Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.23: Internal Conflicts

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Amal, and Maurice

Internal conflicts, simply put, are problems your characters have with themselves. In this episode we address the ways in which writers can build stories and subplots around internal conflicts, and how we can tell when it’s not working.

Notes: the MICE quotient is Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event. Mary’s relationship axes are Role, Relationship, Status, and Competence.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Use the Role, Relationship, Status, and Competence axes to define one of your characters. Then determine how each of these creates conflict with the one following it in the list.

Thing of the week: An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Internal conflicts are problems that your character has with themselves. When your character is their own antagonist. Conflict and growth. How do you come up with them? The difference between what the character wants and what the character needs. Backstory reactions that may even surprise the character. From the MICE quotient, it begins when the character is dissatisfied with their self-identity. Consider role, relationship, status, and competence. Role, responsibilities to career. Relationships, duty to other people. Status, what does your position in the class or hierarchy demand? Competence, expectations due to abilities. Where do these come into conflict with each other? How do you shift from I’m fine through I need to learn something to I’m going to make a change without alienating the reader? Illuminating backstory! And an external catalyst that triggers an internal reaction. Changing contexts often make us look at ourselves. Be careful when using mental illness as internal conflict. Every internal conflict does not necessarily need to be fixed or overcome. Some things are part of who we are. Consider the two questions, will the character succeed in the change they are making, and will this make them happy. The answers can be positive or negative, making four combinations — made the change and happy, made the change and unhappy, didn’t make the change and happy, or didn’t make the change and unhappy. When a character is the only representative of a mental illness in a story, it often feels like a moral judgment and social commentary. The social baggage or weight of understanding about some issues is frequently erroneous and not nuanced. Watch out for reinforcing social understanding that this needs to be fixed. Just because someone has depression, anxiety, BPD, ADHD, is on the spectrum… Does not mean that’s all they are! Let it inform the character, not define them.

[Mary] Season 13, Episode 23.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Internal Conflicts for Characters.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.

[Brandon] Internal conflicts…
[Psst! Grrr. Argh!]
[Brandon] Two months ago…
[Brandon] We did external conflicts, now we’re doing internal conflicts. So what do I even mean by internal conflicts?
[Mary] These are problems that your character has with themselves. This is where your character… For the purposes of dealing with… We’ve talked about character arcs, but when we’re talking about this, in many ways, your character is their own antagonist when we’re looking at internal conflicts.
[Brandon] Almost every character is going to have these. They’ll be of different weight to the story and relevance, but… I mean, we all… The whole idea of having a character in a story is generally to have this character learn or grow in some interesting way. So there needs to be some conflict there, or there can’t be any growth.
[Mary] I will say that this is, as Brandon said, important if that is an aspect of the story you want to highlight. Many times, you’ll see mysteries that don’t have this. It is… If you are writing a story where that is not important, it’s fine, you can skip this podcast. But for everyone else…
[Brandon] Howard talks about the idea of iconic heroes, which are heroes who are there in the story and don’t change necessarily, but the world changes around them. We are talking about characters who change. This is generally… This is the majority of characters. It doesn’t have to be the way you do it, but… How do you guys approach coming up with internal conflicts and facing them for your characters?
[Maurice] There’s a couple different ways. So one is the realization of there’s stuff that my character may want versus stuff that my character actually needs.
[Oh, yeah.]
[Maurice] That becomes a huge pivot point in a story. Then the other way is… The other thing begins with the whole idea of… All right. You know what? As a person, I have different things in my past that I have to overcome. They’re just sitting in me. I may not always be even aware of their effect on me and how I go through my daily world. But due to circumstance, all of a sudden that gets dredged up, and causes me to react in ways I may not have even imagined myself reacting. So putting your character through those sort of paces, of like now he’s reacting this way. Why’s he reacting this way? Then down the road, how does she overcome that? How does she change in order to move forward?
[Brandon] Maurice, when you’re building a story, do you generally come up with these ahead of time? Because you said you do your backstory bios and things like this?
[Maurice] A lot of times, I do. Because for a lot of the times, world building and character building are, for me, kind of the same activity. So I’m just fascinated with who is this person that I’m dealing with. I really want to get… I spend… I will spend… I’ll spend weeks with a character before I even begin plotting, because I really want to get to know them. I am best a lot of time in getting to know this character, because I can’t write their story otherwise.

