How to Exorcise Inner Demons

We’ve been talking about the most critical flaw in most new manuscripts, and that is the lack of the CORE STORY PROBLEM. In order to make things simpler, I came up with the concept of the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker) because the core antagonist is not always a villain. He/She/It merely has a goal that runs counter to what the protagonist wants. Without that core story problem in need of solving we don’t have a novel, we have Day of Our Lives.

Just bad situations mixed with melodrama and angst.

So we need to give our protagonist a problem and not just any problem, but the perfect problem and one that is seemingly insurmountable. Now, we as Author God know this is good for the protagonist, but our character will likely scream, cry and resist more than a toddler headed for nap time.

Yet, whenever I write about the BBT (core antagonist), inevitably I get this in the comments, which is perfectly fine and a legitimate question…

“Great article, Kristen. I have a question. What about novels with an internal conflict? Where the main character has to make a hard choice and all the conflicts with the “bad guys” in the story are really just manifestations of the MC’s own character flaws coming to light as she works out the solution? Is there a BBT in this situation?”

Short answer? YES!!!!

One of the toughest concepts to grasp in writing fiction is this notion of “inner demons.” In all my years working with writers and busting apart countless manuscripts, the single greatest weakness I’ve witnessed with writers is a failure to truly understand how to plot. And before anyone breaks out in hives that I am encouraging detailed outlines, I’m not.

But the problem with inner demons is they are…well…inner. This means that our job as writers is to draw the demons out so they can be destroyed. It’s kind of like The Exorcist, though green puke and spinning heads is all your call.

You might laugh but if you have ever seen any movie involving an exorcism, what is the general progression?

The victim starts acting weird. Not herself. At first it might be written off as depression or lack of sleep or not enough caffeine. Then as the demon gains a toehold, the outward symptoms become more pronounced. Maybe physical changes (growling voice, speaking in Latin). Priests intervene and stuff gets cray-cray but to defeat the demon, what has to happen?

The demon must give its NAME.

You know you watch far too many horror movies when you are no longer scared, but are yelling critique.

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But the point of this I want to make clear is that the one thing these exorcism stories pretty much all have in common is the demon must be NAMED and manifest OUTWARDLY to be defeated.

Same in fiction.

Inner demons are tricky for a number of reasons we will talk about today. The trick is finding the plot problem that will drive the demon to the surface so it can be defeated.

Inner Demons are Inner

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Yeah, I already mentioned that but this is kind of a big deal. Many new writers begin the novel with a character doing a lot of internalization and thinking and thinking and more thinking.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but the biggest is we (readers) just don’t care. We haven’t spent enough time to be vested in a stranger’s emotional baggage.

Do any of us like spending time in person with folks who do nothing but talk about their character flaws and problems? NO. So we are unlikely to want to pay to endure this too much in a book. Can we get there eventually? Sure.

Just like dating. I would hope by the time we dated someone a couple months we might know they haven’t talked to their father in three years and we would care about this problem. In the first fifteen minutes of a first date?

*backs away slowly* *slips barista a $20 to create a distraction to cover ex-fil*

Demons Hide in the Blind Spot

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One key thing to remember about demons is they hide really really well. If they didn’t then shrinks would starve and be treated like writers.

Wow, you’re a psychotherapist? Really? What’s your “real” job? Seriously, people PAY you to listen to their problems?

This is another reason we don’t begin with a protagonist thinking about her inner demons. Odds are, she is oblivious they are even there. She isn’t yet that self-actualized.

Denial is more than a river in Africa 😉 . In fact, the stronger the denial, the better the story (or if you’re a therapist, the better the $$$$$). This is why your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in Act One should lose. He/She has not grown enough in order to defeat the core story problem.

Plot is What Exorcises the Demons

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The plot is the crucible that will fire this demon to the surface so the character can then defeat it. This is why understanding plotting becomes so vital. A great plot problem is going to sprout directly from that inner demon. Why?

