Conflict is such a tricky word. What does it mean? Fighting, right? The protagonist and antagonist have to confront each other and cue, action scene.
The good guy wants to steal the magical orb back from the bad guy. And mayhem ensues…
The not-so-good guy wants to save his daughter from the not-so-bad guy drug dealer. And mayhem ensues…
The bad guy wants to save humanity from itself and the good guys don’t approve of his genocidal methods. And mayhem ensues…
Now, that’s conflict. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
The above stories will play out through the pages, and one of them will win in the end.
There’s one BIG problem with these kinds of stories — they’re often boring.
But there was all that action…
A coaching client of mine once said that she’d been told to pelt her protagonist with obstacles, the more the merrier. She had her character losing her job, getting a divorce, breaking down on the freeway, falling for the wrong man, and and and. It was exhausting to read.
The problem was there was no internal conflict. Plenty of external obstacles to overcome, but nothing of her internal struggles.
We can’t empathize with someone who is not going through some sort of internal struggle. If there’s no empathy, your reader won’t ‘hook’ into the character and feel connected. It doesn’t matter how many obstacles are in their way or how many times they have to square off with their antagonist.
If there’s no internal conflict, you have no compelling character and from there, no compelling story.
Even Superheroes have internal struggle
Ever consider why Batman is more popular than Superman? Probably because of relatability. Bruce Wayne is an orphan who has not come to terms with witnessing his parents’ double homicide. This single formative event shapes his beliefs about the world and influences his vigilante alter ego, Batman. But, Superman is super human. He is blessed with any number of attributes that literally set him apart from other mortal men, even if he is an alien on earth, always having to ‘blend in’. His conflict comes from not being able to be in two places at once – he cannot save everyone. Which is the deeper wound that we can relate to?
Great characters have layers of relatability.
Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) wants to marry for love, and yet, also wants to protect her family, but still rebuffs the rich Mr Darcy.
Sansa Stark (Games of Thrones) does what she has to in order to survive under the care of the family that betrayed her father, even if it means agreeing to marry a monster more than once.
Michonne (Walking Dead) survives repeat trauma in order to regain the family she lost, but she almost loses herself in the process.
We have to relate to the characters and their human struggles. We ALL have struggles that hold us back from being our ‘best selves’, or getting what we want. Particularly, getting what we want.
Out of reach
In a romance novel, the antagonist is the love interest.
That’s right, the ‘baddy’ in this case, is the person that your character cannot get out of their head. And they’ll want to, my word, they’ll be desperate not to feel what they’re feeling to consider any other options other than the love interest in front of them.
The internal struggle is about not wanting to get involved. Maybe that person wants to get too close, and intimacy is a dirty word. Maybe that person doesn’t want to get too close, but does, and lets fly with the mixed messages. Or maybe that ‘bit of fun’ they were having suddenly switched up to something more serious, and now…jeez, what now?
Why would anyone not want to be in a relationship with the potential love of their life? Tinder suggests there are millions of people who are looking for exactly this. But, the course of true love ne’er did run smooth.
Things have happened that have shaped our protagonist’s views on love, relationships, men, women, marriage, getting jiggy with it. They may have been through childhood hurts or unexpected events or societal pressures and prejudices. How ever it happened, the result is the same — obstructive beliefs about love.
And now this antagonist has arrived and said, hey, look, there’s another side to this relationship thing that you’re not seeing.
Will your protagonist want to see this side? Hell, no. That’s scary. It means they’d have to change their beliefs. That takes work. And there are no guarantees anyway…
But we wants it
The reader that is.
We want to see how the OCD, workaholic surgeon who has NO time for this love malarkey falls in love with the cute intern anesthesiologist who she yelled at three times during surgery.
We want to fall in love with the shy teenage girl who wrote out her feelings to the boys she loved never expecting any of them to read it, let alone make her a proposition that would change everything.
We want to root for the Desi woman who works in her family’s restaurant and is in lust with the seriously hot dodgy motorbike guy who may be her best sex ever but wow, he runs with the worst crowd imaginable.
Through their internal struggles, we can relate to our own messy love lives. We know they’ll get it right, but we want to know HOW they overcome those struggles, HOW do they head down the path of true love, even if it isn’t forever and is just for now, HOW do they get out of their own way?
If they can, we can
Reading about how a protagonist overcomes their internal struggles gives us hope. Hope that if they could make it happen, we can make the same magic happen in our own lives. That’s a lot more moving than finding another way to write a battle scene between our ‘good’ guy and our ‘bad’ guy. We all want the answer to this mystery called ‘life’ and reading fiction is about as close as we can get to it.
Love this? Check out Suzanne’s class right here on SavvyAuthors!
- Romance Writers: Getting to Grips with Inner Conflict with Suzanne Jefferies – August 17th – August 30th
Only one person knows Max Montgomery’s deepest, darkest synesthesia secrets—Billy Jorge. But he ran out on her after six months, when she was still a teen, leaving her to deal with the fallout. A year before, Max arrived back in Liberty to bury her mother, pack up and sell the family house and head out to pursue the rest of her life. So, why’s she still there? Because Billy’s back in Liberty in his role of local preacher, Father William Jorge.
Buy Touched here.
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