When Characters Are in Conflict with Themselves: Psychology & Folk Wisdom

writing conflict with self "When Characters Are in Conflict with Themselves"

The basis of conflict and tension are obvious when two (or more) characters are competing for the same goal, such as a promotion, or when a character is beset by physical danger such as a life-threatening cancer or an approaching hurricane. A threat of any sort to the character or to someone (or something) the character cares about is an excellent source of conflict and tension. But using internal conflicts can add just as much power to your plot.

You can’t have your cake and eat it, too = approach-approach conflict

The character has multiple appealing options but can take only one—e.g., two marriage proposals, only one dessert from a tray of twelve, only one new car, etc. This type of conflict creates the least tension because there is no real downside. It’s all good.

candies to represent approach-approach
Approach-approach conflict: the character has multiple appealing options

Between a rock and a hard place = between the devil and the deep blue sea = an avoidance-avoidance conflict

Will the character get back surgery or live with the pain? Wash the car or rake leaves? Stay in an unhappy marriage or get a divorce? The reader may feel more sympathy than tension. The level of tension depends partly on the pain the character suffers while weighing the alternatives, and partly on how bad the options are. For example, Sophie’s Choice: to save herself and one child at the price of choosing to send one child to the gas chamber, or refuse to choose and sentence all three of them to death.

Take the bitter with the sweet = an approach-avoidance conflict: one goal with both positive and negative aspects, ultimately resolved in favor of the stronger

Virtually all relationships as well as many other aspects of life fall into this category. One factor affecting the amount of conflict or tension is how nearly the positive and negative aspects are matched (the closer they are in strength, the greater the tension). If an otherwise perfect spouse has one annoying habit, probably no big deal, the marriage is solid; if a buyer is drawn to a white picket fence but the house is practically falling down and overpriced, no-sale is a pretty safe bet. But if a deeply flawed spouse has nearly as many annoying habits as good ones—if the house is in a perfect location with a great school district and enough yard for the seven dogs—it could be a game changer. Comparable positives and negatives will create lots of tension.

A second factor is how important the ultimate outcome is. If I want a Ph.D. to qualify for a college professorship but don’t want to spend the time, effort, and money to go for it—not to mention the risk of failure—big decision, lots of tension potential. If I want a bag of chips from the vending machine but think $2 is an outrageous price—not much tension.

The positive (which pulls the character to approach) and the negative (which pushes the character to avoid) are what psychologists call “valences.” Both diminish with distance—time, physical distance, space. Something far away will affect the character’s immediate behavior and feelings less than something that is imminent.

Love and approach-avoidance conflicts

Love is always a high-voltage relationship, so let’s consider the special instances of approach-avoidance conflicts reflected in absence makes the heart grow fonder; out of sight, out of mind; and can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

Absence makes the heart go fonder when, with distance, the negative qualities or aspects of the date/lover/spouse exert less influence and the push-away diminishes; the person doesn’t seem so bad. If you aren’t actually hearing the obnoxious laugh, smelling the bad breath, or arguing about politics, the heart grows fonder—though maybe not fond enough to renew the relationship.

Out of sight, out of mind is the opposite: positive value diminishes with distance until the original attraction may have no more pull at all. The sweet kisses don’t mean so much when you aren’t getting any! Ditto sense of humor, help with chores, being a good listener. This is often the source of the “Dear John” letters received by people in the military, in prison, in college far away, etc.

In terms of conflict and tension, can’t live with ’em and can’t live without ’em is the best. One brief detour into psychology: negative valence declines more sharply than positive valence. Soooo, when both valences are significant, the case sometimes evolves in which the sharp decline in the negative crosses the slower decline in the positive valence.

Approach-Avoidance Illustartion
Approach-avoidance conflict: the character must weigh the positive and negative aspects

The point where the valences cross is the point of vacillation: closer, and the relationship is so negative that one or both parties withdraw. With greater distance, the positive stays strong longer than the negative and the couple gets back together. These yo-yo relationships can go on for years. This could happen with any type of relationship—playmates to spouses. Whole books have been written by and about couples who marry, divorce, and remarry.

Takeaway for writers

Good writers need to be good psychologists whether or not they ever studied the discipline or use the lingo, just be sure the positives and the negatives are believable for the character and appropriate to the conflict.

Second takeaway

Characters in conflict within themselves can provide plenty of page-turner tension!

Related Posts

Psychology For Writers series

Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge?

Toxic People Are Great

Writers Need Toxic Relationships

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters: Guest Post on Thrill Writers

More on Characters

Frangible Characters

Quirking Your Characters

Writers on Writing

What’s in a Character Name?

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen

December: Who Knew?

Maybe I’m alone here, but I was surprised to find how much more there is to December than the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, snow, and snowmen.


For one thing, it’s the birth month of both basketball (1891) and Bingo (1929). It’s also, Colorectal Cancer Education and Awareness Month, National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month, National Tie Month, National Write a Business Plan Month, Rising Star Month, Safe Toys and Gifts Month, and Spiritual Literacy Month.

Most of these are pretty obvious, but Rising Star Month urges people to reach for the stars by designing a personal life plan: review the past year and design—or revise or redesign—a life plan for the year ahead. If you’re interested, you can view www.RisingStarMonth.info or email info@RisingStarMonth.info.

Spiritual Literacy Month promotes respect for and among the world’s religions by engaging people to explore the sacred texts of humankind. People committed to this month organize discussions at libraries, community centers, coffee houses, houses of worship, and private homes. You can get free booklets containing selections from a text under study and open-ended questions related to the text to encourage dialogue.

I wonder how many people are involved with these numerous (and varied) organizations, how much time they spend on them, how much their identities are tied up in these activities. And FYI, if you didn’t know about National Cookie Cutter Week (Dec. 1-7) join the Cookie Cutter Collectors Club. Really. You can look it up!


Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge?

Writing Relationships: Why Not Get the Hell Out of Dodge?
In recent blogs, I talked about toxic mother-daughter relationships, toxic relationships in general, and toxic people.Toxic anything is good for writers! But once you’ve introduced these negative relationships and people, you cannot—satisfactorily—leave your reader wondering why s/he puts up with that. After all, there are planes, trains, and automobiles—not to mention boots that are made for walking!
Even if your characters don’t recognize their motives, you—their almighty creator—should know what they are AND should let the reader know.


So, why does s/he put up with it? The short answer is, it’s the best perceived alternative! People are very rational creatures, and they always make that choice. The complexity here is in the word perceived. Not everyone sees a situation the same way.


For example, the objective reality might be that a battered woman would be better off out of that marriage. But if she doesn’t see that, it ain’t gonna happen. So consider what her point of view might be. Suppose she came from a family with spousal abuse and accepts it as part of the package. Perhaps she fears for her life, or the safety of her children, if she leaves and he finds her. What if he threatened to commit suicide if she leaves and she couldn’t stand the guilt? Maybe she thinks it’s her fault—and/or, her self-esteem is so low that she thinks she deserves it. Maybe she doesn’t see a way to keep a roof over her/their children’s heads and food on the table single. Perhaps she loves him and lets him beat her because for his own twisted reasons, he needs to do so. Perhaps leaving/divorce goes against her religious beliefs. Etc. All of these reflect beliefs or values not universally held—and beliefs or values not universally held often apply to perceptions about leaving a toxic situation or relationship.


Additionally, consider the legal constraints on minors, military personnel, prisoners, employees, etc.


Perhaps your character is highly motivated to avoid conflict, criticism, gossip, embarrassment, rejection by family or peers—or even fears the unknown.


Takeaway for writers

Show the reader your character’s perspective.