[Mary] I find that… Like this… I think because I come out of the theater, and I had improv training, that a lot of times I can just kind of jump in and go with a character. But I find that for me, the thing that the internal conflict springs from is… Goes back to the basics of the MICE quotient. The character arc begins when a character is dissatisfied with their role, and as I’ve worked on this more, I’ve realized that when I say role, what I actually mean is self identity. That our self-identity is absolutely sacred to us, and when something challenges that, whether it is an internal realization or something external that triggers that, that it will cause the character to begin to fracture a little bit. A lot of times these internal conflicts really are about watching a character come apart and put themselves back together again. Not always in the same… They usually want to go back into the same configuration that they were in, but almost always they come up in a different configuration. The four kind of areas that I look at for self definition are role, relationship, status, and competence. Which I’ve talked about in previous episodes, but I knew this one was coming, so I’ve been saving. So role is defined by kind of career. It’s a duty… It’s not… It’s defined by career. These are the responsibilities that you have to your career. So I’m a puppeteer, I’m a voice actor, I’m an author, these all have certain responsibilities that go with them. Relationships are things that are defined by your duty to other people. So, wife, daughter, sister, mentor. Status is defined by class or hierarchy, and the things that you have to do because of the status or the class or hierarchy where you are. You’re… like the person that you have to obey because of where you are in the hierarchy, or the person that you have to be kind to. I mean, you should just be kind to people in general, but because of where you are in the hierarchy… Then competence is defined by the abilities, what people… What expectations are placed on you because of the abilities. These include the expectations that you have on yourself. So that moment when the smartest person in the room isn’t the smartest person in the room anymore. If someone calls you stupid, if you think you aren’t smart enough, if you think you’re too smart to do something. So what I like to do is figure out the places where these disparate aspects of self identity come into conflict with each other. Like the one everybody is probably familiar with is the conflict between role and relationship, when job and family, into conflict with each other. That’s a very natural stress point. But you can also have that with status. Especially if someone shifts status and they were not expecting it, which happens to a lot of people on the heroes journey.

[Brandon] Let me dig into this idea something. The idea of characters… we talk a lot about having to confront this thing inside of them. At what point do we have characters who just don’t get it, don’t know that they’re doing something wrong, that they have any place to grow? How do you make that shift between everything is great, my life is going great, I don’t need to change, showing the reader that they have something that they need to learn without alienating the reader, and then making that shift to them deciding to work on this thing?
[Amal] The how there is contingent on so many… Like the situation. I mean, the thing that I was thinking of in my own work as Mary was talking about those things was I wrote a story called The Truth about Owls which is about… It’s actually not as autobiographical as it seems. But it’s about a girl who is… Her background is both British and Lebanese, and she’s in the UK. She has a sort of difficult fractured family history, and she believes that she has this power to just make bad things happen to people when she’s pissed off. In the beginning of the story, she quite enjoys this. Because she’s very unhappy. And it’s like this small measure of control that she has over things. But as her situation starts to change, and as she is actually settling into something that looks more like happiness, she becomes terrified of this power. She wants to try and find ways to amend or control or get rid of it. So I don’t know if that’s like… If that’s answering any of your questions, but I was thinking through this because all of the things that is… The… All of the internal conflicts that she has are to do with things like her family. The fact that she has a difficult relationship with her mother and her father is dead. Her role… Just being a student, but her status of being an outsider a few times over. What was the other one?
[Mary] Competence.
[Amal] And her competence is literally her power. Just… The way that like… The way that these things all kind of come together and resolve, but… So, in terms of not alienating the reader, I guess part of it is always to do with what contract have you set out with the reader in the first place? Is this character one who you do actually want to root for? And why? If the why is rooted in one side of the conflict, and then you’re bringing in the other side of it, then is… I guess to bear in mind, do you want the character to be alienating or not?
[Mary] Well, that why goes back to the episode that we did last month on backstories. That a lot of times, the way you can keep from alienating a reader is by illuminating backstory which lets you know this is why the character is carrying this particular piece of damage, and why they’re blind to this thing that they should perhaps be changing about themselves. Then, if you want to try to shift them, then frequently it requires an external catalyst, something that happens in the world around them that triggers an internal reaction.

