Would you read a book where the heroine had nothing to do all day, but get along with all of her friends, have a civil conversation with the antagonist and snap her fingers to turn the world into a utopia? Neither would I. It’s boring and flat has little potential for character development.
Conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s what causes (and forces) a character to grow, regress, or in some cases stay the same but watch those around them change in profound ways.
These are psychological and emotional struggles that the heroine faces, internal obstacles that prevent her from reaching her external goals. Let’s say the heroine has to confront a bully boss to get the recommendation needed for a promotion. She’s endured years of his verbal abuse and as a result, now has low self-esteem. But she also wants the promotion (external goal).
To regain her self-esteem, the heroine works through the verbal abuse of her boss. In one chapter she rallies her courage to enter into the boss’ office and then fails to ask for the recommendation. The next section, she confides in her friend that he didn’t succeed, and the friend gives her a morale boost. Throughout the book, the heroine is exposed to all sorts of people/situations that she internalises. Some of these events provide insight that change and alter the heroine until the moment of truth at the end where she asks for the recommendation (a happy ending), or she doesn’t and returns to her work station (a tragedy).
The heroine receives advice from her best friend, her mother, and a professional career coach. All three offer different strategies for dealing with the bully boss and the heroine can’t implement all three strategies at once. Her decision is also an internal conflict because if she doesn’t select her best friend’s or mother’s advice, she’ll hurt them and if she doesn’t take the career coach’s help, she’ll lose credibility in the eyes of the coach.
External conflicts are obstacles outside of the heroine that prevent her from reaching her goal. The bully boss (antagonist) is an external obstacle to her promotion. The three colleagues (supporters of the antagonist) that suck up to the bully boss and turn on the heroine are also obstacles. These characters actively work to suppress and deny the heroine in her mission.
Other external conflicts aren’t necessarily related to the antagonist. Suppose a new job position has opened up and three other colleagues have applied for it. They are in conflict with one another because they all want the same thing and not everyone can get it. There’s only one job opening.
Then there is the cast of characters that the heroine interacts with outside of work. She speaks with her mother about the situation at work, and her mother offers her a different approach/strategy to resolve the matter. The heroine doesn’t like the idea her mother proposes and is in conflict with the mother. The mother wants the heroine to take on the bully head-on, march down to human resources and report the boss. The heroine knows that the human resources manager is the husband of the boss and reporting on the boss will bring on a world of trouble. The mother says she should still report the bully boss.
Strong characters have layers of internal and external conflicts. If you feel that you’re stuck in your story, add two internal conflicts and two external conflicts. Play around with the conflicts and see how they internal conflicts influence the external ones. You’ll have more complex and interesting characters as a result.
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