The Two Wolves
I'm going to jump into the guide to internal antagonists in a moment, but first I want to tell you a very short story. It's a very old story, to which I've seen various origins ascribed, and, given its simplicity, I suspect has risen independently with small variations many times in the history of the world:
A young man came to his grandfather one day, distraught, asking for his counsel.
"I try to be a good man," he said, "but it is hard. Sometimes I am angry when I know I should be patient, sometimes I am greedy when I know I should be generous."
His grandfather smiled at him, and explained, "In each man there are two wolves, one dark, one light, and they are forever fighting. Each is strong, each is fierce, each may serve your ends, but always, always, they are battling one another."
"But Grandfather," asked the young man, "which one is stronger?"
His grandfather smiled and shrugged. "The one you feed."
Now, there is one moral in this story for most people, that there is good and evil in each of us, and our judgment and will determine which gains the upper hand, but there is a second one for writers. This second moral is that good and evil, by their nature, tend towards a tumultuous sort of balance. In practice, this is in large part because the dividing line between what is considered "good" and what is considered "evil" moves in the direction of whichever is gaining ground.
For writing purposes, though, we should take this instead as a reminder that no character is completely good or evil, and that being good or evil does not, in itself, make you either strong or weak.
A Guide to Internal Antagonists
Internal antagonists are those things within the character, and within us all for that matter, that stand between us and our goals. They are large and small, great and minor, fearsome and benign, but the one thing they all have in common is that they stem from within our inner selves. They gain their power from us, and we can't outrun them. Instead, we must overcome them using the better things within ourselves.
As outlined in the intro chapter, we have chosen to break antagonists down into four main types, and the internal antagonist is the one we’re going to tackle first.
As anyone who's ever tried to keep a New Year's resolution or difficult promise knows, there are few battles more difficult than changing ourselves. There is no enemy who knows our weaknesses and insecurities as well as we do.
It is a shame, a true shame, that the internal antagonist is so often overlooked by writers, particularly early on in their career, because great heroes and great villains are often made or broken by their internal antagonists. Most of what's happening in everyone, real or imagined, is happening beneath the surface--or, if you prefer, the defining concept behind the word depth in the context of writing.
If someone put me on the spot and asked me to choose one single dividing factor between an competent writer and an author with a real shot at The Big Time, I would say, “Whether or not they create great internal antagonists.”
Of course, there is no such single dividing line, because writing a good story is just damned complex, but the importance of the internal antagonist to your story can never be overstated.
Getting the Internal Antagonist Started Right
Just realizing that internal antagonists need to be included is a great start, but there’s more to it than that: the internal antagonist can be handled clumsily, stupidly, and in a fashion that makes it laughable, rather than engaging. So that's bad. We don't want to do that.
For many writers, the next step from realizing that their characters need to be written with more depth is to whip out a literary steam shovel and give them all the depth! Gone is their invincible, perfect, loved-by-all Mary Sue! Here in her place is their orphan, rape-survivor, devil-may-care, beaten, sorta-broken-but-not, hard drinking, fallen warrior princess, with clinical depression!
To me, the defining example of this comes from the mystery genre:
It is a trope-and-a-half to have the smoking, brooding, alcoholic-with-a-dead-wife detective, for example. Bonus points if he's romantically entangle with either a hot young DA or some sort of stripper-prostitute with a heart of gold. Extra bonus points if his last name is a noun. Extra extra bonus points if it's a noun for something hard or metal. That's been done more times than there been books written about it. I'm pretty sure if we tallied it all up, we’d find there are five main character alcoholic detectives with dead wives per mystery/thriller book ever written, per capita.
Creating Believable Complexity
People are ridiculously willing to suspend disbelief, if you give them half a reason to. So if you're creating characters that don't feel believable, well, let's not kid ourselves here, you're really messing up.
How do we avoid this?
