Internal Conflict: Your main character’s fatal flaw

A young girl finds the courage to take a step she has never taken. A young man saves his country with bravery he never knew he had. A boy puts aside his fear to befriend an old man everyone thinks is crazy in order to work with him to save their town from disaster. What am I talking about? Conflict. No, not fighting evil and natural disasters type of conflict…inner conflict; the kind of conflict that makes a story deeper and richer and more powerful. External conflict is an action against your protagonist; internal conflict is something your protagonist brings to the story him or herself. It is something inside that challenges him or her; something he or she needs to change, overcome or learn in order to grow enough to defeat the external conflict.

Internal conflict is intrinsic to the character; it’s a part of him or her, which is why it is so important that we know our characters inside and out. What is our character’s weakness, the one huge obstacle he or she needs to overcome? That is the fatal flaw – and that is the inner conflict. Take my character Vivianna DeMornay, for example. On the outside, she is beautiful, rich, talented and sophisticated. One would never know that on the inside, she is insecure and vulnerable; she has to overcome her feelings of doubt about her abilities and her physical flaws in order to be who she wants to be. Every character has a weakness, but not every character has to overcome that weakness in a story. The main character is the one whose lesson is the focus of a novel.  Does that mean a novel needs to be built around a lesson? No, I don’t think so, but a main character with an inner conflict will surely make it more interesting. Who wants to read about a perfect person overcoming an external conflict? If a character is perfect and has no internal struggle, there is no challenge there.

Internal conflict is the heart of your story. It’s the intangible something that makes a reader identify with a character. We all have our fears and weaknesses, to see it in a fictional character and see how he or she overcomes it can be cathartic, even if the events are not based in reality. To see so clearly that a character is on the wrong path but he or she can’t see it yet, draws a reader into a novel. We want to scream at them to wake up and choose a different way, point them toward a goal they don’t see yet, show them the best friend they are fiercely loyal to is betraying them. Denying a character that moment of epiphany is what brings tension to your story; it’s what keeps the reader turning the page.

Showing an internal conflict in a story is the tricky part. The character is not aware of the conflict enough to talk about it, so how do we show it? As the old saying goes , actions speak louder than words; showing a character’s insecurities through his or her actions will speak to the reader much more loudly than having a character state: “I am so afraid of the dark that I sleep with my lights on.” Fear of darkness may be this character’s fatal flaw, but telling it is, well, boring. Showing his or her fear of the dark by having the lights go out and the character having a major meltdown even though he or she is in his or her own home and knows it is safe can be eye opening for the reader. The intense reaction the character has to darkness in a known and safe place can be a very important clue into his or her insecurities and fears.

Without an internal conflict, there is no depth to a character and why would a reader want to invest precious time reading about someone he or she feels no connection to? What is your main character’s internal conflict?

4 responses to “Internal Conflict: Your main character’s fatal flaw

  1. Loved your articles..especially the final one on inner conflict. I’m a beginning writer…I have lots of story ideas…developing the story is something I”m not sure about…can you follow your own characters w
    without knowing the end before you begin?? ( because that is my struggle)

  2. Darlene,

    This is a great summary of internal conflict! My first a-ha moment with internal conflict came when I was reading Jesse Lee Kercheval’s standout novel, “Building Fiction.” This blog is shorter, but just as informative. Thanks!

  3. Love this post, Darlene, and I agree with you completely. The internal conflict is always more interesting to me than the external conflict. I use both, because they feed into and play off one another, but the internal conflict is what takes me to the heart of my characters.

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