Juice Up Your Characters With Inner Conflict

In Chapter 9 of Conflict & Suspense I write about Inner Conflict. I define it this way: Think of this interior clash as being an argument between two sides, raging inside the character. Like the little angel and the little devil that sit on opposite shoulders in a cartoon, these sides vie for supremacy. For inner conflict to work, however, each side must have some serious juice to it.

I had a chuckle re-reading that, which chuckle I must now explain.

Last week I was in Minneapolis for the annual Story Masters Conference. Donald Maass, Christopher Vogler and your humble correspondent spent four solid days with a roomful of writers, digging deeply into this craft we all love.

I enjoy Story Masters each year, not just because I get to hang out with Don and Chris and a whole bunch of motivated storytellers, but also because I pick up something valuable each time myself.

This year, during Chris’s talk on The Hero’s Journey, I was struck by something he said about how we feel stories. This came to him, he explained, during his years as a reader for the studios. He noticed that strong emotions hit him physically, at points in his body. There were different points for different emotions.

He connected this to the concept of Chakra. What happens is that certain emotions immediately fuel a secretion of chemicals in areas of the body. Chris realized the that best scripts, the rare ones that really knocked him out, were hitting him in more than one place.

With a playful gleam in his eye, Chris announced to the class what he calls “Vogler’s Rule”—

If two or more organs of your body are not secreting fluids, your story is no good.

This got a laugh from the crowd. Thus, my reference above to the serious juiceof inner conflict is apt.

As Chris’s session went on, I started thinking more about this idea. What Chris suggests is that when our “fluid centers” are activated, we are not being rational. Thus, a great form, perhaps the best form of inner conflict is when the character’s rational mind is being assaulted by a strong emotional, er, fluid.

How human that is, isn’t it? Think of the traveling salesman. He has a wife and children he loves. But at the bar in Wichita he sees a cocktail waitress whose sultry walk and Lauren Bacall voice unleash inside him an immediate animal lust. The fight is between his mind, which reminds him of all he has at home, and his body, which doesn’t care what he thinks at all.

Or what about a sheriff with a high and honorable sense of duty? That’s his mind. He’s thought this through his whole career, lived by that code. But then killers come after him, and he cannot gather a posse to stop them, and his body starts feeding him fear—of death, of losing the woman he’s just married, of perhaps being a coward. This is the inner conflict that throbs throughout the entire movie High Noon. It’s head versus body.

I was reminded of something Iago, who has all the best lines in Othello, says to Roderigo:

If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts. 

Shakespeare was describing this very thing, the battle between reason (the mind) and all our bodily “raging motions.”

It’s such a great way to think about inner conflict, because you can create this tension at any time in your novel. Just arrange for something to strike your character on a strong emotional level, and put that at odds with something he strongly believes.

Thus, I came up with “Bell’s Corollary to Vogler’s Rule” as it relates to inner conflict:

You must have at least one hot fluid fighting your character’s head!

This is where you have so much potential for ratcheting up the readability of your novel. We follow characters not because of what’s happening to them, but because of what’s happening inside them. Make it real and full of churning, roiling inner conflict.

What about you? Are your characters conflicted enough?

27 thoughts on “Juice Up Your Characters With Inner Conflict

  1. Would love to hear Chris (Vogler) speak on this side of the pond. Have been booked into to take his workshops three times – and each time life has got in the way and made me unable to attend.

    In fact I would love to see all three of you take your story masters class on this side of the pond??? (Maybe you should organize it James?).

    The combination of the heros journey and the chakras is really interestinging – science fiction writer Steve Barnes has been talking about it for at least 8 years on his Dar Kush blog. Well worth checking out.

  2. I was one of the fortunate gathered in Mpls for “Story Masters”. Wow!
    TKZers if you hear of a future meeting of the “Masters” do not allow yourself to miss the extraordinary experience.

    Jim – the blending of Chris Vogler’s observations on somatic response to emotion phenomena (juices), with your take on the nature of inner conflict (perhaps might be considered base desires/juices battling with conscience/higher brain) works for me.

    It is remarkable how the messages you, Chris and Don shared work together synergistically.

    Seeking to induce emotion strong enough to trigger physical response (Vogler juice), placing it in opposition to other key aspects the character’s make-up (brain and Bell inner conflict) and plumbing the layers of such feeling by examining one’s own experience (Maass tool for description as from deep within POV character)…this is just one of many “recipes”( i.e. delicious combination of elements) that you provided. There are so many more – I’ve had trouble sleeping as opportunities for using the “Masters'” wisdom, tools and techniques swirl through my mind.

    My characters are deeply conflicted. I am grateful to you and your gifted buddies for providing me with a better ability to make my readers feel/understand/care about their conflict.

