Believe it or not, you can—and should!—do both! Follow the vague military references as they outline a simple plan to make the best of both aspects of conflict!
INTERNAL: THE BATTLEFIELD
My CP mentioned that if she struggles with anything in her writing, it’s internal conflict. There were some specific questions presented and she asked if I could possibly come up with some answers for her.
I figured it was a fairly good Tuesday Teach Day topic and so, here we go.
1) What the hell is it?
2) What are we supposed to do with it?
3) How do you know if your IC is strong enough?
Now, some of you might be giggling, but you’d be surprised how something like Internal Conflict can mess with people’s minds. I’ve found in some reading around that IC, while a huge element we all need to get a good handhold on, that many people have somewhat different definitions. I find that problematic for the studying writer. The reason that comes about is that different authors want to include shades of what IC can do for your characters in their definitions.
I like to keep things simple: Internal Conflict is, definitively, a single character’s mental obstacle that disables their trust.
That does not mean that IC doesn’t serve several purposes. But, if you want a definition that is clean and concise, that’s what you need. One character. One main personal obstacle to contend with. Each of your central characters should have an internal conflict, preferably with some meat to it. Secondaries are welcome to have one as well, but it’s not as important to the story. Don’t get hung up on them.
Let’s look at the common IC types. There are two major categories: Old Wounds and New Fears.
Old Wounds: These are both the most likely and the most often clichéd aspects of romance. Old Wounds are things that happen to your character in the distant past, usually childhood. Second most common is the Old Wound acquired in a previous marriage (which, reportedly, is ravagingly scarring). This type of internal conflict usually has something to do with the inability to trust others for whatever reason.
Childhood wounds are deeply ingrained in your character. When you use this kind of IC, think of it as a stain. It goes deep into the wood, into the flesh, of your character. You can use all the polish you want to cover it, paint to hide it, but if the wood has a warp, nothing you do to it will take it out. Every decision is weighed by them through that stain, through that warp. A character can choose to look past the automated stain filter, but it’s a choice to be rational. The knee jerk reaction will always come first.
For example, abused children who grow into heroes and heroines will view people with a certain level of suspicion until it’s proved they are “safe”. More so if you have a sexually abused character. This is how they trained to survive at a formative level. Love will change them, but the older your wound, the less likely it is that they will magically become trusting and open. Love HEALS. It doesn’t turn back time.
New Fears: This kind of IC is best used with characters in the midst of a personal crisis. They knew who they were and they are currently facing a drastic change that makes them question everything they know. In this case, the internal conflict is the inability to trust themselves.
New Fears can involve characters such as athletes that are suddenly paralyzed or forced into retirement. Intelligent professionals who find themselves unable to recall entire blocks of time or are coming to realizations as to the consequences of their previous choices. (This is particularly good for the surprised father of a secret baby.) Reconciling husbands and wives often face this kind of IC, leaving them to wonder what their responsibility for previous failures might be. New Fears is entirely about uncertainty.
Just like Old Wounds, New Fears creates a stain on the character, however this is generally more of a surface stain. It does not go bone deep and is surmountable. The inner core of the character will out. They have an ingrained sense of self that has been shaken, not destroyed. The challenge for a character with this type of IC is to realize that. Love will often see them through. It will strengthen their courage to face their new fears. Beware of putting your characters in a position where they do not face their new fear internally. It’s a great temptation to use the new love as a crutch. The character must regain their faith in themselves as they overcome their New Fear or the IC is not resolved.
Now that we know just what the hell it is, let’s discuss how to use it.
Thankfully, this is far easier to explain. IC is the pair of sunglasses your character sees through. It will color their reasoning for their decisions. Many times, a character will go the long way around rather than face their IC head on.
I know plenty of people will argue with me, but IC needs to be seen as part of a character’s motivation. It is WHY they are willing or unwilling to do something. The other side of motivation is the External Conflict–a situation that puts the character in a position where they MUST do something. These two, for the purposes of your story, need to work intrinsically to move your character across the story canvas. Just like driving a stick, you’ve got your foot on the clutch and on the gas. As one pedal rises, the other will be pushed down. Hit them both and the car stalls. Apply one too much and the other not enough, and the car stalls. Apply pressure in a yin-yang equation and you’ve got a car that gets you somewhere.
For example, you’ll need to establish the internal conflict–hero was an abused child, he fears being as dangerous to children as his parents were to him–then present the external conflict–former lover dies, leaving him to raise the child he didn’t know they had. The hero has a viable concern about the child’s safety, but he bears responsibility for the child. Apply pressure to the IC–kid is a baby and screams all night long. Pull back on the EC–he’s been told that if he can watch the child for one night, a social worker can see him in the morning about placing the child elsewhere, providing relief. Switch. Man manages to get the kid to sleep without throttling it, he’s exhausted but feels he’s passed a test. Until he discovers that the social worker cannot take the child until a suitable home is found…that she’ll be checking on him and the child daily in the interrim, but that it could take a few weeks. The relief is gone, the stakes are now higher. Repeat.
At every stage of increasing the stakes, the tension is higher for the character, forcing him to face his ingrained wound in both a situational and emotional level. Remember, because no one wants to face their fears, your character is going to fail to overcome, which will tighten the noose of the IC on them, especially as the stakes keep rising. And failure needs to have consequences equal to the level of failure. For our example hero, losing his temper with the child might have him break something the child sees, or slam a door or yell at the child directly–proof to himself that he’s no better than his parents–and he might even leave the child in someone else’s care so that he can escape the pressure. Upon his return, however, the social worker would have seen the ample evidence of his failure and applied more pressure and/or guilt by either upping the stakes with an ultimatum (taking the kid away, which is suddenly a frightening thought instead of a blessing) or reminding him that his responsibility is to the child, not himself. Laws of physics apply to literature: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
My CP did mention a particular concern in how to apply IC–can it be derrived from the External Conflict or the situation they are in? Sadly, the answer is no. An Internal Conflict must come from INSIDE the character. Whether the situation exists or not, your character will have this ISSUE. They are IMBUED with it. I capitalize these words so that you can use them as keys to remember what Intenal Conflict is.
A woman who has had her trust in her husband damaged will have that trust issue with him no matter if he is gone, part of her life or reemerging into it. The story is, for that character, the way they face their issue, how it colors their decisions and how they overcome it. At least, that’s why people are reading it.
So, how do you know if your character’s IC is strong enough?
Sadly, there’s no litmus test that will tell you if the IC is ripe and ready to sell. But ask yourself these core questions. If you can’t answer one or the answer strikes you as something you’d smack your friend for thinking because it’s lame reasons to justify poor decisions, then you might want to tighten it up.
1) What kind of IC does my character have?
2) Have I shown it–at least to the reader–prior to presenting the situation (EC)?
3) Does my character have established reasons for this IC?
4) Do I show where the IC effects which choices they make?
5) Do I challenge the IC anywhere in my MS? Does my character fail to overcome it prior to the plot climax? Are the consequences equal and opposite?
6) When my character struggles with his IC, is it melodramatic or effective? Does he ever make progress and lose ground?
7) When my character does overcome, have I made it a permanent change to his nature? Does that seem believable considering the amount of time my character has had his IC?
With any luck, you’ll now have a better understanding of your characters IC and how to apply it. Go out and torment.