U is for Underpinnings.
No, not backstory and not underpants. I’m talking about internal conflict, which is a mental or emotional struggle that occurs within a character. Backstory is the events of the character’s past, his timeline and history. Underlying conflict can stem from that. Is there something he has to work out within the confines of the action? It could be a past trauma, something from childhood or more recent, like a divorce or death.
He could be the survivor of a tragedy or a disaster. The experience could leave him with messed-up thoughts and stress reactions, and it can interfere with his future decision-making. Let it give him a phobia, and you’ve got a huge potential conflict that can even directly affect the action.
The events of the narrative can also precipitate internal conflict. Let’s look at Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo grew up in the Shire among his friends, adopted at 12 by his Uncle Bilbo Baggins when his parents, Drogo Baggins and Primula (really?) Brandybuck died in an accident.
It’s a pretty tranquil existence, and Frodo is content to live it as it is. Then, along comes Gandalf poking around for what he suspects is the One Ring, which Bilbo, who just bailed on his birthday to go hang with the Elves, left in Frodo’s care.
When Frodo first has to leave the Shire, he thinks he’s only going to Rivendell and the matter of the Ring will be dealt with there. It’s a tough journey, but he doesn’t know that he will be the Ringbearer charged with its destruction (he volunteers, actually). Like Harry Potter, Frodo has to deal with some heavy decisions and shocking events on his journey. But the worst thing is what the Ring is doing to him while he’s trying to destroy it.
Because Frodo is pure of heart, it takes longer and hurts more, but he eventually succumbs to its insidious influence. The conflict changes him deeply and wounds him terribly.
You can use the story to help the character work through his traumas or leave them separate and simply allow them to influence events. People tend to avoid things that remind them of painful experiences or elicit the same feelings. Your protagonist could do this and screw himself in so tight your readers will wonder if he ever gets out. A little tension never hurt a story, nor did a little glimpse of underpinning at just the right moment.