As writers, we are told that all great drama must come from conflict.
However, this can easily be mistaken as having to force your characters into arguing about external things which tend not to reveal much about their characterization which should be at the heart of all good writing.
In order to make our work more interesting, we need to stop thinking about the conflict between characters and start thinking about how they are conflicted – both with one another, the decisions they need to make, and themselves.
But how do you create a great conflicted nature for your protagonist?
Check out this video essay that explores the conflicted natures of the characters in Halt and Catch Fire, and then continue on for four tips that will help you create your own.
Give it to Me Straight
Give your character a conflicted nature that can be easily explained, preferably in one word so that all of their neurosis can be linked back to a single fatal flaw that they possess.
In Inception, Cobb is plagued with guilt. In Finding Nemo, Marlin is controlling. In Sorry to Bother You, Cassius is relentlessly ambitious.
By giving a protagonist a conflicted nature that is easy to relate to and explain, it allows for them to experience dilemmas within the narrative in a more profound way since they will always react to situations that we place them in through this lens.
Also, their actions will be more truthful to them and give them a logical and organic development as they come to terms with this powerful force that drives them which is at the center of all the decisions that they make.
Offer a Ying to Their Yang
Give your protagonist a “mirror” in another character – one who offers them the opportunity to see the reverse of their conflicted nature.
With Marlin, his controlling nature comes from his inability to let go of the past. He then meets Dory who can’t remember the last few moments and has no chance of discovering anything about her past (at least in the first film).
This not only reveals to Marlin the worst aspects of his conflicted nature but also allows for the pair to find conflict with one another organically as their temperaments cause them to clash merely by being in one another’s company.
Pick at the Wound
During your protagonist’s journey in the narrative world, always make sure that you have created specific challenges to throw at them that makes them confront their conflicted nature.
In Inception, Cobb is constantly being forced to face his guilt Mal’s death causes him because she frequently appears within the dreams he goes into. At one point he must even admit to Ariadne that he has infused his own memories of Mal into the dreamscapes that he has created so that he is able to remember her. This is something that puts the whole team in danger further down the line as it becomes harder for Cobb to recognize what is a dream and what is real.
It’s the Journey, Not the Destination
A screenplay may contain amazing set pieces full of spectacular action and gripping stakes, but it is the emotional journey you create within the pages that an audience stays for.
More specifically, it’s the profound transformations that a protagonist goes through that they really love. Having an arc where your protagonist engages with and eventually grows beyond their initial conflicted nature is where the best drama lies.
Ramping up the challenge to their conflicted nature during the narrative and pushing them to engage with it in increasingly difficult ways is a great way to measure their development.
In Sorry to Bother You, as Cassius is drawn further and further into the machinery of the company that he works for, he sees the harm that his relentless ambition causes those around him.
Although he initially doubles down on his behaviors, it eventually becomes too much for him and he has to confront his conflicted nature and grow beyond it in order to save the day.
Creating external conflicts for your characters to navigate is an essential part of storytelling, but it all falls flat unless those characters battle with internal conflicts. It’s the growth that audiences are after — the journey from one side of the character arc to the other. The external conflict might be the ignition that gets them started, but the internal conflict is the fuel that keeps them going.