What is Your Character's Internal Struggle?

Tuesday, July 07, 2015
In a novel or short story, most of the time, the protagonist has an external struggle that he is working through until the resolution. An external struggle could be anything, really: the most powerful evil wizard who wants to kill you, a wicked witch who wants the very shoes off your feet, or even Mother Nature who can create the perfect storm. 

When readers discuss novels or talk about a short story, the external struggle is usually the first thing mentioned. For example: "It's about this man whose wife and child were killed by a serial killer; and while seeking revenge, he uses his keen people reading skills to solve crimes." 

But all of the stories on your nightstand or in draft on your computer or saved on your DVR should (and probably do) have a protagonist that has an internal struggle. An internal struggle is just as important as the external one. Does your protagonist lack self-confidence, suffer from greedy tendencies, or fear falling in love? What does your character struggle with in the middle of the night, when alone and looking in?

Think about your own internal struggles--most of us have more than one and most of them come from something in our past that has happened externally. Think about how you act in certain situations where you feel uncomfortable or how you go about making an important decision--most likely how you behave stems from your internal struggle. The characters in the fiction you are writing need to have an internal struggle that you as the writer know and understand AND that affects most of the decisions in your story.

So before writing any more on your work-in-progress, here's an exercise you can do to be certain you have thought through these two struggles. Write down or type out the following:

1. My protagonist's external struggle (s) is _______________________________. 
2. He/she solves this external struggle (or problem) by _____________________________________.
3. My protagonist's internal struggle (s) is _________________________________________.
4. Throughout the novel, this internal struggle will cause problems because __________________.
5. In the end of the novel, the internal struggle will _______________________________. (example: not be solved, but cause my protagonist to take a chance on love he normally would not have)

Once you have these five points clear in your head, I believe your writing will be stronger for the reader and easier for you. If you're having trouble filling out those five sentences, then try the exercise on a couple of your favorite novels or TV shows before you tackle your own work-in-progress. 

Just remember, of course, everyone loves a hero who slays the dragon and saves the princess. But everyone really adores the hero who overcomes his fear of facing a dragon, then slays it, and saves the princess. 

Margo L. Dill teaches novel writing and children's and YA writing in the WOW! classroom. To find out more about her and her books, please check out her website: http://www.margodill.com .   

keyboard photo above by orangeacid on Flickr.com 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--My protagonist is externally struggling with trying to chew her way out of a finished story. Her internal struggle: she keeps wondering why the author is still not finished with the manuscript...

Seriously, thanks for the post. Constant reminders might serve as a much-needed cattle prod.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Going into the writing process, I know what both the external and internal struggles are but draft 1 is almost entirely external; draft 2 adds the internal.

Renee Roberson said...

Sioux, thanks for that laugh. I have a few protagonists who probably feel the same way about me!

Great post, Margo. My latest YA manuscript includes a young woman dealing with a stalker, and I assumed her fear of him and what he might do next provided enough tension in the book. But reading this, I see that what she is dealing with is mostly an external struggle, and it might be wise to add in another layer with a separate internal struggle. Now I have to zero in on what that will be! I'll do like what Sue suggests, adding the internal struggle in the revisions.

Margo Dill said...

Some day, you can tell your character: "see it was worth the wait."

Margo Dill said...

Good point, Sue . Everyone has a different process.

Margo Dill said...

Renee: if you can somehow make that internal struggle relate to the external struggle, you can really soar then, in my opinion

Margo Dill said...

Renee: if you can somehow make that internal struggle relate to the external struggle, you can really soar then, in my opinion

Sheila Good said...

Excellent and succinct post on character struggles. Thanks for sharing.

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