Great dramatic characterizations are a very nuanced proposition; that is, they often defy formulas or precedent. Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Jake Gittes in Chinatown all seem to have stepped into the middle of their respective stories fully formed and indelibly rendered. You don’t have to have been an actor to relate to Michael Dorsey’s desperation in Tootsie; you don’t have to hump a rifle through a rice paddy to share the abject terror and disillusionment of Pfc Taylor in Platoon. In watching these iconic films, you probably experience some disquillibrium, a combination of empathy and dismay.
I submit that what you’re actually feeling is internally conflicted. These characters are mesmerizing because they are internally conflicted as well. Internal conflict in dramatic writing is basically the darkest aspects of one’s backstory coupled with that individual’s greatest fears. Occasionally these elements are one in the same.
An example of this would be the I-am-becoming-my-own-father/mother motif, that is, characters who feel predestined to step into the paternal traces and repeat some grim legacy of dysfunction or abuse. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is perhaps the most prominent example of Oedipal conflict, but the theme arises in There Will Be Blood, The Judge, The Great Santini, and in virtually every sports-themed biopic ever made.
Wild (screenplay by Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed, adapted from her memoir) presents a nice twist on that I-am-becoming motif. The darkest aspect of Cheryl’s backstory is the self-destructive spiral that resulted in her (refreshingly amicable) divorce. Cheryl’s external conflict is completing (er, surviving) a 2,000-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl’s interior conflict is derived from her parenting, but it’s not about dysfunction—rather, Cheryl’s central fear is that she fail to honor her sainted mother’s legacy, that she never quite match Bobbi’s infectious optimism.
Thrillers and action films often revert to a default chestnut of interior conflict that involves a work-related debacle—a partner is killed by one’s malfeasance; something precious is lost, destroyed, allowed to be stolen. In this template, the protagonist’s greatest fear is that he or she miss a second chance at redemption. Clarice Starling, the protagonist of The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally, adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel), departs from that template, presenting a dark backstory that seems at first blush wholly unrelated to Clarice’s greatest fear.
In the film Clarice has gotten what amounts to her dream break—being tapped by her boss and mentor Jack Crawford (A mere trainee!) to assist on the hottest serial killer case in the nation. Their external conflict is a race against time; find and rescue the Senator’s daughter before Buffalo Bill harvests her skin. The darkest aspect of Clarice’s backstory is her late father, a rural sheriff shot dead in the line of duty. Clarice’s greatest fear is not that she also be killed (although that becomes a distinct possiblity), but that she be tested and found wanting—that all of her rigorous study and dedication can’t compensate for her white-trash Appalachan pedigree.
Interior conflict in love stories often turns on a character’s inability to access his or her own feelings, e.g., John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Jerry in Jerry Maguire, Alan in The Imitation Game. In these stories, the external conflict of The Work, or the task at hand serves as both a wedge and a kind of emotional refuge. Running a close second to this inability to access conflict would be the canard of worthiness, as in “I am not worthy of you.” A doomed romance, as depicted in, say, Titanic, is not solely about survival, it’s also about Jack’s interior struggle to be worthy of Rose.
My Top Ten All-time Favorite Internal Conflcits
Fegus, in The Crying Game
Barton, in Barton Fink
Pat in Silver Linings Playbook
Alan in The Imitation Game
John Nash in A Beautiful Mind
Jerry in Fargo
Cole in The Sixth Sense
Michael/Dorothy in Tootsie
Jerry in Jerry Maguire
Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List
Aloysius in Doubt
Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry
Lynn in The Sixth Sense
Viola in Shakespeare in Love
Ada in The Piano