Monday Motivation: The hidden treasure of internal conflict
We’ve been talking about conflict at a weekend workshop in what must be one of the least conflict-ridden towns in the United Kingdom. Stow-on-the-Wold is a lovely Cotswolds wool town, distinguished by its honey-coloured houses built of soft Cotswold stone – and the number of its coffee shops and restaurants.
Present in one of the two airbnb houses we’ve taken over for the weekend are eight writers, both British and South African, who’ve come to immerse themselves in talk of literary conflict. This morning’s discussion swirled around the topic of internal conflict.
Conflict, we all know, drives story. Conflict, however, also drives character. It would be difficult to build story around a fictional character in whom conflicting lines of tension don’t exist.
One of the characters we devised is a politician who stands to win the battle for the leadership of his party. He’s risen through the ranks thanks in large part to the uninhibited prodding of an ambitious wife. Some people, though, doubt that he has the killer instinct required to succeed at the top level.
My question about our politician is: what could be the internal strains he experiences, the conflict that keeps him awake at night, the tension that might ultimately shape his choices and his destiny?
One answer we came up with is instructive. We conjectured that this character might feel trapped by the expectations not just of his wife, but of his colleagues, who’ve invested their hopes in him, and perhaps, calculate that they’ll be able to ride to power and influence on his coat-tails. It’s also entirely possible that thousands, no, millions, could have invested their dreams of a better future for them and their children in him.
The pressures could feel enormous.
I thought that was a really interesting take on the serpents writhing about in the politician’s head. This could have large story consequences.
It occurs to me that the expectations of others are naturally not confined to politicians – although, given the nature of their work, it might express itself in a particularly public way.
But everyone feels the weight of expectations of others. The child knows his parents expect him to be good. The teenage girl learns her boyfriend expects her to give out. The student who’s once excelled is expected to nail that double first: his parents, his teachers, his lecturers would all be hugely disappointed if he didn’t.
All of these expectations can be experienced as a heavy burden which can lead, in some characters at least, to unexpected consequences. To an explosion. To rebellion. To a bullish refusal to do the expected. And all of those unexpected consequences can constitute, in turn, interesting story.
Internal conflict exists in all human beings. Use your own experience to enrich the internal lives of your characters. A character with a dense inner life will yield story.
Stow appears on the surface to be a town without problems, a town full of sunny people going about their peaceful lives. But actually, in every single one of its citizens, internal conflict of one sort or another exists – and in some it’s building towards a dramatic climax.
Barbara Simmons, a writer on our course, and a resident of Stow, wrote a story about a mild-mannered male teacher who, in defiance of his wife’s stern injunction to desist, has taken to cross-dressing in private. He decides to venture out onto the streets of the town in make-up and his wife’s clothing. But almost immediately his disguise is pierced by three female students from his school. The story ends with this line: “Difficult times followed.”