Once again, the exercises in this chapter have you fooled. They read easy, but once you get writing you realize you don’t know your characters as well as you thought.

I struggled to find my MC’s inner conflict. It’s not as cut and dried as in real life when we battle with our insecurities, conflicts of interest, self-doubt, and compromises.

I went to my trusty community of writers on Facebook to brainstorm this a little, and it wasn’t until late last Tuesday night that Jo Eberhardt, a friend, asked the most important question: Why? As she flung one why after another, it became this domino effect of whys. Ultimately, it’s all about digging deep down to your character’s core. If you don’t understand why your character has a deep desire to reach his goal, you won’t be able to discover his inner conflict.

Here’s what the Great Maass says about inner conflict:

A step beyond the technique of adding character dimensions is investing your protagonist with two goals, needs, wants, longings, yearnings, or desires that are in direct opposition to each other. Wanting two things that are mutually exclusive means to have inner conflict, being torn in two different directions, and that is what makes a character truly memorable.


Another writer friend, Rick Bylina, pointed out that in the World of Donald Maass, motivation is key. So in the end, we have this deep-rooted yearning that motivates our protagonist to achieve his goal. In this chapter’s exercises, Maass asks us to think about the protagonist in the entire novel as a whole, what is it that she wants the most?

After getting hammered with the whys of why publishing Julius is so important to Corinne, it turns out that it all has to do with redemption. She allowed her beliefs to lapse and now from guilt, she desperately wants to redeem herself and honor her grandparents and their fellow travelers. Julius is that symbolic gesture. Nothing will get in the way of fulfilling her dream: not a partner who has a personal agenda to revive his career; not a paranoid Congressman, who suspects that she in cahoots with a former radical activist. She will give up everything for the magazine to succeed and for redemption.

The next step is to write the opposite: Pursuing her dream will put her in the same position as her blacklisted grandparents—a life under scrutiny and suspicion. There’s also the added caveat that she’ll attract unwanted attention onto others who were connected to her family and became quiet activists. Does she redeem herself to honor her grandparents with the risk of harassment? Or would she be better off investing her time and energy in other projects, revolving around her radical interests and lead a quiet, and non-confrontational life–one she knows won’t shine the spotlight on others.

So now that I have this settled in my mind, what’s next? Maass asks how the protagonist can want both simultaneously. What would cause your protagonist to want them both? What steps would she actively take to pursue those conflicting desires?

I have it set up where she faces several external conflict or obstacles that force her rethink her primary desire. There will be times that she’s ready to quit, but my protagonist is not a quitter and believes, to an extent, she can do both, regardless of the hurdles she needs to jump. As the story progresses, she will have outside help. Readers will see (as will the protagonist) that she is better suited and will be happier pursuing the opposite and, in fact, she can honor the legacy of her grandparents ideals.

Next item on the agenda: rework several scenes.

Lessons learned:

  • Before you even think of an opposing conflict as yourself why your protagonist has a deep desire. Dig deep. For every answer you get, ask why again and again.
  • We all have inner conflicts in the real world. Inject that into your protagonist.
  • Life is not perfect and neither should the world your protagonist inhabits. Give them something to think about and struggle with the notion of pursuing something entirely different.
  • Don’t think of that internal conflict as a second option for your protagonist. It can serve as a lesson and show how he has grown in the story.