible or otherwise.

Then all that remains is for you to tidy it up and apply it to your character and you should have (at least the basis for) a good internal conflict.

Finally, in order to also develop the character's desire for Option 1, merely write about Option 1 from your enemy's perspective and there you have it!

  • That's good for half the conflict, but what about the other half? How do you also develop the character's desire for Option 1? – Lauren Ipsum Mar 26 '15 at 14:12
  • Easy - write about it from your enemy's perspective! – M.Y. David Mar 26 '15 at 14:23
  • Do you want to add that to your answer to make it more thorough? – Lauren Ipsum Mar 26 '15 at 15:31
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    I did consider that, but didn't have a chance at the time - 'tis now done. – M.Y. David Mar 26 '15 at 15:34
  • Indeed, I've seen this done often in scripts and novels. It generates tension very well. – Guido Jorg Mar 29 '15 at 8:08
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A like the Chipperish Media "How Story Works" way -- instead of binary conflicts, characters are built on Triangles: weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and strengths.

The same trait may be any one of these: I may be bad at math, but if I don't care, it's only a weakness, not a vulnerability. If I'm a manager and I might miss some embezzlement because I assume the numbers people have that part handled, it's a vulnerability. If my problems with math has me focus on other ways to understand data (visually, for example), then it's a strength.

What matters is how a character's vulnerabilities and strengths/weaknesses affect their pursuit of their goal.

https://chipperish.com/2017/08/28/hsw-22-the-character-triangle/ (an episode of the How Story Works podcast) has more details.

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