One of the classic conflicts in literature is Man vs. Self, where the characters have to face the inner demons lurking in their psyche. However, as much as an internal conflict is a pivotal tool for a strong story, it can also be the most taunting aspect, especially when the author has not necessarily gone through the inner conflict they want to represent on their character.
From a psychological point of view, I want to present some different internal conflicts that various authors have proposed. While not all of us can relate to every single one, being able to understand how they work and how they manifest on a character can give us authors many more tools to play with while writing.
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed psychologist and while I encourage playing with different theories while developing characters, take it with a grain of salt if you decide to apply it to real life.
Closing Your Gestalts
When I started studying psychology, I heard the word “Gestalt” and over and over without knowing what it meant. After a couple of semesters, it made sense why it was such a used concept. “Gestalt” is a German word used by Fritz Perls in 1951 to describe cycles we have in life and the importance of closing them. A cycle can be something as big as coping with death or as small as passing a class. Social events like funerals, graduations, birthdays and so on help us close those cycles in a symbolic way so that we can move on to the next step of our lives. Perls proposes that if we don’t, we will suffer anxiety from being torn in between the now and the then. Basically living day to day with our mind in the past.
A Gestalt I believe is a perfect internal conflict for literature because it allows for a clear journey from the moment the cycle opens to the moment it closes. Perhaps the character travels halfway across the world to formally cut off bonds with his estranged mother. Perhaps he simply wants to attend graduation before going on a very important family trip. Whatever it is, this theory provides a simple formula to play with.
However, what happens when you don’t get to close a Gestalt formally? What if the estranged mother dies before the main character gets to her or if the parents take him away before his name gets called at graduation? When this happens, we find other ways to close our Gestalts. For example, in many TV sitcoms and shows whenever two characters break off, they burn whatever reminds them of the couple in a sort of ecstatic and bittersweet ritual. That’s one way to close a Gestalt.
There are also other, more unusual ways. Let’s say the character doesn’t make it to his graduation. Years pass and he becomes obsessed with stopping by a school whenever he sees a graduation and simply taking pictures. He stands at a distance, pulls out his phone and captures an image of a girl in a beret standing by the school’s doors. Another one of a boy kissing his date with a diploma in his hand. One last one of the white flowers a mother bought for her daughter. He doesn’t linger and soon leaves. Before he knows it, his phone is full of these pictures and while it is not enough to close his Gestalt, it is a momentary solution. Perhaps he isn’t even aware it’s all about him not graduating and just takes his bizarre pastime as a quirk.
It’s interesting to see how this need to close cycles can drive people’s behavior with such strength. It is an excellent way to work with your character’s internal conflict. Whether is retrieving a dragon’s egg to fulfill the last promise they made to their grandparents and finally let them go or simply attending graduation, it creates tension and it gives you a starting point to write with.
Getting Rid of “Must”
We find the word all the time in our daily lives. “I must cook the best dinner ever”, “I must be back before five”, “I must buy a new fridge”. However, how helpful is this word? For others, not really. For writers, very. Albert Ellis proposed that this feeling that you must do something or other is not healthy. The reasoning behind this is because it creates standards for yourself that you might not be able to meet and aren’t there for your benefit. For example, “I must cook the best dinner ever because if I don’t, I’m not a worthy wife”. This creates barriers for how you see yourself as you are basing it on the opinion of others. Also, it creates limits as to what you can do to achieve the goal. The phrase in question proposes that the character must cook the dinner alone because she has to prove only she is worthy. Depending on the type of dinner and the character, the task might be impossible to handle on her own. She might need a friend, some extra money, or maybe just a recipe, but because of that “must”, she is not willing to accept any help. She “must” do it on her own.
This translates to a very common practice in writing which is what the character wants vs. what the character needs. The character of the wife trying to cook the perfect meal wants to create the most delicious dinner but needs to understand that her self-worth isn’t determined by it. While we as writers can understand the difference between our character’s wants and needs, the character probably can’t. That’s where the tension comes from. How long it takes for your character to realize that their want is irrational.
The conflict proposed for this is questioning. Perhaps the housewife in the example goes to talk to her single friend who could and probably has burned water while trying to boil it. Yet she is content with herself. Our character starts to question how realistic is it to think that her marriage depends on whether she can cook or not and how rational it is to think that her own self-worth depends on the status of her marriage. Then she might realize that her need to cook a perfect dinner was really a want.
This conflict can apply to a dystopian society questioning the futuristic cultural practices or a woman trying to save her marriage. It’s flexible and provides a lot of tension as well as a journey for the character to go on.
Having a Purpose
When I was thirteen and coming out of middle school, the student council made a video interview of all of us and one of the questions was “what is your life’s purpose?” I replied, “being happy.” I didn’t understand that it didn’t qualify as a life’s purpose, but then again I was thirteen and more worried about making it to high school in one piece. However, looking back on it, that was my life’s purpose at thirteen. Not being happy but making it to high school. Victor Frankl proposes that the most important part of one is their life’s meaning. For a person to have a life’s meaning, it has to be concrete and positive for society. This means “being happy” doesn’t count. Neither does “murdering rude baristas” for those writing about assassins. What does count is supporting your family, getting through college, writing a book. Very simple, small, concrete things.
What happens when you don’t have a life’s meaning? Well, life can seem fine. Tensionless. Yet quite insipid. Think of the rich kid who never has to lift a finger to do anything. He gets everything served on a silver platter yet he has no purpose. He seems to be fine but he’s stuck in a meaningless life. Frankl proposes that for a healthy life, one has to have a certain amount of tension. Once the kid realizes he’s practically useless, that’s going to create incredible amounts of tension and he’s going to start looking for a purpose.
The next question is how does one get a character to find said purpose. There are three ways. One is through morals. This usually has religious connotations such as serving a church or a god. However, this can also involve living modestly, going vegan, saving enslaved villages, as long as the character feels a moral obligation to do so. The second way is through actions. This is perhaps the most concrete way. They don’t have to be tied to morals but it can be what the character is interested in doing. Perhaps they would like a master’s degree. Perhaps they would like to be the first ambassador in an alien planet. It’s based on concrete actions that the character will face, which on the way gives you an external conflict. The third is through suffering.
While I was reading about Frankl, he talks about his time as a prisoner in a concentration camp and how being in a one made him fight to find a reason to live. He would create secret meetings with other prisoners who when free liked to ski and would share stories with each other. His life’s purpose then was to get to have another meeting and share more stories. He had his manuscript taken away when he was captured and when that happened, his life’s purpose was to survive so that he could have his manuscript published. He went through a suffering that I will never be able to comprehend, yet he came out with little psychological damage because of how much he clung to the different purposes he created. That’s an example of how suffering can force you to create a life’s purpose.
One must keep in mind that it is possible to have more than one life’s purpose at the same time. They can be used as a driving force for your internal conflict, or the lack of one and the search for it can be the internal conflict. It is possible to play with many different versions of this theory to create a unique story.
While not everyone may fit into these types of internal conflict, they are a good starting point for a character who seems to have no or very little development. Determining the inner conflict can tell you more about a character than filling out thousands of questionnaires about their favorite things. It also brings humanity to the story as most of us can relate to one or all of these conflicts.
Keep in mind that not every conflict has a neat resolution or one at all. Play with the ideas, twist them and try to imagine how you’d character would react. Then you can get a solid internal conflict and a more developed character.