Inner Conflict That Sparks Readers’ Emotions

This is a guest post from C.S. Lakin from 

Writers are urged to develop strong character arcs for their protagonists (and for secondary characters as well). Why? Because characters who never change are often boring. 

With some genres, such as cozy mysteries—think of Agatha Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple—characters are not supposed to change at all. Those kinds of stories are all about solving a mystery. And often suspense/thrillers are about the wild ride of action, with the plot creating the tension that drives the story and keeps readers turning pages.

But most stories show some degree of character transformation, and inner conflict is the impetus for that change. Think about it—you aren’t going to change your convictions, opinions, attitudes, or tastes unless something challenges them. 

Change Starts with Persuasion

You might hate fruit until a friend convinces you to try a mango. Before you give in to the urgings of your friend, you are going to have a bit of inner conflict, some resistance, and you may or may not know the reason. 

This makes me think of Dr. Seuss’s famous book Green Eggs and Ham. Sam I Am tries to convince his friend (the unnamed protagonist) to try green eggs and ham, suggesting numerous ways to eat them, which he thinks might make them appealing. Finally, he persuades the friend, who, after all his protestations, discovers he loves green eggs and ham after all.

We are being persuaded all the time—to buy the latest gadget or car, to join a cause, to side with someone, to believe a statistic, to try a new restaurant, and on it goes. 

However, most of the “inner conflict” we experience in these moments is so minor as to not be worth featuring in a novel. Just as we don’t care about our friends’ small emotional ups and downs, we can’t expect readers to care about small emotional issues our characters deal with. Fiction should be larger than real life, deal with bigger issues, bigger emotions than everyday ones. 

Change springs from the resolution of inner conflict.

When what truly matters to us—our convictions and deep-seated passions—are challenged, the emotional stakes are high. That’s why, in our stories, we want to set the highest stakes possible for our characters—both personal and public stakes. Stakes are about what matters most to the character, whether it involves winning a baking contest, rescuing a mouse, or delivering a pizza.

High Stakes and Inner Conflict Spark Reader Emotion

Creating characters who are passionate about something provides the groundwork for high emotional stakes, for if what your character loves is threatened, a moral dilemma is created. What will she do, what will she risk, to save what she loves? 

Create a strong moral dilemma in your story, and emotions can run high—and you can move readers as well, if the dilemma brings universal issues into play.

Great characters have strong motivation. The protagonist’s core need drives her toward her plot goal for the book. This is basic novel structure. The inner motivation of your characters is what drives the outer action, and every character in your story should be motivated or driven toward something. 

A good question to ask of all your characters, especially before you start writing your scenes, is “What is missing from his life, and what will he do to get it?” If every character you have has unmet needs, that provides fertile ground for moral dilemmas, inner and outer conflict, high personal stakes, and tension. In other words, unmet needs create story.

When plotting your story, always think about creating circumstances for your characters that will force them to feel, to react emotionally. Put them in crucibles that will test them to their core. Give them the hardest choices possible. 

Make it as easy as possible for your readers to react—whether positively or negatively. But the last thing you want readers to feel is apathy or disinterest.

Why are inner conflict and transformation important to readers? Donald Maass speaks about an affect called “moral elevation.” When we read about people who are honorable, courageous, moral, self-sacrificing, it inspires us to act similarly. Those kinds of “higher emotions” move us to change our opinions, beliefs, and behavior.

It may not be your objective to spark a massive transformation in your reader (and that is hard to do), but we are drawn to heroic characters because we have an inherent attraction to these higher morals. We feel elevated when we bond with such characters. It fills needs within us, the desire to rise above mediocrity and insensitivity, to conquer sin, to exalt good over evil. Maybe that explains the popularity of superhero stories and movies.

That’s why it’s also hard to be successful with a novel that has dislikable characters. Those kinds of novel, like Gone Girl, rely on terrific plot and structure and lots of tension to keep readers engaged.

These two important elements: inner conflict and transformation—this is where the heart of the emotional content lies for each of your scenes and your novel overall.

Before writing your scene, set the emotional objective. Think about your scene and ask these questions: 

  • What emotional state will your character be in at the start? At the end? 
  • What events will transpire that will move your character from one emotional state to another? 
  • What is the purpose in starting and ending with those states? 
  • How does it help your story, your plot, and move your reader? 
  • Then think about the emotional response you hope your readers to have. Do you want your reader to be impressed with your character’s smarts? Stunned at his burst of anger? Cheered at his snark or his decision to stand up for his friend? Shocked at his reticence to speak up and defend? 

Doing this kind of questioning is key in preparation for writing a scene if you want to move your readers emotionally. And since readers read to respond, it behooves all writers to learn how to become masters at evoking emotion.

Want to learn how to become a masterful wielder of emotion in your fiction? Enroll in Lakin’s new online video course Emotional Mastery for Fiction Writers. If you enroll before September 1, using coupon code EARLYBIRD, you can get half off!

About The Author

C. S. Lakin is an editor, award-winning blogger at Live Write Thrive, and author of twenty novels and the Writer’s Toolbox series of instructional books for novelists. She edits and critiques more than 200 manuscripts a year and teaches workshops and boot camps to help writers craft masterful novels.

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