All stories are built on a foundation of three basic components: character, desire, and conflict. A hero or protagonist desperately wants something, and must overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve it.
The greater that conflict is, the greater the emotional involvement of readers and audiences.
Almost all successful stories involve external conflict for their heroes – obstacles created by other characters or forces of nature. But in stories that explore the deeper levels of character, the greatest obstacle the hero faces comes from within. This is the character’s inner conflict.
The heroes of these stories always carry some wound from the past – a deeply painful event or situation that the character believes she has resolved or overcome, but which is still affecting her behavior.
In Good Will Hunting, Will’s wound is the abuse he suffered when his father beat him. For the heroes of Gravity and Collateral Beauty the wound is the death of a child. In Up and Sleepless In Seattle it’s the death of a spouse. And for Judy Hopps in Zootopia, it’s the beating she got from a predator bully when she was a young rabbit.
When characters are traumatized by these experiences, they formulate beliefs about the world that will protect them from ever again experiencing the pain of those wounds.
Will Hunting believes he must have deserved those beatings, so he can never let anyone see who he really is. Sam in Sleepless In Seattle believes real love “doesn’t happen twice.” Carl in Up, Ryan in Gravity and Howard in Collateral Beauty believe that if they let go of the pain of their grief and move forward with their lives, they will lose even the memories of their loved ones – a level of pain they would never survive. And deep down, Judy Hopps believes predators really are inherently bad – regardless of what she preaches to the outside world.
Notice that these beliefs that grow out of past wounds are never true. But they are ALWAYS logical.
So each of these characters’ subconscious mind creates what I term an identity – a persona or mask that the character presents to the world to feel safe.
Will Hunting hides his genius by working as a janitor at MIT; Carl becomes a reclusive grouch; Sam refuses to “grow a new heart;” Ryan floats in space, as far from earth – and reality — as she can get; Howard, mired in his pain, ignores his responsibilities and stops talking altogether; and Judy Hopps hides her own prejudice by being a seemingly open minded cop.
But then something happens that forces each of these heroes to confront his or her fears: they all desperately want something.
This is how you as a writer and storyteller instill the inner conflicts in your characters that will ultimately empower them to transform: you give them compelling desires that will force them to let go of their protective identities. Then, as they pursue those goals, they will come to realize the truth of who they are underneath their masks.
This truth is what I term a character’s ESSENCE.
So Will Hunting falls in love, and Ryan must get back to Earth, and Carl wants to get his house to Paradise Falls, and Judy must stop the villain who is making animals disappear.
But now these heroes have a real dilemma: give up on the things they desperately want; or drop the identities that keep them feeling safe.
So for the entire story, your hero will be in an emotional tug-of-war: remain safe but unfulfilled in her identity; or go after her goal and be scared to death.
This tug-of-war between living in fear and living courageously is your hero’s INNER CONFLICT.
And the gradual transformation from fear to courage – from identity to essence – is the character’s ARC.
In most stories this inner conflict is more difficult to overcome than the external conflict. Because it means confronting a fear so deeply ingrained, and a wound so painful, that it can seem impossible.
Just as in real life, given a choice between safe and happy, we will almost always choose SAFE.
And so it is with your characters.
This is why it takes the entire story for Will Hunting to declare his love for Skylar and let her see who he truly is; and for Ryan to literally take those first steps toward living again; and for Carl to let go of the house – and the past – he’s been dragging behind him and instead help Russell and Doug save Kevin; and for Sam to take Annie’s hand on the Empire State Building.
As you develop your next novel or screenplay, give your hero a wound – a painful event or situation from the past – that that has made him who he is at the beginning of the story. Then make sure that whatever motivation your hero is desperate to achieve, pursuing it will force him to gradually shed his protective identity in order to achieve it.
Then once you have defined your hero’s identity and essence – once you know the inner conflict – make certain it informs every scene in your story. Make sure that every action your hero takes is either a retreat back into his identity, moving him further away from success, or a step closer to his essence – and to achieving his goal, living his truth, and finding transformation and fulfillment.
– Michael Hauge
Psst, Angela here. I’m going to add a great video interview with Michael Hauge on What Screenwriters Should Know About The Character’s Inner Journey. Have a watch.
Michael has been one of Hollywood’s top script consultants, story experts, and speakers for more than 30 years, and is the author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds and Writing Screenplays That Sell.
Do you struggle with Inner Conflict? What is your protagonist struggling with? Let us know in the comments!