How to Build Epic Emotional Conflict by Utilizing Your Character's Lie
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In storytelling, there is external and internal conflict.
External conflict consists of the struggle between a character and an outside force, whether that be a person or some element of nature, society, or technology. Every story has a bit of external conflict, but those that are driven by it are known as plot-driven stories.
Internal conflict, on the other hand, occurs within a character. The character may struggle to stay true to their morals or beliefs in the face of pressure or temptation, or they may struggle to overcome some false belief, a "lie" they tell themselves that holds them back from living the very best version of their life.
It's this second type of internal conflict—the struggle between a character and their Lie—that we're going to break down today!
Should Your Story Include Internal Conflict?
Some stories thrive on internal—a.k.a. emotional—conflict. They're driven by it, which defines them as character-driven stories. But if your story is chock full of kidnappings, car chases, and other crazy fun action scenes (or gruesome ones, for that matter), that doesn't mean your story shouldn't also contain a bit of internal conflict.
As we discussed in our video lesson on crafting well-developed characters, humans are emotional creatures. We experience emotion deeply and respond to emotion viscerally. It's what connects us, what breeds empathy and positive action as much as it does anger and conflict.
When we, as writers, ground our stories in emotion, we create a level of realism that speaks to the human soul—our readers' souls.
So even if your story features enough action to rival the Indiana Jones franchise, internal action still has and should have a place in your story. I mean, even Indy had his struggles. Just think of how often he fought to maintain his values, no matter how big the treasure or how terrifying his enemies.
Indy's internal struggle may have been to stay true to himself—and I hope to write a full article on this style of internal conflict soon—but today we're going to focus on the second (and most popular) type of emotional conflict: the Lie your character believes. Let's dive in, shall we?
Two Ways A Character's Lie Can Play Into Their Story
Most genre fiction stories that include a Lie as the source of its emotional conflict follow one of two core plot lines. How you go about crafting your main character's Lie may depend on which type of story you're writing, so let's break them down first.
Plot-driven stories (which heavily feature external conflict) play out a bit like this:
1. A main character is introduced. They are, in some way, unsatisfied with their life.
2. The main character decides to take action they believe will bring them satisfaction.
3. The character faces difficulties in achieving their goal thanks to some sort of antagonist.
4. The character is initially unable to overcome these difficulties because of some Lie they believe about themselves.
5. The character avoids confronting their Lie until forced to do so by another character or a devastating loss.
6. The character overcomes their false belief, defeats the antagonist, and finds success in achieving their goal.
Character-driven stories, on the other hand, heavily feature internal conflict and play out slightly differently:
1. A main character is introduced. They are, in some way, unsatisfied with their life.
2. The character doesn't take any action to better their lives because of the Lie they believe about themselves.
3. A person(s) and/or series of events disrupts your character's life, giving them a taste of the happiness they can have while pressuring them to confront their Lie in order to attain it.
4. The character resists confronting their Lie until forced to do so by another character or a devastating loss.
5. The character overcomes their Lie, makes things right with those they've hurt, and finds their ultimate happiness.
There are, of course, plenty of stories that prove to be the exceptions to these core plot lines. But in terms of genre standards, most action-heavy stories play out according to the plot-driven story formula, while most character- and relationship-heavy stories follow the character-driven formula.
No matter which formula your story follows, defining your character's Lie is key to crafting epic emotional conflict that will hook your readers in and make them actually care about what may or may not happen to your character.
With that established, let's get to defining our characters' Lies, shall we?
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The Four Types of Lies Your Characters May Believe
When it comes to crafting your character's Lie, your options are virtually endless. The good news is that most Lies fall into one of four categories, making it easier for you to decide which you might utilize in your story. Let’s break ‘em down:
• Doubt. Your character doubts their capability to achieve a certain task or the trustworthiness of a person who could help them achieve happiness or satisfaction.
• Fear. Your character unjustly fears someone, something, or some element of their own psyche, leading them to avoid taking action that would bring them satisfaction.
• Flaw. Your character struggles with a negative personality trait or an emotional or mental flaw that they may or may not realize holds them back from finding success. (Alternatively, they may believe they have such a flaw when in actuality they do not.)
• Regret or Remorse. Your character believes themselves to be, in some way, unworthy of finding happiness or satisfaction because of a past failure.
You can tailor any of these false beliefs to create epic emotional conflict for your story. No matter your choice, the key to doing so successfully lies in ensuring that your character's Lie is crippling.
Despite any actions your character takes to achieve their goal or resist confronting their Lie, they absolutely cannot find happiness or satisfaction until they overcome this false belief. If your story is a tragedy, it's this belief that will mark your character's end.
With all that said, how can we choose a Lie for our main character that will drive the emotional conflict of our stories?
Let’s get actionable about this…
Crafting any old Lie for your character certainly won't be the most effective way to heighten your story. A good Lie is so valuable, it's become an inextricable part of your story. Don’t believe me? Take a look…
A powerful Lie informs your character's backstory, defines their worldview and personality, leads to their failures throughout your story's external conflict, creates tension in their relationships, heightens your story's stakes, and eventually leads them to a moment of emotional confrontation and transformation, laying the groundwork for their character development.
See? Crazy important! So, don't skimp out. Begin crafting a powerful character Lie that will inspire your story's epic emotional conflict by asking yourself the following questions:
• Who is your character?
• In what way are they unsatisfied with their life?
• What do they believe would bring them satisfaction?
• In an ideal world, how would your character achieve this satisfaction?
• What has kept your character from pursuing or achieving this goal thus far?
• How has your character's past informed their present hesitations to pursue or achieve their goal?
• How does this hesitation affect your character's confidence?
• How does this hesitation affect your character's relationships?
• Why does your character fear or refuse to stop hesitating and start taking the action necessary to overcome their dissatisfaction and find happiness?
• How might others use your character's hesitation for their own ends?
• Who or what has the power to finally force your character to confront their Lie?
• How will your character change after finally confronting their Lie?
• Is the way in which your character believes they will find happiness or satisfaction the way in which they will actually achieve it?
• If not, what would actually bring your character these things?
• What person or event would cause your character to realize their mistake and begin pursuing the right goal or lifestyle?
Defining your character's Lie and weaving it into your story's internal and external conflict can certainly be a lengthy process, but as evidenced by the many ways in which a powerful Lie can be inextricably tied to your story's success, I'd say it's certainly worth the effort.
So let's buckle up our seat belts and get ready to create, writers. Epic emotional conflict, here we come!
Writers, I hope you enjoyed today's breakdown of the Character Lie and how it can be used to build powerful internal conflict your story. Have any questions or tips + tricks for utilizing this characterization tool?
We're building an in-depth conversation on this topic over in our Well-Storied Facebook group, Your Write Dream. Click here to head on over (you may need to ask to join the group first) and jump into the conversation!