Inner Conflict in Fiction (Conflict in Fiction, Making it Real Series, Part 4)
Understanding the dynamics of inner conflict in psychology can help you create believable characters who tap into emotions common to us all. Portraying inner conflict believably in fiction requires that we understand its ways and means. In this article, we’ll cover the four models of inner conflict in psychology, with examples from my own writing.
This post is a continuation of "Tap the Psychology of Conflict in Your Fiction," which I recommend reading first.
1. Choosing Between Two Positive OutcomesYour character needs to choose between two equal desires that are mutually exclusive, resulting in tension. The stronger the opposing desires and more serious the consequences, the harder the struggle. Giving your character traits that deepen the conflict will make it even more compelling. ‘You can’t eat your cake and eat it, too’ is an expression that perfectly frames this sort of problem. In psychology, this is called the approach-approach conflict.
Such a dilemma arises in DawnSinger (Tales of Faeraven, book 1) because the hero, Kai, who has sworn to protect the High Queen of Faeraven, will be freed from his pledge at her death. Since that event seems imminent, both Kai’s parents press him not to bow his knee to the heir of Faeraven who will take over the high throne at his mother’s death but to take over the responsibilities of heir to their kingdom in the absence of his missing older brother. The consequences of refusing them are that his parent’s kingdom is likely to be absorbed into a neighboring one.
The new High King will be an untried youth, and Kai’s loyalty to the High Queen, love of the life he leads in her service, and drive to fulfill his duty, sometimes at the expense of relationships, makes this a gut-wrenching decision for him.
2. Choosing Between Two Negative Outcomes
Your character is forced to choose between two threats, one of two fears, or unpleasant situations. Escape is often not possible or comes with serious consequences. A character who can’t escape a decision may cope by developing a selective memory or resorting to denial, alcohol abuse, or other defense mechanisms. The greater the threats, fears or unpleasantness, the more the agony. Giving your character traits that make it harder to make a decision creates even more inner turbulence. We sometimes speak of having to ‘choose the lessor of two evils.’ Psychologists refer to this as the avoidance-avoidance conflict.
Shae, the heroine of DawnSinger, must decide whether to embark on a dangerous journey with a seemingly impossible task at its end. If she goes, she is likely to wind up dead. If she refuses to go, her world will have no chance of deliverance from an ancient foe. Her other choices, remaining at the high hold of Faeraven or returning to her homeland are not tenable. She would disappoint the high queen and likely be killed by the very evil she could have prevented. Shae can be irresponsible at times, a little rebellious, and careless of her safety, traits that heighten the tension of deciding whether to stay or go.
3. The Questionable Goal
Your character is both attracted and repulsed by a goal object. The inability to grasp the goal because of its negative aspects creates frustration and tension. The more sharply defined these aspects are, the greater the conflict and the more difficult it is to resolve. Playing off this conflict intensifies its effects. In popular speech, we call this type of conflict as being drawn ‘like a moth to a flame.’ In psychology, this is the approach-avoidance conflict.
In DawnSinger, Kai helps Shae in her attempt to reach the Well of Light so that she can fulfill prophecy, even though he suspects that neither of them will return alive. The fact that he grew up protecting Shae makes his inner conflict .
4. The Conundrum
This is the questionable goal on steroids. Your character is both attracted and repulsed by the intricacies of a complex situation. This creates the inability to make a decision, and that leads to tension. The more difficult the situation, the more paralyzing it becomes. Giving your character traits that presents challenges within this conundrum brings home the conflict for readers. A person in a situation like this is said to be ‘in a quandary.’ In psychology, this is the multiple approach-avoidance conflict.
In the beginning of DawnSinger, Shae suffers the effects of a conundrum from which there seems no escape. She wants to please her mother, stop getting in trouble, and fit in with her family. Unfortunately, these goals require that she fit in with her family in ways that violate her values. She must adhere to a strict regimen and make other such adjustments that are death to her soul. Shae’s capricious nature make this all but impossible for her.
Some Final Thoughts
Presenting conflict in your fiction requires a keen understanding of how people think and feel. If you try to chart something that is intuitive out, you may wind up frustrated. A more efficient method is to use your imagination to bring your story to life.