Balancing internal and external conflict

Here’s a post at a site called AutoCrit: Internal vs. External Conflict: Balancing the Fight

[I]nternal and external conflicts are tricky to balance, and it’s easy to accidentally tip the scales one way or the other.

When things get out of proportion, you can end up with a grand, sweeping core conflict that does everything it needs to do in terms of exhilaration… but the characters feel flat. There doesn’t quite seem to be enough to them – and thus we aren’t fully invested in the overall outcome.

Swing the pendulum the other way, and you have deep, heartfelt characters that feel like our best friends. We care for them, we enjoy their company and we want to see them succeed… but the story becomes boring because they really don’t seem to do much of anything. There’s little for them to strive outwardly for, and the story itself feels one-dimensional and uninteresting.

Offhand I think we see a lot more Type One issues in SFF than Type Two. I can think of any number of grand sweeping epics where the characters are flat, and I bet you can too. For example, I felt that Ken Liu’s much-praised Grace of Kings was going in that direction and so I did not read on past the sample. I’m not even sure I finished the sample. We had Brave Boy and Bookish Boy, then disaster struck and Brave Boy saved Bookish Boy and . . . yeah, both characters seemed so flat to me at that point. If the disaster had played out the other way, I’d have been much more interested. Somehow that is the example that comes to mind for me, though I think we see grand adventures with flat characters more in science fiction than in fantasy.

The other way around, these great characters that you really connect to, but that don’t then seem to do much of anything, I don’t think we see that very often in SFF. Right? That is more something you expect in literary fiction. Except that I seldom have found characters in literary fiction very appealing. Realistic, maybe, but that’s something completely different. I’m thinking here of Tana French’s Into the Woods, where the characters are so well drawn, but the protagonist, driven by demons from his past, destroys his own life and pretty much his partner’s life during the course of the story. Triple ugh with a cherry on top, but I think you find that kind of thing a lot in literary fiction and far less in SFF.

This post goes on to define internal and external conflict and then offers solutions if you find your story has become unbalanced one way or the other:

Make every conflict a visible obstacle to the character’s goals

Give your characters complementary – or opposing – conflicts

Make your conflicts iconic

To me the most interesting point is this:

Internal conflict archetypes range from being driven to do what’s morally right in the face of overwhelming opposing forces, to wrestling with the darker side of your personality. Every one of us can relate to most internal conflicts, but an archetype arises when one becomes synonymous with the genre – or when the outcome becomes inevitable. Some may dismiss this as cliché, and on some level would be correct – but your job, as a writer, is to make the journey interesting. As long as you can do that, archetypes are generally not to be feared.

I agree. I have no problem with stereotypical situations or common tropes or clichés, as long as the writer has done a good job with the detail work. No trope or plot element or protagonist type is so stereotypical that it can’t be brought to vivid, unique life by a skilled author. Even if you’ve already encountered a hundred books where a young protagonist comes of age while fulfilling an ancient prophecy, I bet you will still enjoy Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series.

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