Character: U is for Underpinnings

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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.

Watson will forever harbor a fear of smarmy French waiters.

Watson will forever harbor a fear of nerdy French waiters.


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.

Where he goes, trouble follows. 

Where he goes, trouble follows.


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.

And leaves him in dire need of some Rivendell hair and skin products.  

And leaves him in dire need of some Rivendell hair and skin products.


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.

6 thoughts on “Character: U is for Underpinnings

  1. Underpinnings, that is a word which is quite a mount full. But yes, no story is really interesting if the character does not need to work out some issues, or see how they influence his dicision making. I am reminded of the last book in the Harry Potter series. Ron, Hermiony an Harry discuss which Horux they would like to own. Each chooses a different one! Harry who has never known his parrents wants the stone (which allows them to come back to him). Ron who has always lived in his siblings shadow wants the super wand. And in the second last book, Dubledore quite foolishly puts on a cursed ring. Yes it comes back to backstory, but from there stems some underlying issues which influence the characters dicision making. It makes them more “human”. We all have our own “underpinnings”. “Internal confilct” lets the reader releate better to the character.

    Nice post, it is always interesting to read one of your posts. It gets you thinking.

    • Aww, thanks, I’m glad you like them! :)

      Yes, everybody in Harry Potter had something going on under the surface. Rowling wrote really well-rounded characters, didn’t she? We all have our conflicts. Characters who have them too will not only be interesting but we can relate to them better, and that will make them stick with us.

      On Fri, Apr 25, 2014 at 3:23 AM, Graphomaniac – Elizabeth West wrote:


  2. “Underpinnings”

    Good word. Can be the basis for an elevator pitch, such as, “This story is about a preacher who investigates the murder of a man who married the woman he once loved…”
    The underpinning is the barb of the hook that catches the attention, don’t you think?

  3. Pingback: How to Draw in Your Reader - Write Right

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