Internal Conflict as a Powerful Story Device

Fiction is driven by conflict. Without something going wrong, the protagonist has nothing to do. And, without him or her being frustrated in the attempts to resolve the conflict, it’s not as satisfying to read.

Conflict, though, isn’t confined to external forces blocking the hero from success. Internal conflicts are just as able to thwart characters and often the more interesting ones to read.

I mix internal and external conflicts for my hero Wolf Dasher in State of Grace. The principle problem he’s trying to solve is the murder of his friend and colleague Sara Wensley-James. He travels to the elf nation of Alfar, where she was killed, to investigate.

But he is sent undercover, and it’s one of the obstacles he has to overcome. Wolf poses as his nation’s ambassador to Alfar, even though he doesn’t really know much about diplomacy. Moreover, the situation is extremely tricky. Wolf’s homeland of Urland has a military presence in Alfar to help maintain the government. But the people want Urland to leave, even though the security situation is very unstable. Because Alfar supplies Urland with a lot of magic, Urland has a strategic interest in keeping the current government in power.

Wolf has to try to sort this all out while also working on figuring out who killed Sara and why. That’s a problem, because the two goals are partially opposed. They both require a significant amount of his attention.

And that’s where the internal conflict comes in. His job as ambassador is just a cover, but Wolf feels obligated by his patriotism to do the best job he can. Thus, his cover and his dedication to Urland work against his goal of catching Sara’s murderer. Likewise, every moment he spends doing his real job interferes with his ability to negotiate a solution to the political problem.

This internal conflict serves as an obstacle to him resolving the central plot of the story. Moreover, it makes him a more complex character. It would be easy enough for a spy to just blow off the details of his cover and focus on the mission at hand. After all, he’s really in Alfar to catch a killer, not negotiate a peace deal. But that’s not who Wolf is. He’s too much of a patriot.

Often times, the greatest foes a hero faces are his own motivations. In many ways, Wolf Dasher is a bigger enemy to himself than the people who are trying to stop him.

How do you use internal conflicts to frustrate and flesh out your characters? Leave me a comment and let me know!

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