  3. Do you know how weird it is to wake up with you in my head every Sunday morning? DO YOU?

    Seriously, the last sentence I typed last night was:

    Lust is easy. Trust is hard. Even, maybe especially, when he has blue eyes and calls me “baby.”

    Excellent post as always . . . Thank you.


  4. Interesting post James. It made me think of Hippocrates four humors — the idea that the human body and mind is influenced by four fluids — blood, phlem black and yellow bile — and that all our emotions arise from them. Gives new meaning to the concept of making your story “juicy.”

    And just for the record, that photograph at the top of your post is the creepiest thing I have seen in a long time.

  5. The point is well taken, but I have to disagree on one point – your implication is that the will or tendency toward good is the head, the rational, and the tendency for self-interest is the heart. I know people for whom their self-identity as a protector or a “good person” is so complete that it goes to their very core. Which makes the conflict between their dark and light sides “juicier,” if you will. It’s not a matter of being pulled against what they *think* they should do and what they want, but that what they want pulls against their very notion of of who they are, what they believe themselves to be. That kind of conflict goes to the very soul, and a wrong step can rob them of everything they’ve always believed and felt about themselves.

  6. Like a fire fighter running into a burning building. His mind is saying to save the victims while his body is saying turn around and run away like everyone else. Stressful. My MC needs more stress like this. Thank you for this interesting post.

    • Or, conversely, the fire fighter’s heart says, “I’m a protector, I’m the guy who runs into burning buildings to save people. That’s who I AM,” while his head is screaming, “This is dangerous! Get out!” And when he goes in anyway, that’s the definition of bravery, that he does what he does knowing the risk. It’s not that a brave person never fears, it’s that he acts despite the fears.

  7. In romance writing, we talk about internal and external conflict. The external plot elements may be the murder mystery, love triangle, or other situation in which the couple finds themselves. The internal conflict is the struggle within a character that prevents him from moving on in a relationship. Digging a level deeper, what caused this conflict?
    This is also why every hero must have a vulnerability to be sympathetic.

  8. In one of his books on writing Ben Bova talks about inner conflict as well as its expression in outer conflict.

    Character and plot interact with each other, and character creates plot. (Plot as a characterization device.) Bova believes that the writer must examine her character and find his one glaring weakness and attack it through plot.

    The protagonist should have a complex set of emotional problems where two opposing feelings are struggling with each other–Emotion A vs. Emotion B. (guilt vs. duty, pride vs. obedience, fear vs. responsibility, etc.)

    This conflict should exist on many levels. In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.

    In STAR WARS, for example, Han Solo’s cynical selfishness wars with his unselfish love for idealistic Luke. Han’s ready to leave with his loot when the Alliance attacks the Death Star, but risks everything to save Luke. That emotional conflict is mirrored in the struggle between the two political factions as well as in the thematic two sides of the movie–the good and dark sides of the Force.

    Bova’s ideas have proven useful to me, not only in creating my novels, but also as an aid when I’m stuck during a novel. When I can’t decide where I’m going or have terminal writer’s block, I reexamine my main characters’ Emotion A vs. B and realize where I’ve made a plot error so I’m able to start again in the right direction.

  9. This inner conflict is even richer when you have two characters facing each other, each dealing with their own conflicting emotions and values.

    Recently, my daughter and I went to see the recently-released movie, Thor: The Dark World. (Readers: Warning…spoiler alert). Thor (Tim Hensworth) and his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the king, face off over which course of action to take to avenge the queen’s death. The queen has just been killed and Odin, the king—mourning her death and desiring revenge— wants to keep Thor’s girlfriend, Susan Foster (Natalie Portman) in Asgord. Foster has been invaded by a power that the enemy wants to get their hands on. Thor proposes to take her away from the kingdom where he can battle the forces and minimize casualties among his peoples. Odin wants vengeance at any cost, even his own people if need be. Thor is conflicted between wanting to honor and obey his father, his love for Jordan while having to risk her to entice the enemy, and wanting to take the threat way from the kingdom. The father, temporarily blinded by his rage and loss, is willing to risk all to annihilate the enemy, including losing the allegiance of his own son and respect of his own son, not to mention the death of many.

    There are other levels of emotions and mind-versus-emotions going on between these two men that make this scene very poignant. Your discussion of the inner conflict raging inside one man is multiplied in this one scene by two characters struggling with several conflicts at once. I had not even realized these levels were going on until you reminded me of these inner conflicts raging inside a character. I got so caught up in the scene that I failed to dissect why it was so powerful. Thanks, Jim. Great article.

  10. Excellent concept, James! Thanks for sharing your ideas, once again. I’ll be sending my clients here to gather inspiration from your insightful advice on developing and showing inner conflict.

  11. SO LOVED the conference in Minneapolis. Seriously, a formative event for me as a writer. I’m still processing and absorbing everything the three of you gave to us – and I’m so glad you took something away from it, too. You, Chris, and Don are a fabulous teaching team!

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