I’m writing this from the perspective of a romance writer so my examples will include a hero and a heroine. The examples work the same for any character: hero, heroine, mentor, villain, sidekick, etc. It depends how deeply you want to develop the secondary characters in your story whether you give them an internal conflict or not.
When I first started writing for publication I found the concept of internal conflict, external conflict and character arch hard to grasp. I had sent my first manuscript to a critique service and it came back with “needs more internal conflict”, but it didn’t go on to explain what that was exactly. I searched and found many explanations until one clicked.
Everyone learns differently, and an explanation that works for one person might just confuse another. If you know of a good explanation, please add it in the comments or post a link.
First, a brief description of Internal Conflict vs. External Conflict.
INTERNAL CONFLICT is in the character’s mind. It is his and his alone. No other characters know of it unless he explains it to them, but usually he doesn’t think it needs to be explained to others, it’s private. It is usually an idea, a belief, or a goal so deeply set that sometimes the hero isn’t aware of it. It is a result of life experiences and expectations. The conflict comes in when he is faced with a situation that questions, or challenges his belief, idea or goal.
EXTERNAL CONFLICT is what happens outside the character’s control. It is something that challenges his belief or prevents him from reaching his goal. It could be an employee who embezzles, threatening the hero’s business. It could be a storm that keeps him from getting the serum to an isolated town in time.
GOALS, BELIEFS, IDEAS
Shannon believes her career will be complete when she is the top pastry chef in Manhattan.
Brad wants to get voted as mayor of Little Town so he can clean up the government corruption of the current mayor’s term.
Tom wants to build his IT start up and sell it for billions of dollars so he’ll never have to live in poverty again.
Lisa wants to find a committed, family oriented man to settle down with and build a family.
(these are quick synopsis and I’m sure they are full of holes, but that’s the fun of writing a story, to make things work).
Shannon meets Brad, sparks fly. Shannon is so close to becoming top pastry chef in Manhattan. She is conflicted. If she has a relationship with Brad what can she do in Little Town that could compare?
Brad meets Shannon, sparks fly. Brad is committed to cleaning up the government of Little Town. He is conflicted because Shannon’s life and career are in Manhattan.
Tom meets Lisa, sparks fly. Tom needs to concentrate on his business but he’s drawn to Lisa. He is conflicted. Can he romance Lisa and still build his business?
Lisa meets Tom, sparks fly. Lisa soon figures out that Tom is a workaholic. She is conflicted. Can she give up some of what she wants in a man to have the man she wants?
The arch is the hero’s journey through the story. At the beginning he has one set of beliefs or one particular goal, by the end of the story his beliefs/goals have changed. In other words, he has changed, his thinking has changed, his perception of his goal has changed. He is a different person than he was at the beginning.
How Internal conflict determines character arch:
Shannon accepts that she’s had her time in the spotlight and maybe opening her own bakery in Little Town would be a creative outlet for her. She changes her belief that she has to be famous to get satisfaction from her career.
Brad knows that corrupt government is every where, he could do his part to end it in the city as well as in Little Town. He changes the perspective of his goal.
A confirmed bachelor, Tom changes his belief that he needs to give 100% of himself to his business to make it successful, he can trust his partners to share the load, he learns that he wants a relationship with Lisa, he wants a family.
Lisa changes her ideas about finding a true family man. She see’s that some men are driven to make the most of their career and she’s grateful that Tom has ambition and will provide well for their future family. She sees a change in him as he spends less time in the office because he wants to be with her.
In a romance, there is always a happy ending, so these couples can compromise and make their goal, beliefs and ideas work together. In other genres there are other options; Shannon and Brad could have a long distance relationship, Tom and Lisa could end the relationship before they get in too deep.
More complex examples from one of my books, A DADDY FOR LUKE.
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Sandy’s wants to get a promotion at her job so she can better provide for her son, and she vows to never get involved in another disastrous relationship. Men always take advantage of her, she doesn't trust her judgement of a man's character.
David’s needs to do a book signing for his friend then get out of Center City before anyone remembers who he was before he left town. If he runs into his past, it could ruin his future.
How they change/Character Arch
Sandy gets to know David and learns that he had a similar heartbreak to her own, and that he is a mature and caring man (unlike her previous boyfriends) who loves her and her son. She trusts that David would never take advantage of her, she changes her perception of men and now trusts her judgement of David's character.
David offers to read his book to Sandy because she is legally blind and despite his need to leave town quickly, he decides to stay a few days because he’s attracted to her and feels a little sorry for her. As he gets to know her he sees that she is completely capable of taking care of herself and her son. She can even read his books on a digital reader. He changes his perception of people with challenges. And when he runs into his past... oh darn, I can’t tell you the rest, it would give the ending away!
Please add your comments and insights into internal conflict, external conflict and/or character arch.