[Maurice] I was just thinking about… Partly my life, but…
[Mary] There’s a lot of this. Oh, yes.
[Maurice] Or… I have this story that I tell about myself and the way I carry myself in this world, right? But you drop me in a different context, all of a sudden I’m telling a different story. So, for example, 47-year-old Maurice, hey, how you doing? I’m pretty confident and sure of myself. Drop me at a high school reunion, however…
[Mary] There’s a reason I have not gone to any of mine.
[Amal] Oh, my God.
[Maurice] Right. But all of a sudden, 20 plus years of history gone. All of a sudden, you’ve reverted back to I’m back in high school.
[Amal] So true.
[Mary] Well, this is exactly why you go home to stay with your parents…
[Maurice] That was the other example I was going to give.
[Mary] Please.
[Maurice] Because, again… I think about this every time I hang out with my brother and sister. As soonest we get together, all of a sudden, it doesn’t matter how old we are… We are a couple years apart, and we’re all 13 again. That’s the way we tend to carry ourselves. Then, like last month, my mother, who lives in Jamaica now, but she comes back every so often to visit. When I’m around my mother, all of a sudden, I’m my mother’s son all over again. Which means, like, when we go to church, I’m normally just sitting in church, like I’m… You guys do your thing, I’m sitting at church. My mother’s there, like, “No, you will stand up right now!” “Yes, mom.”
[Maurice] What just happened to me?
[Mary] Well, that’s this thing where your status is shifting back and forth for the entire time you’re there. Because you’ve got the status of you’re a parent and you are an adult, and then you are suddenly status shifted, and you don’t have control over when that status shifts. I was talking to my dad at one point, mom had done something that had made me disproportionately angry, and I was talking to my dad like, “I don’t understand how mom knows exactly which buttons to push.” He said, “Well, she installed them.”
[Mary] It was like, “Oh. Right.” This is a thing where I am in the internal conflict of I am my mother’s child and I am also an adult and I can’t be both at the same time.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and pause for our book of the week. It is An Unkindness of Ghosts.
[Amal] Yes. By Rivers Solomon. Oh, my gosh. This book, it… It absolutely blew me away. It’s… So Rivers Solomon is British and non-binary, I think. So this is their debut and it’s… I would never have known it was a debut from… It’s so sophisticated. It’s doing all of the things that we’ve been talking about. It has a brilliant weaving of backstory into the narrative in a way that almost isn’t flashback, it’s more of kind of almost fragmented narrative. The story is about… So what it imagines is a southern plantation in a generation ship that has been moving away from Earth for something like 325 years. The mothersh… The generation ship is organized in a literal like stratification of its society. So you have the upper decks are mostly light-skinned people, or entirely light-skinned people. The lower decks are entirely dark-skinned people. The lower decks are exploited for the benefit of the upper decks in horrific, tyrannical ways. Your point-of-view character throughout this is mostly Aster who appears to be autistic, and is also… Has a kind of shifting status because of her friendship with someone in the upper decks. She’s a healer, and she moves through the decks. You get this just brilliant, brilliant sense of life in these circumstances, and how it can be horrifically constrained and yet like these are still… The resistance inherent in everything. It’s like, at the same time that I want to say it’s a very… It’s not a happy book. But I usually have a lot of difficulty reading horrific things happening to people, and yet, in this case, I was just riveted by everything, because Aster is such a compelling character, and everything that happens is so… It feels like it’s in conversation with our stories about the history of the US. So a lot of it is just frankly contradicting stereotypes of things like mammy’s and things like Jezebels and like just all of these stereotypes for which we have names as a consequence are being just skewered in incredibly intelligent and deft ways. It’s brilliant.
[Brandon] Awesome. It’s called An Unkindness of Ghosts.
[Amal] Yes.

