Creating Your Character’s Inner Conflict: Want vs. Need by K.M. Weiland - Usa
Man vs. Self—it’s the most archetypal of all stories. This is because all stories are ultimately rooted in the primal and personal struggle of a character’s inner conflict.
As individuals, our conflicts with others or the world itself are almost inevitably either reflections or projections of our inner conflicts—our cognitive dissonances, our conflicting wants and needs, sometimes even our conflicting wants and wants or conflicting needs and needs. Finding inner peace is ultimately about working through the chatter of the many competing voices in our heads (some of them accurate, all of them passionate) on our way toward understanding the following:
What each voice is saying.What underlying motivation each voice is representing.Which motives and desires are healthy and which are not.How to harmonize those that are healthy but still seem competitive.Letting go of some desires in favor of others.Coming to peace with all choices.Moving forward in holistic action based on those choices.
As I’m writing that list, it all sounds pretty lofty and serene. (I keep hearing Shifu from Kung-Fu Panda: “Inner peace… inner peace… inner pea— Would you please quiet down!”) But actually what that list describes is nothing more or less than the (positive) arc of a character over the course of a story.
In a story, that internal progression may be the forefront preoccupation of the author and the character. But more likely, the internal conflict is happening behind the scenes and under the surface of the external plot—which, as we’ve talked about before, can often be thought of as an external metaphor for the internal conflict. The external plot is the reflection/projection of the character’s inner struggle upon the external world.
Today, I want to take a closer look at that inner struggle. In discussions of character arc and theme, I’ve talked a lot about how a character’s inner conflict is framed around the dichotomous struggle between the Thing the Character Wants (which is Lie-based) and the Thing the Character Needs (which is Truth-based).
Although this black-and-white dichotomy is helpful for an at-a-glance understanding of the character’s inner conflict dynamics, we can find greater nuance by looking a little deeper at what is actually going on inside your character.
The Thing Your Character Wants: What Is It Really?
At its simplest, the Thing Your Characters Wants is the plot goal. Usually, the Want is part of a bigger picture—a desire or goal that existed prior to the specific conflict of your story’s Second Act—but it will funnel directly into your character’s plot goal.
Luke Skywalker’s Want is to escape his lonely orphaned adolescence and find a life of meaning and purpose in the larger galaxy. In the first movie, this translates to the specifically-iterated goal of wanting to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father”—a desire that progresses throughout the trilogy and frames his entire arc.
In any kind of Change Arc, the Want shows the Lie the Character Believes in action. The Want itself may not be a bad thing (more on that in a bit), but even if it is positive in itself, it represents a negative mindset or motivation. Within the character’s inner life, the Lie has created either a hole or a block. It is preventing the character from growing toward health; it may even be actively pushing him toward mental or moral sickness.
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