Because fiction is the path of greatest resistance. What good is a plot problem unless it pits the character against her deepest flaw and weakness?

Some weaknesses might be fairly obvious—grief, betrayal or addiction. The problem, however, is no one wants to read 300+ pages of someone whining about a loss or a compulsion. We would probably want to smother such a person to get her to shut up.

Whining is not a plot.

Also remember that there is a reason for the grief, feeling of betrayal or addiction and THAT is the real inner demon that must show its head. There must be an outside challenge that forces the character to eventually choose to remain the same or to evolve (Act III).

You gonna keep hiding in a bottle? Or are you gonna face/defeat WHY you drink so you can walk your daughter down the aisle?

Not all inner demons are as obvious, though. The tricky demons look a hell of a lot like our greatest strengths, because…, they are.

Remember that every character strength has a corresponding weakness.

These inner demons are a real bugger to spot because they serve the character really well (or at least the character believes they do). In fact, this inner demon might be the very reason the character has always been successful…until you Evil Author Overlord hand her a problem where the old tools no longer work.

New level, new devil, baby 😉 .

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For instance, maybe your protagonist has a heart of gold. She is always there to help a friend, lend an ear, or fix a problem. Helping is the core of her identity.

But what happens when she wants to open a new cupcake bakery but then realizes she is spending too much time helping people who really don’t want to help themselves?

The plot forces her to recognize she sucks at putting down boundaries. She might even realize that she wasn’t helping after all…she was enabling or even controlling. She might come to finally see that the dark side of her helping. Deep down she doesn’t trust and so she always has to keep the ledger balanced in her favor. Or she could really believe she doesn’t deserve to be successful and helping others is a way of avoiding risk of failure.

Well, as soon as I get my brother sobered up, THEN I can focus on the cupcakes.

When the outside challenge—opening a cupcake bakery—reveals the BS of her core identity, what will she DO? See, before she had a dream of a cupcake bakery, she could be there for everyone and every problem. The plot problem, however, drives the demon to the surface and shows its real face.

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Notice how the problem (outside goal) helps this become a story, not just 300 pages of tedious navel gazing and infighting. Without the goal, there is no real way to see if our imaginary protagonist succeeds. Yet, add in a cupcake bakery and it is pretty easy to spot failure. If, in the end she is still nagging her brother to stop drinking and does not have a successful cupcake bakery?

She failed.

Every side trip to rescue others that stops her from realizing this dream makes us worry (dramatic tension).

It All Goes Back to the Paradigm

Remember a couple posts back we talked about paradigms. The paradigm is the set of lenses (flawed) that the protagonist sees herself and her world through. Inner demons are what create the distortion in the lens. I strongly recommend checking out the Emotional Wound Thesaurus because these wounds are what grind the distorted lenses through which your protagonist sees the world.

The needs, false beliefs, fears, strengths and weaknesses are all part of the paradigm. The BBT is what forces the protagonist to see the lenses are no good and propels her to do the hard work required to see her world and herself more clearly.

For instance, using our cupcake baker above, WHY does she feel the need to rescue? “She just does,” is a bad/lazy answer. Her need to rescue is merely a symptom of the wound. Her paradigm is family-centered. Her paradigm tells her, “I am not worthy of happiness on my own. I am only worthy when I am ‘helping’.”

Thus, if we know we are working with this sort of character and this sort of inner demon, plot becomes self-evident. We now know exactly what kind of existential crisis to toss in her path to make her fall. We place her in a situation where she no longer can help the way she used to. Take away her crutch, let her fall and eventually she will see she never needed it at all. She was always capable of walking.

In the end, all great stories involve inner demons (character arc). But even in literary fiction, the outside problem is what is going to make that inner demon manifest. So take time to really think about how your outside plot problem can make the protagonist squeal then make them suffer…a lot. It’s good for them 😀 .

***NOTE: Also pick up a Positive Trait Thesaurus for help finding your protagonist’s weak/blind spots.

What are your thoughts? Does this help you understand how to better make readers care about the internal struggles of your characters? Any questions? Suggestions? Additions? Recipes for holy water?

