In dramatic writing, internal conflict marries the darkest aspects of a character to his or her greatest fears.
Great dramatic characterizations often defy formulas or precedent. In other words, they are a very nuanced proposition. J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire all seem to have stepped into the middle of their respective stories fully formed and unforgettable. You don’t have to have humped a rifle through a rice paddy to share the disillusionment and abject terror of Chris Taylor in Platoon, and you don’t have to be an actor to relate to Michael Dorsey’s desperation in Tootsie. In watching any of these iconic films, you probably experience some combination of empathy and dismay watching these characters navigate their situations.
What you’re actually feeling is internally conflicted. These characters are mesmerizing because they are navigating their own internal conflict in full view. In dramatic writing, internal conflict is basically the darkest aspects of a character married to that individual’s greatest fears. Sometimes these elements are one and the same.
An example of this is the “I-am-becoming-my-mother/father” motif, as characters seem predestined to repeat some grim legacy of dysfunction or abuse passed down through their bloodline. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is a prominent example of paternal gravitation, but the theme arises in The Judge, There Will Be Blood, The Great Santini, and countless numbers of films and books.
Wild (adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir) presents a fresh twist on the “I-am-becoming” motif. The darkest aspect of Cheryl’s backstory is the self-destructive spiral that resulted in, among other things, a divorce. Cheryl’s external conflict is surviving a thousand-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl’s internal conflict is derived from her mother, but it’s not about dysfunction. Rather, Cheryl’s central fear is that she will fail to honor her sainted mother’s legacy, that she will never equal Bobbi’s verve and optimism.
Thrillers and action films often revert to a default chestnut of internal conflict that involves a situation-rich debacle – a lover is killed by one’s wrongdoing; something precious is lost, destroyed, or stolen. In this template, the protagonist’s greatest fear is typically that he or she will miss a chance for redemption, or fail in the attempt.
Clarice Starling, the protagonist of The Silence of the Lambs (adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel), departs from this template, presenting a dark backstory that seems – at first blush – completely unrelated to Clarice’s greatest fear. In the story, Clarice has gotten her dream break: a mere trainee being tapped by her boss and mentor to assist on the hottest serial killer case in the nation. The external conflict is a race against time: to find and rescue a senator’s daughter before the gruesome Buffalo Bill harvests her skin. The darkest aspect of Clarice’s backstory is her late father, a rural sheriff shot dead in the line of duty. Clarice’s greatest fear is not that she’ll also be killed, though that becomes a distinct possibility, but rather that she’ll be tested and found lacking – that all of her rigorous study and dedication can’t compensate for her low-class Appalachian pedigree.
Internal conflict in love stories often turns on a character’s inability to process his or her own feelings: Jerry in Jerry Maguire, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. In these stories, the external conflict of “the work” or the task at hand serves as both a wedge and an emotional refuge. Running a close second is the canard of unworthiness, as in “I am not worthy of you.” A doomed romance, as depicted in Titanic, is not solely about survival, it’s also about Jack’s interior struggle to be worthy of Rose.
16 noteworthy internal conflicts from the big screen
- Fergus, in The Crying Game
- Barton, in Barton Fink
- Michael/Dorothy in Tootsie
- Pat in Silver Linings Playbook
- Aloysius in Doubt
- Alan in The Imitation Game
- John Nash in A Beautiful Mind
- Jerry in Fargo
- Viola in Shakespeare in Love
- Cole in The Sixth Sense
- Jerry in Jerry Maguire
- Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List
- Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry
- Lynn in The Sixth Sense
- Ada in The Piano
Written by Monty Mickelson for The Script Lab. Reprinted with permission.
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