[Brandon] So there’s something I wanted to talk about in this podcast that is potentially a little bit sensitive. This is the idea of mental illness as internal conflict. The reason I wanted to bring this up is I’ve seen a lot of it from my students, I’ve seen a lot of it in writing, this idea that every internal conflict, writers sometimes think, is something that needs to be fixed or overcome. Which I don’t necessarily think is the case, particularly if you’re looking at something like depression or anxiety. You can have a character arc where you are learning to deal with this thing that you have that is a part of who you are and is probably always going to be a part of who you are. That depends… Like I don’t even want to imply that there are some… That people don’t get…
[Mary] Yeah. Because the thing about… When we talk about a big umbrella word like mental illness, it’s because it comes in a lot of different varieties, and something that to…  one person would look at and go, “Well, that’s mental illness,” someone else would be, “Well, that’s just not neuro-typical.” It’s not an illness, it’s just a state of being.
[Brandon] If we look at two examples, even just from my life. One of my family members went into a very deep depression because of certain events, and this was a thing to get over and fix, and they have not had depression since. It was an isolated incident and they needed a very specific sort of struggle to come over… Get over it. Another member of my family has depression and has always had depression and will always have depression. This is not something to fix. It’s definitely something to learn how to deal with, but it is a part of who she is and it is something that she constantly is going to be struggling with. Those are two different approaches, and somebody else… You can imagine things on the mental spectrum where it’s just this is an aspect of my personality rather than I am not broken, but you still have character struggle to learn to interact with the world using it, if that makes sense.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that this is one of the things that I’ve found when I’ve chosen to give a character something that is neuro-atypical, that very frequently our training as a writer is to look at the pain point and dig into it and then try to make that the plot of the story. I think that why you can tell a story that is compelling that way, frequently those stories have been told, and you’re not actually telling a new story. That what’s more interesting for me is to watch the character… Watch how that informs the way in which they move through the world. And watch the conflicts that arise because of the way they are moving through the world, rather than having them have it is a goal to try to fix. This is not to say that you… I just want to be clear. You can absolutely write a story in which a character has something that they are not comfortable with about themselves, and they are trying to fix it. You can also have them want to try to fix it, and then realize that they would… Basically, every story is going to wind up in a positive or a negative state. So there’s the question you raise for the reader… This is a very mechanical way to look at it. There is the question you raise at the beginning, which is will the character succeed in the change that they are making? Running parallel to that is another question for a character story, which is will this change make them happy? Each of those can wind up in a positive or negative state. So a positive state is yes, they made the change, and a positive state does it make them happy, yes. But you can also have the they do not make the change, does that make them happy, yes. You can have them make the change, that makes them unhappy. So what you can do is look at these things. The danger, when you are dealing with a mental illness, is that if this character is the only representation of that illness in this story, the danger is that you are making a social commentary that… Because of the infrequency with which these stories are told in a sensitive manner, very often, you may be writing a story that will directly contradict someone else’s lived experience in ways that… Coupled with something that will feel like a moral judgment.

[Amal] I think that what you’re touching on here too is that talking about some things, and I think we’re going to address this in a different podcast, just come with more baggage. That there… And by baggage here, I mean specifically that there is a weight, a literal social weight, of understanding about those issues, and it’s frequently erroneous and not nuanced. I think that where mental illness is concerned, that’s absolutely the case. That even though there is… I mean, I have a friend who has Asperger’s. We had a conversation once where she said, “You know, people will sometimes… I sometimes ask my friends if they would prefer that I didn’t have Asperger’s. They say, ‘No, no, no. Of course not, because that’s part of who you are.’ But I would quite like to not have Asperger’s.” Even though that is an absolutely true thing that my friend has said, that’s something I would feel very uncomfortable representing in fiction because of the weight of this understanding that no one needs… Things like this need to be fixed. We need to normatize… we need to be normative… in our things.
[Mary] If you’ve read Speed of the Dark by Elizabeth Moon…
[Amal] I haven’t.
[Mary] It’s…
[Brandon] It’s wonderful.
[Mary] It’s wonderful. But it’s an amazing audiobook.
[Brandon] It deals with autism in this manner. A cure for autism is discovered, and it’s the question do you use this cure and become a different person or not?
[Mary] It’s the characters trying to make that decision, but they live in a community where autism has been cured in the womb, and someone has just figured out how to potentially do it for adults. So these characters are trying to make that decision, and not all of them make the same choice. That is one of the reasons it works, because it presents multiple aspects of that choice. It’s not… It’s not just a blanket statement, and it’s something that the characters wrestle with, the question of how much does this define me. One of the best examples of… One of the things that helped me decide to… That it was okay to take medication to deal with depression, becuase the social stigma against it was so large for so much of my life. Someone… And I wish I could remember who… It was a meme that got passed around on Facebook, said that they had resisted it until their doctor told them, “Look. If you have diabetes, your body doesn’t make insulin. And you don’t have any problems taking insulin. When you have depression, there are chemicals that your body isn’t producing. Why do you have problems taking that chemical?”
[Amal] Absolutely.
[Mary] That is one of the things when you’re dealing with a character with mental illness that… Or someone who is not neuro-typical, that recognizing how many different things you are reinforcing when you are having them… By the ways in which you struggle… Have them struggle with it and making sure that you’re dealing with it in a nuanced and full way.

