If you’ve been on the writing trail long enough, you’ve heard plenty of talk surrounding conflict and the role it plays in storytelling. Whatever form it takes—annoying neighbors, quarrels with loved ones, car accidents, fistfights, ticking clocks—conflict keeps the story moving. It creates tension and complications while also providing opportunities for the character to grow and evolve as they navigate their character arc.
But some of the most compelling conflict doesn’t come from an external source. Rather, it lives within the character. These character vs. self struggles include a certain level of cognitive dissonance, with him wanting things that are at odds with each other. Competing wants and desires, moral quandaries, mental health battles, insecurity, confusion, self-doubt—internal struggles haunt the character because their impacts ripple outward, affecting not only how he sees himself but altering his future and often the lives of the people he cares about. They carry a heft that can’t easily be set aside.
Internal conflict is also critical for helping the character acknowledge the habits that are holding them back. Without that soul-cleansing tug-of-war, Aragorn would still be a ranger instead of the rightful king. Anakin Skywalker would have denied the goodness within, leaving Luke to die at the hands of the emperor. The Grinch would’ve stolen Christmas.
So it’s important to include this inner wrestling match for any character working a change arc. But equally important is how we reveal that struggle to readers. It’s all happening inside—meaning, we have to be subtle. The information has to be shared in an organic way through the natural context of the story. I’ve found the best method is to highlight the internal and external cues that hint at a character’s deeper problem.
If you’re writing in a viewpoint that allows you to reveal a character’s internal thoughts and processes, it’s a bit easier to draw attention to the struggle within. Just show the character experiencing some of the following:
Whatever’s plaguing your character, she’s going to spend a lot of time thinking about it, because the only way to get past the insecurity is to figure out what to do and make a decision. So her thoughts should be circling the issue. You don’t want to spend too much time in her head, because too much introspection can slow the pace and diminish the reader’s interest. But the character should poke at the issue, examining it from different angles. Whatever’s going on in her life will bring her back to her inner conflict, and her thoughts should reflect that.
Like us, characters crave control and certainty, so not knowing what to do can make them feel incapable, afraid, and insecure. Being constantly reminded of their unsolvable problem might be emotionally painful enough for them to try to escape it. One way to convey this is by having them slam the door on a certain train of thought. Show their mind starting to wander in that direction and them deliberately turning away from it. Maybe they get really into work as a form of distraction. They may take avoidance a step further into full-blown denial, destroying paperwork or putting away mementos that remind them of the impossible decision so they can pretend it doesn’t exist. This is how you show that incongruency between what’s happening on the inside and the outside.
Wavering Between Courses of Action (Indecision)
A dilemma is named such because the character doesn’t know what to do. It often takes a while for them to figure out what action to take, and the only way they can do that is to consider the options, so indecision is a major part of internal conflict. Show the character vacillating between choices, playing out various scenarios, weighing the pros and cons. This can be a great way to show the depth of the struggle.
If you’re limited in your ability to plumb the character’s depths—maybe because you’re writing in first person and can’t jump into the head of the love interest or villain—you can still show readers (and other cast members) that struggle. Just figure out the external signs of what’s happening inside, and show those.
Over or Under-Compensation
The character won’t be happy with their own inability to make a decision or take action. If their ego becomes involved or they’re the kind of person who wants to keep up pretenses, they may overcompensate by becoming forceful or pushy. Controlling external people and situations will make them feel better about their inability to control this other area of life.
Or your character could go a different direction. Plagued with indecision, they may become averse to making any choices at all. When even the smallest questions are raised, they defer to others. Letting other people take the lead ensures that the character won’t make a mistake, alleviating some of the pressure.
The human brain can only focus on so many things at once. A character whose mind is consumed with a troubling scenario isn’t going to have much mental time for anything else. As a result, their efficiency and productivity at work or school could take a hit. They may become forgetful. Responsibilities they were always counted on to handle may be done halfway or fall completely to the wayside. These outer indicators will be a visible sign of the chaos beneath the surface.
Characters under extreme pressure don’t always make the best decisions. Their distractibility, combined with any insecurities they may be feeling, can lead to mistakes that get them into trouble. For a character who is usually level-headed and logical, this can be like a neon sign to others that something isn’t right.
We all know what it’s like to be consumed by a problem we can’t fix. It steals our peace, our sleep, and our joy. This is fine—even normal—for short periods of time, but when it goes on for too long, it starts to take its toll. One of the first things to go is emotional stability.
A character in this situation may lose their patience, snap at people, or lash out at others. A different character may constantly be on the verge of tears, overwhelmed to the point of every little thing being the last straw. They may experience wild mood swings, reacting to everyday circumstances in unexpected ways. Your character’s response will depend on a host of other factors, including their personality and normal emotional range. Figure out which kind of response makes the most sense and you’ll be consistent in your portrayal of them, even in the most pressing of situations.
This is how you reveal an inner struggle: by focusing on the underlying and visible results of that conflict. The most important thing here is for you to know your character so you can predict how they’ll respond. Then you can clearly show what you know to readers.
Want your conflict to go further?
The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2) explores a whopping 225 conflict scenarios that force your character to navigate relationship issues, power struggles, lost advantages, dangers and threats, moral dilemmas, failures and mistakes, and much more.
You can also find the whole collection of entries in one place at One Stop for Writers.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.