Anoint Your Character with Inner Conflict, A Master Technique

Anoint your characters with inner conflictInner conflict is essential.

Without inner conflict your protagonist never fully engages with the plot.

In effect, he can skate through the events of your story. He might get hit by a wave or two, but he never goes beyond the surface.

…It doesn’t take on deeper meaning to him.

And that means it doesn’t take on deeper meaning for your readers.

Inner conflict and complex characters go hand-in-hand.

Complexity, the weaving together of a new soul, creates openings for inner conflict. Without complexity, inner turmoil has no purchase in that character.

Without that riptide of inner conflict, your character remains flat, no matter how many layers you add.

If you’ve read my articles on fear, desire, strength, and flaws, you know how I like to harp on layers. Inner conflict fills out those layers; swells them to create a truly ROUND character.

Heads up: This post is second-to-last in the “Character Cornerstones and Pillars” series. Don’t miss the final post!

But you probably already know you should have inner conflict.

The HITCH is that inner conflict can be challenging to identify and handle.

How do you know what will fit the story best? And how do you find it? Once you find it, how do you use it?

I get it. It’s abstract. It’s easy to overdo or under-play. And it’s easy to overlook the inner conflict that would support your story’s thematic premise.

Invoking inner conflict is an advanced technique, and it can be a pain.

This is where I tell you that I’m going to guide you through the finding and the handling. Because I’m going to guide you through the finding and the handling.

However, I’ll be honest, this is only an introductory guide. If it weren’t, it would be tens of thousands of words.

I’ll give you steps; I’ll give you tools; I’ll give you tips. And by the end, you should be able to invoke the power of inner conflict, even if you’re an action writer.

What We’re Getting Into

Inner conflict can be the dilemma of choice when there’s a sacrifice involved, either facing a fear or giving up a desire. OR it can be cognitive dissonance, the coming to terms with something you didn’t believe was true.

The first kind, the one we’ll be focusing on, is usually easier to write well, and in ways, more powerful.

No one wants to be faced with the decision to kill – and give up who you are – or die, a la Hunger Games. It’s easy to set up a situation that captures the “what would I do?” fascination of readers, even when death isn’t on the line.

…Not that Dread Pirate Roberts had any problem poisoning Vizzini WITH death on the line.

(Then again, he didn’t identify as a pacifist. But that ruins the joke.)

How to Find Your Character’s Inner Conflict

Who is your character? Who is he in his depths?Inner conflict and complex characters go hand-in-hand.

Complexity, the intricate weaving of a soul, creates openings for inner conflict. Without complexity, believable inner turmoil has no purchase in that character.

Not just any decision qualifies as inner conflict. Inner conflict needs to do more than make your character stop and scratch his head. It needs to throw him back on his heels.

It has to be a choice he would never make if given half a chance.

So WHO IS your character?

What does he desire or fear? What are his strengths and flaws?

And who does your character THINK he is?

What is his worldview? His beliefs? His personal code?

What seeming paradoxes already exist, or what paradoxes could you add?

What might your character have to do that would go against his beliefs or code?

What moral dilemmas might your character come up against that would change the way he sees himself? Yours don’t have to be as extreme as those in that list, but you might use them to get ideas flowing.

Pro Tip: If you want to get readers talking about your book, offer multiple options and have the character believably choose one. Make each choice preferable in some way and regrettable in some way, and you’ll have debates on your hands about which would have been the best choice.

What is the sacrifice that might have to be made? It may or may not be a hinge-point for inner turmoil.

Are there two conflicting desires? Or two conflicting fears?

Finally — and most importantly — what might become an obstacle to achieving the main goal of that character? This is crucial in a protagonist.

How to Set Up Inner Conflict so It Doesn’t Ring False

Show it in actions, hesitations, a word here, a symbol there.

Let the character show his turmoil in unexpected ways. Maybe he blows up at something that would otherwise be innocuous. Maybe a tear escapes or he stares a moment too long.

Give each choice external stakes. That means a physical or shared consequence, usually one that affects other characters and the story.

Give each choice internal stakes. That means a personal, emotional consequence, one that only that character will experience.

Tie the internal and external together for each choice. The external might simply be a symbol for the internal, or the internal simply an outcome of the external.

Make sure the character knows the stakes. And make sure the reader knows how the character knows the stakes.

Make the stakes relatively equal in the eyes of the character. The internal/external balance is irrelevant, but the character needs give the total stakes for each choice the same weight and consideration.

