Writing a Character: Conflict Balance

Are your character’s inner and outer conflicts balanced? Conflict is uncomfortable. Yet a story written without conflict will struggle to attract readers.

Writing Tip for Today: Writing conflict is more than a bunch of stuff blowing up. Writers must learn to balance a character’s inner and outer conflicts. Here are some ideas:

Outer Conflict

Let’s start with the conflict happening in a character’s world. Your character wants something, desperately. In order to create high stakes (or enough reader interest), someone or something (also called an antagonist) must try to prevent the character from reaching the goal or obtaining what he/she wants. Notice the word must. Conflict in a character’s outer world isn’t optional.

I once had a student who wrote about a boy who wanted to play the French horn in the school band. So he did. The absence of conflict doomed the story—in fact there was no story. Create believable conflict for your character by 1) giving her a goal she desperately wants and 2) creating obstacles (bad guys, weather, little green men) or antagonists that can give her a run for her money.

Inner Conflict

Outer conflict in story depends on your character’s inner conflict. As readers understand what makes the character tick, they understand the goal in a deeper, more complete way. In my novel, The Fence My Father Built, Muri Pond desperately wants to find her bio father, whom she hasn’t seen since childhood. That’s the outer conflict.

Her inner conflict? That she has always felt abandoned by him and has mixed feelings about rekindling a relationship. The abandonment/need to belong motivation is a common one that many readers relate to. This helps readers empathize with Muri in her search. In your story, give your character an inner struggle that directly relates to the outer goal/conflict. This way, readers see the logic and can root for your character.

Balanced Conflict

One common mistake that writers make is by not balancing these two conflict types. A character who only deals with “bad guys” may seem shallow without a rich inner life full of inner conflict. Yet more often, writers overload inner conflict and skimp on the actual conflict playing out in the character’s world. If you write too much inner conflict, readers often feel trapped in the character’s head. Too much inner conflict also weighs a story down with back story, explaining the conflict.

Take a look at the outer and inner conflict your character faces. If there aren’t enough outer conflicts or too many random actions (such as stuff blowing up for no reason) add in scenes where your character must battle the antagonist to win the goal. Balanced outer and inner conflicts will result in a more developed character. And well-developed characters are what readers crave.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “Writing a Character: Conflict Balance

  1. I always try to think outside the box and ask myself: What would the reader want? It’s a difficult switch to make but for me a necessary one. We need to see it on both sides in order to create an interesting story.

    Excellent as always. Thank you.

    • Bryan,
      Excellent comment! We must always keep our reader in mind–how else can we hope to recreate our imaginary world inside the reader’s mind?
      Keep Writing!

  2. I really enjoy your site but are you aware that fully one- third of the screen is taken up with two banners? At the top, a small black banner; take your writing to the next level. Below that a second wide white banner with your name make reading your material a challenge. It’s like trying to read under a window slat.

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