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Stirring the Plot: Internal Conflict

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In addition to the problems the story world, antagonist, friends, and foes cause for our protagonist, there are internal obstacles that prevent him from achieving his overall story or scene goals.

Internal obstacles are supplied by the protagonist’s own mind. They are difficult to overcome because most characters lack objectivity and insight into their subconscious motivations. Rarely are characters self-aware enough to know their strengths, weaknesses, and triggers. 

Friends and foes and the antagonist can hold up mirrors so the character can see himself better. Most people lack self-awareness. Have other characters point out their faulty thinking.

Other characters reinforce these obstacles or help him overcome them. All characters have emotional triggers and cause explosions by pulling other people’s emotional triggers.

Internal obstacles can take several forms:

[ Internal resistance based on temperament to things that go against his natural inclinations.

This is where you can utilize their core traits (introversion/extraversion, intuition/sensing, feeling/thinking,  perception/judging) for or against them. If they are introverted, make them go public. If they are an on the fly guy, make them have to come up with a plan and stick with it. If they don't, the plan goes to hell and creates further conflict. If they hate being in the limelight, shine it on them. If they struggle with commitment, give them no choice.

[ Fears and phobias that keep him from going where he needs to go or taking the action he needs to take.

You can make this a crippling phobia (though a lot of these have been overused). You can make it more subtle, but equally effective if they overcome an unreasonable fear to solve a problem.

[ Desire for a personal currency that tempts him to do the wrong thing or sidelines his efforts.

We covered the sixteen currencies in earlier posts. It is hard to encourage someone by promising them something they don't want or threatening to take away something they don't care about. 

Tapping Your Character's Currency

Character Currency in Action

[ Character flaws such as low self esteem, arrogance, or pride that keeps him from doing what needs to be done or makes him do things that are better left untried.

In SBB II, I talk about ways to bend and twist your character's personality. You can use those emotional wounds and neuroses to create intense conflict at the scene and overall story levels.

[ Psychological barriers, such as conditioning, belief systems, mental illness, anxiety, depression, and addiction keep a character from seeing the situation clearly or keep him from making healthy decisions about what needs to be done or said.

Your characters don't live in a vacuum. There are societal rules, family rules, or organizational rules that they have internalized. Some characters break rules easier than others.

Make it hard. 

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.

Stirring the Plot: External Obstacles

The External Layer of conflict can provide obstacles to overcome or ladders to climb. They can be provided by bureaucracies, laws, societal expectations, or authorities. 

Let's look at ten types of external obstacles.

1. Conflicting goals. The goals of the individual(s) is in opposition to their story world.

2. Inefficient practices, 
policies, or procedures. The characters are fighting for change, but rules get in the way. Do they break them or change them?

3. Needing consensus or permission from a superior to move forward. The character must find ways around the authority or convince him to change his mind.

4. Lack of funds to implement the plan. How do they get the money? Who do they get it from? What compromises must they make? What loops must they jump through to get it?

5. An action or decision that counters a religious or political agenda. You call illustrate the power of change or the tragedy of an insurmountable foe.

6. Prejudices against people, places, things, and behaviors. You can show character growth and a groundswell of change here.

7. Moral restrictions enforced by society based on the time and place in which he lives. Does he circumvent them or work to change them?

8. Taboos that forbid the action or decision and result in fatal or highly unpleasant consequences. Does he break them or take them down?

9. Police enforcement of the legal rules of the society your character lives in. What are the consequences for your character's actions? Does he serve time, become a suspect, or go on the run to achieve his goal?

10. Rulers (bosses, kings, dictators, starship captains, or tribal chieftains) can be fatal to cross. They set the tone and hand down the mandates for the world they control. Who rules your story world?

Their function can be to slam on the brakes or push the gas peddle as your character navigates his story world while attempting to solve the overall story problem. Along with motivated friends and foes, and the antagonist, external conflict can help you avoid sagging middles.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book

For free tools and an explanation of the conflict layering process, visit my website.

Stirring the Plot: Friends and Foes

In addition to the antagonist (sometimes in place of) there will be friends and foes who provide obstacles to the scene and overall story goals. 

