Character Development

Five Ways Your Protagonist Can Solve Inner Conflicts

The best stories have many conflicts going on at once. In your story, you can have the outer, most obvious battle between your protagonist and their overt antagonistic forces. But also, your protagonist could also be dealing with something inside them, some unresolved issues, or some haunt from the past. As they progress through the story, eventually overcoming the outer obstacles, make sure they conquer the inner ones as well.

Here are some practical ideas on how you can help them solve their inner conflicts. 

1. Have them review memories with fresh eyes.

Why this works: The moments in your protagonist’s past were tainted by specific perceptions in the moment. If your protagonist believed that her father always told the truth, then her memories come to a specific conclusion. But as she grows up, and realizes just how often her father lied, she can revisit specific moments, see the lies, question other actions, and this will reshape her present point of view. With this fresh perspective, she, no doubt, will be angry, but she might also be forgiving, of herself and others. This may even reshape her identity, which then could redefine her ultimate goals. 

What needs to happen first:  You have to do a lot of writing on your protagonist’s past to really do this well. You’ll need specific, powerful moments in their past that left lasting effects, either positive or negative. Your reader will need to be familiar with them too, so sprinkling them throughout your first and second act is critical. 

What could go wrong:  You can have too much of a good thing. It’s so easy, and arguably fun, to put in every single sentence of backstory that you’ve created for your character. Generally, beginning writers dump too much too soon. This is where beta readers can help. Ask them to highlight the unnecessary parts of backstory mentioned and cut it down as much as you can. Also? It may be tempting to write a prologue to set up this resolution. Prologues are tricky too — I suggest you try other methods first. 

2. Have them visit a professional mental health worker. 

Why this works: Therapy, generally speaking, is a good way for individuals to address their emotional problems. A professional therapist or counselor can see the problem from the outside in and point out inconsistencies, habits, and false premises that your protagonist might benefit from. 

What needs to happen first:  Most people resist the idea of seeing a therapist or a counselor, so decide whether or not this is a last resort choice for your protagonist. If it is, then you need to set up other plot points that will propel your main character toward this decision. You could also add the conflict of finding one that is appropriate and affordable, hiding these visits from others, accepting the perceived shame of not being able to “fix” yourself. 

What could go wrong: To be honest, the actual work of a therapist is dull and lengthy. No one gets “fixed” after a couple of visits. If you’re going to do this, then consider highlighting the most important revelations. And don’t forget to do your research! Reach out to a professional mental health care worker and ask them about procedures, therapies, and what specifically would be talked about in specific sessions. 

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3. Have them consider cutting contact with abusers.

It’s no secret that some of the reasons why we’re all so messed up in the first place is because we’ve had terrible relationships, possibly even abusive ones. In some cases, it is critical for someone to dissolve contact with toxic people so that they can be healed. Your protagonist could plausibly wrestle with this option. 

Why this works: It’s always wise to cut off the source of abuse, especially after you realize the damage that it’s doing. This would be doubly obvious for abusers who are addicted to substances or use s*x as a weapon.  

What needs to happen first: Your protagonist should probably wrestle with this option for a long time, especially if they are married to their abuser or have a child with them. “Just leaving” is so much harder than you would think. In fact, to be accurate, your protagonist could, plausibly, make excuses for the abusive people in their lives to the point that they don’t want to do anything about it. Then, as they move into limited or no contact, it needs to come over time, with difficulty and much sorrow. 

What could go wrong:  if you aren’t familiar with anyone who has experienced this, it would be easy to dismiss the process too quickly. 

4. Give them opportunities to share their stories.

Why this works: One of the best things you can do for your protagonist, and by extension, your reader, is to remind them that they are not alone in their suffering. Place your healing protagonist in a support group or public speaking scenario in which they can articulate what it is they faced. They could also lead marches, organize fundraisers or write articles. 

What needs to happen first: you must have a protagonist who is willing to be vulnerable. Revealing what “really” happened can be intimidating to the best of us. You must also create trustworthy friends who can help your main character find these opportunities. 

What could go wrong: these opportunities don’t come overnight, so don’t depict them that way. Show the struggle your main character would have in accepting these invitations and wrestling with what to say. 

5. Have them shore up neglected boundaries.

Often people who are emotionally damaged aren’t sure what normal looks like. It takes practice, and many mistakes, to understand the necessity of boundaries with friends and family.

Why this works: boundaries are necessary for good mental and emotional health.

What needs to happen first: give examples of when your main character was didn’t protect their boundaries well so that the reader can see that improvement has occurred.

What could go wrong: Show me a person who is learning to reinforce their personal boundaries and I’ll show you their friends and family who don’t understand. Don’t assume in the writing of this character that everyone who loves and cares for him will agree with these new restrictions. They may argue or reject or completely disown your protagonist for doing this. 

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.