Bonus Tip: Throw in some unintended and unforeseen consequences. They don’t count toward the stakes balance because the character didn’t factor them in, but they can have a huge impact on his emotional state and the story at large. (Oh, and they can be positive OR negative.)

What Never to Do When You’re Plying Inner Conflict

We’ve probably all read stories where inner conflict ruined the whole book…

Overdone, overplayed, and overanalyzed, it clogged up the story and made you doubt why the character was hung up on the exact things the author was trying to convey that the character should be hung up on. The character was too logical, too self-aware.

Too much logic used in presenting inner conflict means that the reader uses logic to decipher it. Tweet it!

We want our readers steeped in emotion, drawn in and touched to the depths of their souls.

Or at least I do.

And to do that we have to be more subtle. We have to show the emotions and avoid the logic.

Readers are able to add logic on their own if you get their emotions engaged. And that layer of thinking only intrigues them more.

Second, never leave inner conflict on the sidelines until the last minute. It needs to be present throughout the story, stretching the tension, pushing the character out of his comfort zone, and testing who he really is.

Third, don’t reassure the character (or the reader) that he will make the right choice.

Don’t break that tension. Let him mess up a few times. Make it unclear what the right choice even IS.

And generally, keep the other characters’ mouths zipped on the expressions of trust.

Pro Tip: Use humor at the moment when things seem hopeless. Tweet it!

Fourth, don’t center a story on inner conflict and inner conflict alone. Have something going on  conflicting in the plot.

Fifth, don’t let the rest of your characters off without inner conflict. Your protagonist shouldn’t be the only one you pick on.

Just make sure that everything is shown from the point of view character’s perspective. This forces subtext into your dialogue and goings-on, which is a nice little trick.

Take Your Character to the Edge of Who He Is

Take your character to the edge of who he is.Anoint him with inner conflict. Push him through the gauntlet of his own mind.

Send him reeling.

Ratchet up the tension.

And have fun with it. After all, you’re the WRITER.

When you’re ready to certify that you’re a writing geek (and that you want future posts in your inbox), sign up to be an Insider for free…

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.


  1. Great piece. I’ve been told that some of my main characters (good guys and gals) can be a little holier-than-thou as the reader gets to know them. My problem would therefore be having too much explicit “moralising” from a hero. I don’t know if I’ve consciously avoided it, but my current hero is unfaithful (only after he finds his wife has been having an affair) and I don’t really have him ARTICULATE his “do the right thing” mentality in other aspects of life. He just does it.

    I am getting critique notes saying “He’s a married man, with a girlfriend, and he’s carrying on like this [flirting with a third woman]! It’s a bit much!” The same critic feels sympathy [pity] for him later on. He becomes widowered, he doesn’t have time to process all of his loss – he is also not dealing with personal things from ten years earlier, on top of a touch of PTSD after bailing out of an exploding aircraft. I don’t say “He’s been through the ringer so he’s started flirting with his female colleagues.” But these are rationales for his behavior. There is personal resolution at the end with all of this humanization. But I fear that some of the implicit stuff isn’t explicit enough now.

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    • So his inner conflict is the desire to do the right thing coming up against his seeming inability to do just that?

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  2. As always your post is wonderful. And when are you going to publish you tens of thousands of word book on characters?

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  3. I think it can be something like how an actor creates a character – he looks for the subtext, the tension, the opposites. Writers do the same thing, only we are creating the characters first. A great acting book that was helpful to me as a writer is Audition by Michael Shurtleff.

    And, I really like how you focus on engaging the Reader’s emotion rather than his/her logic. That’s a great way of putting it.

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  4. Just don’t make it to angsty, yes?

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  5. Thank you for your post! Currently in revisions, working to build (internal conflict) further in my character, this information was very helpful. =)

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  6. Jessa Caswell says:

    I really appreciated this article. You said: We have to show emotions and avoid logic. Some characters can be too self aware. I am all too guilty of this. I feel like I have to justify in my writing why a character is feeling a certain way and so I logic it out in the narrative. But you’re absolutely right. I don’t need to explain myself. The reader can get the logic on their own. I just never looked at this way. Thank you for putting it so succinctly.

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    • You’re right, you don’t have to explain yourself. But it’s fine to put it a touch of logic here and there to reinforce the emotion of it. 😉

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  7. This helped me get in true touch with internal conflict. Thank you! Here’s hoping I don’t come off as too logical. :)

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