“I was tempted to deny I was capable of gutting and skinning him, but I had killed before.”
Who would say such a thing? Well, the tortured main character of my first-in-series novel, “Girl Desecrated”, of course. And if I wrote Rachel’s struggle correctly, the reader should be wondering if she’s going to gut Donald, the American, or not.
Rachel is consumed by a constant battle of wills against her alternate personality, who unfortunately, likes to hunt people. With the help of medication, her incredible strong will-power, and a strict rule regime, Rachel mostly keeps the other personality subdued. But sometimes, the She erupts, and then all hell breaks loose. Rachel’s battle is what literary geeks call internal conflict because she is fighting herself. (Pssst, I’m a literary geek).
A battle within oneself is internal conflict, and mental health is just one example of how a character can be internally divided. Another example of internal conflict is opposing morals. Take for instance William Cain, lover to Rachel’s “other” in “Girl Desecrated”. He’s a good man, isn’t he? And yet, the thoughts that run through his head are not the thoughts a good man should have…
In contrast to the dark grain of the coffin, her skin shone alabaster white, unflawed and as smooth as marble. And her mouth… My fingers twitched to trace those lips that were still full and dark like wine. Closing my eyes, the memory of the feel of those lips on mine caused a heady rush. My loins warmed beneath my funeral pants, jolting me to an awareness of my surroundings with a horrific sense of shame.
Gritting my teeth, I contemplated the magnolia’s grey trunk to defuse my passion. Dark with rivulets of rain, the trunk was as much a betrayer as her lips. For it too took me back to the recent past. It had been a silent witness to my hands gripping its bark above Scarlett’s hair as I had turned her mouth into a little circle of surprise with my heated thrusts.
Fantasizing about a dead woman at a funeral? That’s just nasty. And definitely something a God-fearing man should be ashamed of.
Notice how the character swings between his desires and his horror at the inappropriateness of those desires. This back and forth creates tension as we read, because we’re watching a struggle, and we don’t know whether he’s going to get his perverse thoughts under control before the people attending the funereal discover his dark preoccupation.
Another example of internal conflict is when the main character knows they should do one thing, but they want to do another. This is where the author can bring in low self-esteem, guilt, compulsion, etc.
Generally the root of the conflict leads to choices the character has to make, choices between good and evil, or appropriate and inappropriate, or healthy choices vs unhealthy choices. The trick is, the choice has to be something the character would not normally do or admit to. That’s where the deep soul torture comes in. This kind of torturous decision making, “should I?” or “shouldn’t I?” creates delicious tension in the reader, as they wait to see if the character can overcome the part of them that is causing problems.
It only took me ‘til six to burn through the last of my birthday budget. I cast a look around the pub. It was the first time I noticed the people sharing my space since I’d arrived. A few men were perched on time-scarred, wooden stools along the bar, regulars by the look of their defeated posture. Experience had taught me men are cheap and easy, so it wouldn’t take much to get a free beer. Normally.
Problem was, I had made a birthday resolution to not have sex or engage in any physical interactions or altercations with members of the male gender for one week. Sounds a little uptight, but those are the exact words Patrick used before pressuring me to agree.
Patrick tricked me into agreeing, really. He knows how much I want to get better and go to college. He felt it would be a helpful part of my therapy to swear off men for a week. He seemed to think drying out the well so to speak, would almost cure me. That seemed a little farfetched, considering my psychiatrist thought I was certifiably crazy, but hope is a valiant chum. And I needed all the help I could get, even if it was from my mother’s male nurse at the Homeward Sanitarium.
This example keeps the readers’ attention because they want to know if the character will stick to her promise to Patrick or offer herself up to a bar-goer in exchange for free drinks.
Internal conflict doesn’t work well alone. In “Girl Desecrated”, the “other” Rachel battles for control is named Scarlett – Scarlett does bad things when she gets out, and this is where the action comes in. When Scarlett is “out”, the conflict becomes external, because Scarlett has much different morals than Rachel. Scarlett treats people badly. Rachel has been treated badly. Sometimes they blend into each other, but Scarlett doesn’t get nicer… Rachel only gets meaner.
Except Man-boy. He was standing at the end of the table gazing wistfully at me, waiting for a reward for his gallant, if failed, attempts to intervene on my behalf. An impulse to crush his self-esteem, to make him pay for being the same gender as Donald, tempted me.
But that was my bad side, and I wanted to stop listening to my bad impulses. My psychiatrist, Dr. Casbus said I shouldn’t be cruel to others, no matter how much I’ve been hurt.
“Thanks for having my back,” I offered, generously, then instantly regretted it as he reached for a chair.
When Scarlett is in control of their shared body, she has effectively become the antagonist, and Rachel must battle her to stop bad things from happening, and to get control back.
But wait… if Scarlett is an alternate personality, isn’t that inner conflict? Or can a novel have two types of conflict for the protagonist?
Internal conflict generally presents less action than external conflict, unless of course, the inner conflict can be matched up with external conflict. Consider “Lord of the Rings” and Frodo. The ring is external. The weakness of “man” and Gollum in so quickly falling for the seduction of the one ring is character flaw. But the battle Frodo goes through in resisting the temptations of the ring is internal, partly because we go through it with him, and because it is a drawn out torturous journey.
A second example is Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games”. She’s living as an oppressed person in a world where there is a power imbalance. Normally, she would follow the rules, but the rules are not fair, and in order to feed her family, she hunts where she is not allowed to. However, she’s not a total rule-breaker and limits her rebellion to overcoming the “external conflicts” she and her family cannot survive, like starvation. Once in the games, she has to decide whether to kill. That’s an internal conflict, even though the external pokers are that she will be killed if she doesn’t fight.
Internal conflict can be created in a character through any number of stressful inner battles, from moral and religious standards, to poor relationship skills, to guilt, low-self worth, poor communication skills, mental health issues and personality traits.
The internal conflict works for a novel when the reader is encouraged to follow the conflict through to see how the character will resolve it, or be beaten by it. As an author, play it tight to the character and make it seem as if the characters themselves don’t know what’s going to happen either.
As a reader, just enjoy the juicy ride of internal conflict!
The above excerpts are from “Girl Desecrated” the first novel in “The Fergus She” series, which is available here. Click through to read more free chapters and see how Rachel fares in her battle against herself–the Scarlett.