They don’t have to be evil masterminds or have malevolent intent. They can be fake friends, family members, coworkers, the antagonist’s henchmen, or part of Dick’s social circle. They can be loved ones and love interests.

The Obstructionist: Jane loves to play Devil’s advocate. She points out how things can go wrong and the reasons why Dick shouldn’t consider his goal. She puts up roadblocks just to prove her point. She erodes Dick's ambition and makes his resolve falter. She encourages Dick to give up instead of push for the finish line.

The Snake: Sally likes to push buttons: everyone’s buttons. She has no personal issue with Dick; she simply enjoys messing with people. If Dick innocently wanders into her path, she strikes instinctively like a cobra. She examines per prey carefully and figures out what he wants and makes certain he doesn’t get it. She might trick Dick into doing something he doesn’t want to do. If Dick unknowingly alienates her, she attacks aggressively. Her secret weapon is her ability to manipulate people. She can keep Dick distracted from reaching his goal or convince him he does not really want it. If she has the power to withhold what he needs, she does so with a sly smile.

The Gossip: Jane says what she wants when she wants regardless of its impact. If Dick has a secret, she  blurts it out, usually at the worst possible moment. If you alienate Jane, she gossips and digs until she finds a juicy bone she can use against you when you least expect it. Jane can be thoughtless or deliberate in her attack. She wouldn’t know a healthy boundary if it bit her. Her behavior can embarrass or betray, create an awkward moment, or a dangerous one.

The Manipulator: Sally is dangerous because you never really know what she is thinking. She never offers a sincere opinion. She answers questions with questions. She isn’t intentionally manipulative; she’s simply a vat of Jello in which Dick can drown. Her opinions vary from moment to moment, so you can’t trust anything she says. Her emotions and attachments are shallow. If Dick needs information from her, even if she gives a direct answer, he won’t be able to trust it. If he needs her cooperation, she’ll fail him. If thwarted, Sally pretends to be Dick’s ally but stands on the sidelines bursting with laughter when he fails.

The Narcissist: Jane isn’t interested in messing with Dick. She is focused on the woman in the mirror. Jane is all about Jane. It never occurs to her that other people have needs, wants, and opinions. Getting something from her is an impossible task unless Dick has something Jane wants. She will concede for personal gain, not to help Dick out. Dick wastes time trying to figure out the right carrot. Once Jane has her carrot, she can’t be trusted.

The Enforcer:
Sally acts as the thought police. She has a very stringent view of right and wrong. She is quick to point out when people behave in unacceptable ways. If Dick needs her approval or assistance, he may have to hide what he is doing or waste time pretending to be someone he isn’t. If he disappoints her, she quickly withdraws her support and makes certain other people do too. She will actively work against his goal just to put him in his place.

These friends and foes are not rational. Dick can’t reason with them. He has to find ways to mollify them or go around them and that creates effective tension and stretches out the timeline.

They can make Dick doubt his goal or convince him to give up. They can make Dick believe he is the crazy one.

Use these friends and foes to create speed bumps, stop signs, and road blocks at scene and overall story level.

For more on how to create obstacles, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict available in paperback and E-book.

Ten Ways to Motivate Your Characters

Disunity obstacles motivate characters to offer resistance to, or agree to assist with, another character’s scene goal or overall story goal. 
Story Building Blocks

Motivating your primary characters is essential to a well-developed plot. Motivating your secondary characters, the friends and foes, adds depth.

1. Competition. Wishing to one-up, surpass, or defeat someone can be mild or taken to laughable, even deadly, lengths. The competition between characters can be out in the open. They know they are competing for the woman, the antiquity, the position, or the country. It can be an undercurrent that flows between two characters who aren't even aware this is their motivation.

2. Jealousy and resentment. How long has that pot been boiling? What causes it to overflow?

3. Gossip, rumors, and backbiting. I am struck by how often characters exist in a bubble. They are part of the wider world. What they do and say will be observed, discussed, and perhaps acted upon.

4. Blackmail. Secrets are the lifeblood of good suspense. They do not have to be conspiracies or fatal. They only require that the character feels shame about something they don't want other people to know. Giving another character the power to expose them adds tension.

