At the heart of any good story is want. Characters are motivated by their desires, be it achieving a goal, avoiding a consequence, or some other obsession important to them. Conflict arises when obstacles arise that stop characters from their goals and they go for it anyway. (Apparently, not a lot of characters listen to the Rolling Stones.)
Now, it’s possible to just repeat this fundamental trick until the end of the story, and that makes for a fine plot on its own. It’s like a Mario game, where Mario keeps stomping Goombas and dodging Bowser’s fireballs until he finally rescues the princess. However, doggedly chasing after one goal can get boring and predictable after awhile; even Mario had to take breaks for medical degrees, go-karts, and wandering the contents of Bowser’s internal organs. So what’s a storyteller to do when what a character wants just isn’t cutting it anymore?
Add more wants, that’s what. If these new goals conflict with the old ones, so much the better.
After all, people as a whole aren’t just one-want beings. My goal is to become a successful author, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also want to in the meantime find a new job, travel across the country, and convince my cat to stop trying to knock over my bookshelves. These goals can cause conflict on their own—such as if my partner and I disagree about where to travel—or by working against each other, like if finding a new job meant more money for travel but less time for this author-to-be to write (and more time for the cat to knock things over). I wouldn’t call this a novel-level amount of tension, but examples still stand.
One of the easiest ways to set up an internal conflict in your characters is to give them an overarching goal, something that will take at least the course of a story to complete, and then a short-term goal that can threaten it. In my recently-released story The Orpheus Well, for example, the protagonist has an overarching goal of discovering the mystery of the titular Orpheus Well and its peculiar owner. However, her short-term goals often rely on her having to utilize the well’s powers to bring back the dead, serving to deepen the mystery but put her at risk.
Do the goals have to require the same amount of importance? Not necessarily, though they should both feel equally important to your character, in order for the conflict to feel impactful. If a character is torn between “rescue kidnapped family member” and “take a nap,” that’s going to feel contrived—unless the character hasn’t slept for a week straight and the family member in question is one they could live without. In “Bones and Bourbon” however, Jarrod has two goals that are wildly out of sync in the grand scheme of things: stop ancient evil spirit Nalem from wreaking havoc and possibly taking over the world, and rescue his younger brother Retz from Nalem’s clutches. Logically, stopping Nalem has priority since failing to stop him could harm a lot of people, and Jarrod knows this—but he can’t just let his brother die without a fight. Since both feel equally important to him, we get his character conflict.
Stories that go on longer (like a long-running comic or a novel series) can see goals change and evolve over time too, or even have new desires complicate matters. Could Jarrod later decide that something is a greater threat than Nalem, and leave the ancient spirit alone in order to confront a worse enemy? Sure, and that choice can cause conflict too, especially if the decision to leave Nalem alone has consequences. Or he could try to stop Nalem AND another threat at the same time, with complications arising from both, and just when he thinks one or both goals are achievable…bam!
Managing multiple goals can be tricky. They can just serve to deepen someone’s personality, or the whole novel can revolve around someone trying to reconcile their contrasting desires. But if you can pull it off, it can push your story into unexpected directions, keeping you and the readers racing through the pages.
Write on and follow your own wants, dearests. Until next time,