What makes a reader care about a character?

External conflicts may be necessary to a story. But they aren’t critical. Internal conflicts are.

Writers know what makes the engine of a novel run even before they sit down and type out their first words for a new story.

It’s conflict.

We wade through wide rivers, jumping from one conflict to another as if they were stepping stones left in angry currents.

But do we get it right?

Do we really know what conflict is?

Sure, one character is mad at another.

But is that enough?

Sure, life is unfair when a boss yells at his employee, or a first date leaves a widower alone at the coffee bar, or the detective receives a mandate to meet with Internal Affairs, or a spy forgets to come in from the cold.

But does a reader care?

Spats are commonplace in real life.

Spats are commonplace in novels.

If spats are the best conflict you have, all you are doing is convincing readers to quietly close the pages of your novel and run back to Amazon to look for another story.

I was reading a blog last week and came across the words of noted author Laurie Johnson. She wrote: “Basing conflicts on a misunderstanding, something that could be solved if only the characters were to have a simple conversation, is unsatisfying for the reader and something we see time and again from newer authors.

“All stories will have conflicts set out by the plot for the characters to overcome, the peaks and troughs of the journey the characters go on. These external conflicts may be necessary to move a story along, but it’s not what keeps a reader itching to turn the pages.

“The most satisfying stories also have the main characters dealing with their own internal emotional conflicts — something that is specific to them, that keeps them from the love interest, that makes the case they’re working on personal, that stops the quest they’re on from being easy. This internal conflict is what emotionally involves the reader in the story, in rooting for the character, and seeing the character conquer this in the end is what makes for the most exciting and enticing stories.

“The best way to create internal conflict is to really dig deep into the character. Think about what’s driving them, what their motivations are, what their background is, what has happened in the past to make them who they are. From this, think about the emotions they would experience when placed in situations that tap into their conflict and bring these out on the page.”

As Laurie says, external conflicts may be necessary to a story.

But they aren’t critical.

Internal conflicts are.

In Last Deadly Lie, I tried early on to establish the raw emotional scars behind the internal conflict that frightened attorney Tom Beecher.

He thought he had a secret.

He didn’t.

He was suddenly in conflict, and his life would never be the same again.

I wrote:

FOR MOST OF thirty-two years, the secret had been Tom Beecher’s and his alone. The old jailer was long dead. Oliver and Slick had just sort of drifted away. They were the kind to be gone for months before anybody missed them or realized they had left town.

Tom Beecher sat in the darkness of his Riviera and shivered. He could not forget the demonic gleam that had shone ominously from somewhere deep within Birdie Castleberry’s eyes.

She knew the truth.

He should have known. Birdie Castleberry made it her business to know the truth, even if it had been manufactured from twisted lies, no matter how sordid or incriminating it might be.

The truth was a powerful weapon. In a courtroom, it was the greatest defense of all. In the wrong hands, it could be devastating. Men would kill to keep certain truths veiled behind a curtain of secrecy.

Tom Beecher was one of them.

Birdie Castleberry, he decided, must know that, too. He was vulnerable, and she would exploit that weakness to her advantage every chance she got. For her, there was no statute of limitations.

As long as Tom Beecher lived, he would be a puppet on a string manipulated solely by her whims and wishes, and he would never be able to escape the hold she had on him. What she wanted, he would do. He had no choice.

Internal conflict is not merely suffocating.

Internal conflict will strangle him.

Please click HERE to find Last Deadly Lie on Amazon.

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