By observing people. By careful considering the expressions, their actions, and, above all, their motivations. There is exactly one human in the whole world who's inner actions each of us can directly relate to their outer actions (spoiler: it's you), and for all the rest, we must infer. Or, alternatively, we might ask. And then we must attempt to differentiate truth from lie.
This is tricky, but it will pay off. This takes time, and it's a lot of work. You've just got to pay the dues on it. If it's any consolation, the rewards go far beyond better writing.
We have to create the sort of unique complexities that all humans have within our characters, the good and the bad. Some of these are overt, most are very subtle. This is very hard to in comparison external factors—things you can put a name and a face to are easier to handle. Just as in real life, sometimes it’s more difficult to accept the inner truths and inner battles than the external ones. We like to blame outside forces for our own shortcomings and failures, because it hard to acknowledge anything is our fault.
So, in a somewhat ironic twist of fate, one of the things standing between us, as writers, and creating characters with convincing internal antagonists is our own real-life internal antagonists. How about that?
In many cases, internal antagonists do not need to be flamboyant or overwhelming, and may even serve better if they are subtly implied rather than overtly explored, and not something our characters have the self-awareness to address directly.
Yes, this is just me rehashing that oldest and tiredest of writing saws: Show, don’t tell.
I don’t think I really need to explain that, but just in case . . . What I mean by this is, for example, that we do not say, "Disgraced detective-turned-PI Dick Hammer suffers from crippling self-doubt."
We don’t have the narrator (us) literally spell it out in words. Nor does our character does say, "I'm former detective Dick Hammer, and I suffer from crippling self-doubt and drink too much."
Instead we take a squirrelly route there. We put Detective Dick Hammer in a moderately-difficult situation, and then let his failings royally screw him over. Good writing often involves a somewhat paradoxical economy of words, where we say as much as we can with as little as necessary, but we simultaneously create plots and subplots with the intent of throwing off the readers who are trying to follow us, just enough to make it fun.
If we want to get metaphorical here, write like you’re trying to shake a tail in a car chase, but you’re low on gas.
In the case of our hypothetical character with crippling self-doubt, we have to go the extra mile to put our character, and our readers with them, in situations where their self-doubt damages them.
We show their self-doubt by showing the consequences of it. At some point, the hero may become aware of this and try to fix it, or, just like we often do, they simply fix it through action without ever really becoming cognizant that it is a true problem, simply through overcoming their other obstacles.
Putting It Into Action
This probably sounds complicated and like it will be a lot of work, even once you learn to do it more or less instinctively. This is because it is complicated and will be a lot of work, even once you learn to do it more or less instinctively.
Writing the convincing internal antagonist, and presenting it in a natural seeming way, is easily the most challenging aspect of writing a good character. It is something that takes real skill and practice to get right but it is worth doing, because real people have these internal enemies, these behaviors and beliefs that adversely affect their ability to do the things they want to do in their lives, and by creating these convincingly and powerfully within our own characters, we make them real people to the readers.
It’s all worth it, because without good internal antagonists, our characters are not truly complete.
This is why this is so important, and such defining factor between good writing and bad writing. It is something that should apply to not just our protagonists, but our antagonists, and our side characters to the extent our page space and story allow.
Alright pens and paper out for this next bit. Now put them down, and get out a sharp knife and rubbing alcohol, because I don't want you to write this down, I want you to carve it into your arm:
Your antagonist should be, in most cases, a natural and obvious protagonist, except that they have failed in their battle against one internal antagonist or another. The competent general who has fallen to his rage, the slick politician who has fallen to her greed, etc.
The next chapter will break down internal antagonists into some handy subcategories, and I’m hard at work on a handy Internal Antagonist Evaluator, where you’ll answer some questions about your character, and it’ll spit out a score to help you decide if your character has strong enough internal antagonists. I’ll also have a downloadable and printer-friendly score sheet, for building an internally balanced character. I'm also creating a section for getting to better at understanding internal antagonists.