Today’s fiction writing exercise comes from my book, Story Drills: Fiction Writing Exercises, which offers lessons and exercises designed to boost your skills as a storyteller. Today’s exercise looks at characters’ struggles, which are essential to good storytelling. Enjoy!
Characters’ Internal and External Struggles
In order to develop a truly compelling character, it’s critical for an author to know what the character wants and what’s standing in the character’s way.
If you want to create a complex character, identify an external goal and an internal struggle for the character, and make sure the goal and struggle are at odds with each other. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen struggles internally because she doesn’t want to hurt anyone; however, to survive the Hunger Games, she needs to kill her opponents—survival is her external goal. This pits her personal values (don’t harm others) against her external goal (survive).
When a story demands that a character challenge or reevaluate their internal goals and values, things get interesting. This is a surefire recipe for some much-needed conflict.
Another strategy for developing internal and external conflict is figuring out what a character wants and what a character needs. When a character’s wants and needs clash, conflict arises naturally, and the character becomes infinitely more interesting.
Choose three protagonists from books, movies, or TV shows and identify an external goal and an internal struggle for each one. Then write a paragraph about how the external goal and internal struggle are in conflict with each other.
For this exercise, create a new character with an external goal and an internal struggle that are in conflict with each other. Make sure you describe what’s at stake for this character.
How often are our values or personal goals challenged in real life as compared to in fictional stories? How do stakes and consequences factor into the decisions that characters make when choosing between goals and morals? Can you explain, in your own words, why the conflict between a character’s external goals and internal values is interesting and useful in a story?