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Creating Complex Characters: Inner Conflict

By V. Prasad · October 19, 2011

There are two questions that speak to who a character is at their core:

1. What do they want?

2. How do they go about getting it?

These two things guide a character’s actions.  And, in drama, it’s the actions that tell us who a person is.

If you want to create a complex character, you want to create an inner conflict at your character’s core.  That means, creating a conflict in what a character wants or the approach he/she will take to getting it.

A character that is at odds over what he or she wants has two goals that will directly conflict within the story.  Often this is a conflict between what a character wants in the beginning and what that character realizes he or she needs along the way.  In The Apartment, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is torn between his desire to move up the ranks of his company and his love for his boss’s mistress.  He can have one or the other, but he can’t have both.  Clearly, his two goals don’t mix.

The character doesn’t necessarily have to make the right choice in the end.  In Capote, Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is torn between his first goal (1) to write In Cold Blood, the non-fiction book centering around the murder of a family of four in Holcomb Kansas that would prove to be his greatest work, and (2) his growing compassion for and desire to want to help the prisoners accused of the murders. However, these two goals oppose each other as Capote recognizes that his feelings for the prisoners deeply conflict with the need for closure for his book, which only an execution would provide. Eventually, he comes to terms that he can’t do both, so he must choose.

If characters are not conflicted over what they want, they can still be conflicted over how to get it.  In The Untouchables, Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) wants to bring Al Capone (Robert De Niro) to justice, but he’s torn between his belief in living by the letter of the law and the idea that sometimes you have to break the law to uphold justice.

Creating a strong inner conflict in what a character wants or how to get what they want is one of the most effective ways to create a complex character.