[Brandon] Excellent. That’s a very good way to put it. Just to kind of reinforce something you said earlier, not every story has to even make this the main conflict. I have… My loved one with depression gets really frustrated at every book that she’ll pick up with a character with depression. That’s all they are. That’s their whole story.
[Mary] I’ve got… Yeah. I have a lot of feels about that.
[Maurice] So. Actually, it becomes one of the subthemes for my middle grade detective novel that I was talking about, in that… So I’ve… I’m diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I’m also hypomanic, and my nephew is on the autism spectrum. So I’m very cognizant of how labels can be used to define people. So that becomes one of the themes for the middle grade, with the idea that when something goes wrong with the school, they round up the usual suspects. What they deal with, what each of the characters have to deal with is the fact that each of them has a label. Some of them are struggling with ADHD, for example. Some of them might be on the spectrum. So this becomes like a subtheme of the novel, is what does it mean to recognize this aspect of you without necessarily wanting to be everybody’s fix-it project?
[Amal] Can I just recommend quickly two things? You’re talking about bipolar stuff. I read this really wonderful autobiographical cartoon memoir… Cartoon memoir? What are the words, even?
[Brandon] Graphic novel?
[Amal] Graphic novel. But it’s not a novel? It’s like… So it’s called Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and me by Ellen Forney, in which she talks about being an artist with… Who is bipolar and having that internal series of but what if my creativity is tied to my mania, and what are… Like how do… What if in managing my moods and my brain, I actually edit out parts of myself? So she goes into that. It’s really beautifully drawn, and I really, really… It was very illuminating for me. But talking about characters that have mental illness on the page, but it doesn’t define them, but it does inform them, I have to recommend Michelle Baker’s Borderline.
[Mary] Oh, my goodness. Yes.
[Amal] It’s so, so excellent. The second… So it’s a trilogy. The first two books are out. The third one may be out by the time you hear this, actually.
[Mary] It will be. Because I already have an ARC. Ha ha, ha ha.
[Gasp. Jealous pause.]
[Amal] So, Borderline is the first one. The main character is bisexual, has… Is also an amputee, and has borderline personality disorder. None of those things define her. She’s also a detective who is… She’s sort of thrown into the role of being a detective in Fairyland sort of thing. Or border control. Either way. It’s great. The second book, Phantom Pains, is even better. It’s really wonderful. Michelle Baker has disclosed that she is herself… She does herself… She has BPD as well, and talks about, I think in blog posts, the ways that this informs the character that she writes, and how that character is not her at all.

[Brandon] We are out of time. We will dig more into topics like this in coming months. For now, Mary’s going to give us some homework.
[Mary] Yes. Okay. So… In the first half of this podcast, I talked about role, relationship, status, and competence. What I want you to do is sit down and figure out what each of those are for a character. What their role is, what their relationship… How… For each of these, they’ll have multiple aspects. Like their relationship, you may have three or four relationships listed there. Then, figure out how their role is… Creates conflict with their relationship. How relationship creates conflict with status, and how status creates conflict within competence. Within competence, not with incompetence.
[Mary] Although, maybe so, yes. And how competence creates conflicts with their role.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.