From Cardboard to Three-D: Fixing a Flat Character with Internal Conflict By Angela Knight

Have you ever had an editor, reader or reviewer tell you a character is cardboard? That’s generally caused by a lack of internal conflict.

So what exactly is internal conflict and how do you fix it?

Well, to start with, it’s one of the three kinds of conflict every romance absolutely must have: internal, external, and romantic. Internal is the conflict within the character, external is the conflict with the villain or the characters’ circumstances, and romantic is the conflict between the couple that stands in the way of their Happily Ever after.

Creating an internal conflict is not as tough as you might think. It all boils down to the question: how is this character screwed up?

Nobody is perfectly well-adjusted. Real people have emotional scars, either from upbringing or traumatic experiences. People without those scars seem flat and unbelievable – thus the cardboard thing. Adding scarring is one of the best ways to make a character come alive.

But just any emotional scar won’t do. If your heroine has a mortal fear of snakes but never encounters one in the story, the conflict might as well not exist. Now, if the hero is a herpetologist who milks cobras for living, then that conflict works.

Why? Because it will generate a romantic conflict.

In a romance, the purpose of any fictional internal conflict is to complicate the relationship until readers wonder how your couple can ever get to Happily Ever After. You want to stack the odds against that HEA as much as you can, so your reader is driven to keep turning pages faster and faster. Every complication you can add to the story strengthens reader interest.

Otherwise, the first time the characters go to bed, the reader may decide in the HEA is a done deal and quit reading. The internal conflict acts to destabilize the romance by making everything harder for your protagonists – perhaps even endangering their very survival.

But how do you know what’s the right internal conflict for this particular story?

When I need to create an internal conflict, I first look at the basic idea I want to write about. For me, that’s usually the external conflict. For example, right now I’m writing a novella about a supervillain, Diablo — actually a shape-shifting satyr — who seduces a superheroine in her dreams. It’s a fun little story, and I’ve been having a great time writing it.

But yesterday I realized my heroine, Karen King, a.k.a. Kinetic, doesn’t have an internal conflict. There is a romantic conflict — she’s not supposed to be sleeping with a villain, even one who robs from the rich to give to the poor. But she lacks the kind of psychic wounds that create a good internal conflict.

The first question to consider when creating an internal conflict is what sort of person would find this situation most difficult to handle?

If I wanted to do a story about a hero who worked with snakes for a living, I’d give him a heroine with a snake phobia.

This particular novella is part of an anthology about demon lovers who seduce women in their dreams. So what kind of heroine would be most tormented by this forbidden relationship?

What if she was raised by a very religious mother who believed satyrs really are demons? (They’re not – just not human.) I like that idea. It makes sense that a woman who was brought up to be deeply moral and idealistic would become a superheroine.

Karen first meets Nick, the hero, when she’s just 15. He scares the hell out of her. When playing Diablo, he shifts into a form with bat wings, a forked tail and ram’s horns.

Nick, meanwhile, takes one look at this psychokinetic kid and realizes that despite her powers, she’s not going to live to be sixteen. Some much nastier supervillain is going to kill her. So he takes it upon himself to teach her how to fight, though she is under the impression at first that he’s genuinely trying to kill her. The relationship is something like a drill instructor and an especially green recruit.

But after Diablo saved her life a couple of times, she realizes he’s not the evil bastard he pretends. Over the 15 years since, they’ve become friends – and much more. Satyrs feed off the psychic energy women produce during orgasm, and Nick has been making love to her in her dreams for the past decade.

On one level, that means their secret, forbidden love is safe. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that the man she loves is a thief. Never mind that those he targets are basically wealthy sociopaths who rip people off. He’s still a thief.

If her superiors in the Federal government found out about her massive conflict of interest, she’d lose her job as a federal agent. But she’s also genuinely bothered by the fact she shouldn’t have a romantic relationship with a thief.

So naturally, I’m going to have to have someone find out about the relationship and threatened to out to both of them if she doesn’t help him trap Diablo.

You can see how this works. Just by adding that one detail — a highly religious upbringing — I’ve introduced a difficult moral conflict for the character and popped her out into three dimensions.

Try thinking about your own protagonists and decide what psychic scars could destabilize their romance — and put their HEA risk.

The result will be a stronger story. And it will be easier to write, because whenever you get stuck, a good internal conflict can add richness and interest to any book.


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