How Internal Conflict Drives Stories

Once upon a time, I used to get so bogged down with “what happens” in a story that the end result was trite, cliché garbage. I was focused almost exclusively on the protagonist’s external conflict and the story’s plot that I completely neglected the character’s internal conflict or motive, the thing that’s revealed through external conflict. If you have a clear fix on your character’s motive, then the external falls brilliantly and purposefully into place.

What is Internal Conflict or Character Motive?

So, let’s understand what internal conflict is. It’s the thing that motivates your character’s thoughts, actions, and reactions throughout a story. It’s the part of your character’s backstory that makes them do the things that they do by the time they arrive at your story. For example, if the only “love” your protagonist has ever known has been shown by narcissists and through verbal abuse, then they’re going to be extremely skeptical when a genuinely nice person wants to be with them, and chances are they’re going to act as an unintentional saboteur of that healthy relationships. With a clear idea of your character’s underlying conflict, the more concrete details and deliberate actions you can include.

Internal Conflict in Action

Let’s look at some examples to see how internal conflict drives the characters in the story.

  • Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood: The protagonist, Verna, is a professional widower who kills a man on an exploratory Arctic voyage. We later learn that Verna’s three late husbands’ deaths were no accident but rather the result of Verna’s encouraging and dangerously overmedicating existing medical conditions (because men with heart conditions should def be taking Viagra…YOLO, am I right?).

Early on, we discover that Verna was irreparably damaged because at the tender age of 14, she was raped by her date after the school dance. The resulting pregnancy caused her Presbyterian mother to shun her and to ship her away. Verna’s life was in essence ruined, and she evolved according to her circumstances.

So, it becomes understandable that this woman who was raped and then shunned by her mother (and her small town) and then forced to give her baby up for adoption (following a delivery that rendered her unable to bear children again) is capable of complete disassociation from men. Thought it doesn’t justify the murders, you kind of get where she’s coming from (take a hall pass, Verna).

What is logical given her internal conflict is that she becomes someone who derives pleasure in dominating men at least from the standpoint of ensnaring their interests and taking what she wants from them (money, security, adoration, sacrifice). It makes sense, too, that when she realizes early on that one of the many Bobs on the Arctic voyage is the same Bob from high school who raped her (who coincidentally) does not recognize her so many years later, she decides to kill him. 

Summary: Verna’s internal conflict is the belief that she’s disposable, which motivates her to treat everyone else likewise until she is able to confront the man who caused her to feel that way. Unfortunately, he’s not around long enough to appreciate the irony like a good boy.

  • “Mastiff” by Joyce Carol Oates: Mostly told through the POV of the woman (Mariella, though she’s primarily referred to as “the woman”) and not the man (Simon, mostly referred to as “the man”), “Mastiff” is a love story of sorts. The woman is a middle-aged singe woman who’s going hiking with the man, who she’s been dating. She feels that despite the weeks of dating and having slept together, they aren’t intimate and even seems to find him annoying, oft wishing she was more attracted to him.

During the course of the story, we learn that the woman’s father was not in the picture and that she’s never married; though, she’s had many past relationships (some of which were simultaneous). Despite this pattern on her part, she disliked it if the men she dated weren’t exclusively involved with her.

At one point on the hike, the man stops to take photos, and the woman is perturbed that she isn’t the center of his attention, wonders about his feelings toward her, and projects her own feelings of indifference. It’s not until the couple is attacked by a mastiff unable to be restrained by his owner, which necessitates a trip to the hospital where the woman learns Simon is nearly fifteen years older than she and in precipitous health, that she turns her indifference toward affection, touched by his obvious adoration as he threw himself in front of the mastiff to protect her. Part of the irony in this is that earlier in the story, the woman laments her diminutive height noting that it meant she was always the receptacle in relationships, never the assertive figure.

The parallel between the lack of a father figure and the attraction to an older man is downplayed. What’s of greater interest is her need to be the central focus in any relationship.

Summary: The woman’s internal conflict is fear of abandonment, which causes her to be simultaneously needy and withholding. Her devotion isn’t paper thin; however, she bestows it based on her perceptions as opposed to any reality. Her entire relationship with the man in this story largely exists in her head as she goes from feeling judged by him when she shows dislike of the mastiff at their first encounter to being annoyed with the man’s overbearing protectiveness when he makes her drink from his water bottle to being almost dismissive of him when he spends an hour taking pictures barely paying her any mind to being gratefully adoring of him when he is seriously injured protecting her from the mastiff when it returns and turns vicious. Phew. Don’t even get me started on the wet, heavy breathing.

How to Use This Strategy in All Genres & Styles of Writing

While the two selections I highlighted are literary short stories, it’s easy to apply this technique to any style of writing be it commercial, genre, upmarket…whatever. While having a solid grasp of your character’s underlying internal conflict (and by extension, their motivation) won’t solve all of your issues (such as those related to structure and to wordsmithery), it will help.

Here are a few genre and upmarket examples:

  • The detective’s internal conflict is derived from a sting she coordinated in which her husband and other co-workers were slain. As a result she’s all but married to her job and has issues forging personal relationships.

  • Another detective’s internal conflict stems from her mother’s psychotic abuse and ultimate murder of her twin brother when they were children, which was followed by a largely negative stint (spare one family) in foster care. The foster parents later died. This motivates her to be a prickly-yet-tenacious detective whose psychological walls protect her from shattering.

  • A young woman’s rape, which led to pregnancy, compelled her to move to the town where she believes her rapist may live. She is anorexic and socially withdrawn, a shadow of her former self, which makes it difficult to stand up for her son when he is the target of parental bullies at their new school in this otherwise idyllic town.

  • A girl’s parents got rich writing a children’s book series about her. The precocious child felt alienated by her plastic-seeming parents and developed a talented for fronting with personas to such an extent that she likely lost her true self along the way. Unable to relate to anyone beyond the surface level, she went to extremes when she found out her husband was cheating, which ranged from framing him for murder, going on the lam, killing a former paramour (who was kind of obsessed with her), to entrapping her husband with a pregnancy. A total three on the enneagram in my opinion.

I digress. So, getting back to the main point…what happened to their characters in their past motivates the fire out of their actions in the present. Some characters try to move in positive directions with their lives whilst others (such as the last one outlined) goes in a negative direction. The point is that by understanding what your character’s internal conflict is (this can be one word or phrase, by the way), you can let that drive all of their external battles and subsequent motivations. The need to be loved, fear of being abandoned, feeling rejected by society, anger at being ignored, a belief that one must be perfect to be loved, etc. These issues can hail from any life event experienced by your character. If you understand what this is, then you can make the character's external expression of their internal conflict even more solid.

I find that having this understanding is liberating in the writing process. It makes it fun, don’t you agree?

Speaking of internal conflict, are you feeling conflicted about your writing? Not sure how it will be received or if it’s good or if your mom will disown you when she reads what you’re writing? No worries…I can relate. Not only that, I can help. Contact me, Vonnie York, for manuscript critiques or editorial services. Not sure what you need? Tell me what you’ve got, and we’ll figure it out together. I care about making your dreams come true.