5. Differing goals and needs. This conflict can be mild or ruin a relationship, a heist team, or derail a war.

6. Dislike, hatred, or anger. Few character types are overt in their expression of these emotions. A subtle level can lead a friend or foe to fail to cooperate, break a promise, or cause them to undermine every goal your character has.

7. Love for something or someone. Love unites. However, love can prevent a character from taking an action that will hurt someone they care about. The threat can be deadly, but they will not risk it. Love can also motivate someone to go beyond normal limits and take uncharacteristic risks. It can provide the push to keep them moving toward their goal or add the resistance to doing what needs to be done.

8. Friendship and loyalty. Few characters are completely friendless or free of bonds of loyalty. Who are your characters beholden to? Who will they betray? What is the price of that betrayal? Who will they catch a grenade for?

9. Opposing methods of negotiating the world. Some are mavericks. Some are conservatives. Some are willing to do whatever they want regardless of the cost. For others, the cost is too dear. Putting opposites together heightens the tension. Every decision and action will create conflict.

10. Shallowness versus depth of connections. How easy is it for your character to walk away? What is the cost? Deepening their connections heightens the stakes.

Motivation drives each character in your story. They may know what motivates them. They may be completely unaware. The other characters may be aware or completely unaware of why characters behave as they do.

Tweet this: Motivation transforms your cardboard characters into flesh and bone.

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.

Crafting Characters: Stress Points Part 2

We continue our evaluation of character reactions to stress. The higher the stress level, the more extreme their position becomes on the behvioral spectrum. You can give them a problem where their approach works and they gain ground, or they fail utterly which causes them to lose ground.

9. Joss

Joss is a man of action and few words. He may never talk about the problem or what needs to be done about it. Stress can make him impulsive. He may attempt things that were better left alone. He may drag in a few other maverick loners like himself. They may drive each other to ridiculous lengths.

10. Kelly

Kelly is a one-man show. He’s wild and crazy. Stress makes him more impulsive than usual. He has no trouble confronting people or tasks. His efforts won’t be focused and the results are iffy. He will probably charm someone else into taking a hit for him.

11. Greer

Greer is a quiet, elusive kind of guy. He isn’t very social to begin with. As long as people leave him alone, he really doesn’t care what they do. When they dump problems in his lap, he becomes resentful and withdraws. He may be forced to tackle the problem in his careful, logical way, but whoever caused it will pay the price for disturbing his peace.

12. Taylor

Taylor thrives on being social and gaining cooperation. He becomes rigid and irritable when stressed. If someone provokes him, he will hold tight to his goal and snap at everyone he dragoons into helping him. He is good at getting people to do what he wants them to. His opponent will feel the sting.

13. Cam

Cam isn’t terribly social. As long as people leave his lofty logical fortress alone, he ignores them. Attack him and he freezes in amazement. He leaves other people alone. Why would they go after him? He calmly sets about destroying his attacker in his creative, methodical way. He won’t broadcast his success or ask for help. He’ll just take quiet satisfaction in his work. 
14. Morgan

Morgan is erratic in nature. He’s a rolling stone that gathers no moss. He isn’t interested in fighting unless someone brings the fight to him. When stressed, he becomes scattered. He’ll find it hard to focus, but his scattershot approach may have many undesirable consequences for his enemy.
15. Lee

Lee is lethal. He is used to getting his way and cuts down anyone brave enough to confront him. He isn’t a touchy-feely, let’s be a team kind of guy. He is good at dragooning others into carrying out his wishes. He becomes hypercritical when stressed and snipes and cracks the whip. His enemies should just move out of the way. 

16. River

River is a pacifist. He wants what is best for everyone. He isn’t interested in fighting unless someone brings the war to him. He becomes critical and self-absorbed when stressed. His strength lies in his uncanny intuition. He will figure out his opponent’s weakness in a heartbeat and use it to his advantage.

The more stressed your character feels, the more anxious your reader feels in response. Turning up the heat on your characters makes the reader eager to see the stress relieved. That keeps them turning pages.

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.