Part 5: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em


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Today’s post is the 5th in a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization”

Part 5: Inner vs. Outer Conflict – the Clash of the Demons

In part 1 of this series on character, I suggested that the one single word that best describes “story” is conflict.  While some like to argue the point – there are abundant writers who will argue virtually any point – it remains irrefutable that conflict is essential to good storytelling.

In that context, conflict refers to what opposes the hero in their quest to achieve whatever it is they need to do, win, accomplish, avoid, find, understand or otherwise attain.  That conflict makes it’s first full frontal appearance at the first Plot Point of the story, and after that the hero’s new journey in the story is launched.

There may be conflict beforehand, but only at the First Plot Point do we understand where the hero must go — literally and/or figuratively — from that point forward, and in context to the conflict at hand.

In good stories things aren’t quite that simple. 

Because in good stories our heroes are complex, they’re conflicted, they’re multi-dimensional.  Sometimes they aren’t even all that likeable –which, by the way, is a less-critical criteria for a protagonist than the essential need to empathize with what the hero needs to accomplish.

The hero can be a complete ass, but if their role is to save some kids from a kidnapper, then we empathize, we root, we care.  Think Bruce Willis here.

We may not like the character getting drunk out on a camping trip, but we can certainly empathize when a hungry bear targets him as its next meal.

Often that inner complexity – some call it being F.U.B.A.R., look it up – gets in the hero’s way.  It becomes, in effect, yet another obstacle as they strive to overcome whatever external barriers you’ve diabolically put in their path. 

That guy running from the bear, for example.  He’s drunk, by his own doing, which complicates things greatly.  Because the bear is not drunk. 

These self-oriented issues become an inner landscape of human psychology that drives and effects – and often hinders – -the actions and decisions the character needs to make in the story.  They arise from and link to backstory, and they can be influenced by a world view and a system of values that may be contrary to their quest.

You could think of these as inner demons, the things that make someone their own worst enemy, especially in context to the story at hand.  If, in the above example, Bruce Willis couldn’t stop drinking while trying to save the children, or when camping under a “Beware of Bears” sign, then there you are… an inner demon is in play.

The Two Levels of Conflict in Every Great Story

Every great story presents two levels of conflict for the reader’s pleasure: one, an external obstacle to the hero’s quest, and two, an internal demon that hinders the character’s ability to make the best possible decisions under pressure.  An inner drive, belief system or kink that makes them weak, that temps , diverts , seduces, that blinds them to the truth, that summons them toward skewed values and warps their ability to see things straight.

Examples: deeply-held religious beliefs (say, prompting one to turn the other cheek to a hungry bear), a parental hatred, a resentment and distrust of authority, or some clinical issue such as fear of heights, claustrophobia, agoraphobia and a long list of other phobias.  Each of these issues could easily get in the way if the hero needed to make a better decision.

Tom Cruise comes to mind as the hot-shot pilot Maverick in the film Top Gun.  His thing was assing-out as a vehicle of rebellion, making foolish decisions that put him and his wingman (Goose, who ended up a regular on E.R. after Cruise got him killed in this movie) in peril because he needed to overcome the stigma of his father’s military failures, to appear fearless and bold, to stand out in a crowd, to be a cowboy in a world that runs on discipline.

If the inner demon was allowed to remain in control, the story would be less satisfying than if the hero found a way to grow, to overcome that which was in their way.  This overcoming of the inner conflict comes prior to and is thus enabling of the hero’s ability to conquer the exterior obstackes.

Read that again, stated slightly differently: the overcoming of an inner conflict is prior to the final showdown with the antagonistic form, and thus becomes an enabling factor with respect to the hero’s ability to conquer exterior obstacles.

How they learn to overcome their own weaknesses and shortcomings is the essence of storytelling within the realm of character.  It is among the most critical missions that you, the author, have before you.

It is called character arc.  And without it, your story will fail.

Photo credit: Magnera

Next post: Crafting the all-important Character Arc.


Filed under Characterization Series

7 Responses to Part 5: Characterization – How to Make Your Readers Love ‘em Instead of Leave ‘em

  1. Pendragon

    AAAAAK! You just slapped me in my face with my own book. I totally establish an “inner-demon” flaw in my MC at the beginning of the story, but once he goes to the “new world” it goes away. I just never saw that “flaw” for it’s potential. Slap slap slap! Thank you

  2. Bravo Coach Larry.
    I surely have to attach this piece into Story Structure/

  3. @Pendragon (terrific user name, by the way) – At the risk of waxing a bit too philosophical this early on a Tuesday morning… this is why I love the writing life, it’s a seminar on life in general. And sometimes a good slap upside the head is just what we need.

    @Poch – thanks. Love having you here.

  4. Patrick Sullivan

    This one is rather appropriate for the MC on a story I’ve been poking at, though I’m about to back burner it because there are too many holes in it that I haven’t filled yet.

    It’s kind of funny in a way how the negative traits of characters is what seems to make people like them the most, up to a point anyway. Part of me understands it but it’s still a weird thing to think about.

  5. Keep ’em coming Larry. This is brilliant stuff. When my first novel is published…I’m dedicating it to you! Well…you, my dad, my husband, and Romo my Yorkie.

    I’ve looked so long for this type of teaching. I’m still amazed and thanking God that the Procrastinating Writer site led me to yours.

    Don’t stop now Larry….MORE! MORE! MORE!

  6. “this is why I love the writing life, it’s a seminar on life in general.”

    This is why I enjoy reading about the writing process, too!

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series on characterisation. Again, I love the way we weave in and out of the film world, looking at what screenplays and novels have in common. I can create characters much more easily than I can create compelling, complex, satisfying plots.

    Thanks for the link, by the way. I was so keen to get stuck into Part 5, I missed it first time round! A friend over at my blog was asking me to expand on what you say about musicality and writing. I shared some of my views, but if you have a moment sometime, I’d appreciate it if you could share a few of yours with her.

  7. This series reminds me of my highschool days in the theatrical arts (cough… yeah I know highschool theatre..ok we did suck.).
    My teacher always said…you need to put yourself away… and think as another who has gone through thier own trials and triumphs. To portray them truthfully. Their fears and hopes are only a small corner of their pshyce. I found in my writing that dialogue becomes much easier once you have that down.

    ____On a completely differnet note: I just sent in my completed manuscript….____

    My truest fear is that there is something more I could have done. Maybe my characters weren’t real enough or maybe too real. Maybe my structure was off or……. well this could get ugly so I’ll stop.

    Once you’re a published author and best seller….. do you ever get over that feeling?