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

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  1. Loved the post! Especially the “Whining is not a plot” comment–I just recently put a book down after just a few minutes of listening (it was an audiobook) to the MC whine.

    Me? I love exercising my inner demons. Long walks on the beach are their favorite–when there’s a beach. But they play golf better’n I do, so that’s right out.

  2. Inner demons! oh yeah… I feed mine caviar and keep them close, so they can’t morph, sharpen their teeth, or scamper into the darkness of my mind.
    I have several new author clients with first-books, whose plots are like pull-starting a weedeater with no gas–just keep yanking that cord and waiting for the roar.
    Thanks for sharing your great thoughts!!

  3. I so enjoy your posts. Super helpful info. Here’s a question: what do you think if having two main characters? One with an outer BBT and the other with an inner. Do you think I’m setting myself up for disaster?

    1. Won’t work. ALL characters have both. The inner can never be dealt with without the outer. There is no crisis to prompt growth. The character is then thinking into self-actualization with no catalyst and that is what we call whining. Additionally all stories have ONE protagonist. It is ONE MAIN character’s story. The others are subordinate. The slight exception is the “buddy” protagonist (Samwise and Frodo) but they are viewed as a singular.

      1. crap. just great.
        this is going to mean a lot of work. sigh. tears. deep breath.

        1. Hang in there – it’s worth it in the end!

  4. Every time I read one of these posts, it makes me go back and add something/take something away from my WIP. I just realized I needed to be harder on my protagonist – the fact that she thinks people will think she’s crazy because she can “read” a car’s history isn’t enough – I need to show her people think she’s crazy (or at least that’s how she can interpret it). Thanks again for another great blog.

  5. I’m rewriting the third book in my series because the first draft was a total dud. I couldn’t figure out why until I started reading through your recent posts. This one unlocked another door – thank you so so much for this. My character was all inner demons that never saw the light of day, never got exposed, never did anything. I love this character but couldn’t figure out why he was BORING. I never challenged him or tested his weaknesses so he never got the chance to show his strengths. I can’t wait to get started writing today!!

  6. Love this. Plotting is my favorite and poking those demons with a big ol’ stick to make them meaner brings me an inordinate amount of joy.

  7. Hmmm, looking at my first 20 pages and deciding whether it’s too soon.
    Thanks for the grist for the mind mill.

  8. I don’t know if there would be enough to talk about to warrant a full blog. but I have trouble sometimes with keeping the past tense when writing in what I think is the “third person limited omniscience” POV. Meaning I write as a third person narrator, occasionally from the POV of a selected few characters. The description is from here
    Anything there?

  9. That’s where I’m at right now with my edits … too much internal angst, not enough sword fights, sex or tornadoes. I’ve been wracking my brains, trying to figure out how to kill a few people or insert violence to bring the inner battle to the outside world. 🙂 This is how Sharknado was born, I swear…

  10. Excellent post. I’m struggling with a book that won’t gel and now I think I know why. As I was reading your analysis I started thinking about “Ordinary People” by Judith Guest. Both the book and the movie do an excellent job of showing how people’s inner demons can manifest when tragedy strikes. Focusing on one “perfect” family, everybody’s inner demons cause them to react differently to the loss of a son in a boating accident. Mom freezes up, Dad dithers, remaining son attempts suicide. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but I think I need to put it on the list of “stories to read with author eyes.”

  11. Well. Now I have to rethink a few things, because I’m pretty sure I’ve missed the entire point of my own novel. Or at least halfway missed it. ‘sigh’ Suddenly I know who the main antagonist is, and why, and it’s NOT the villain… Who knew?

    1. Incidentally, I love, love, LOVE posts like this from you.

  12. Such a colorful demon-stration of your point.

    Absolutely, a character’s inner demons need to be drawn outward to be fought, and they also need to have a proper cause and relationship to the rest of that person’s nature. (Love that rule of thumb, a weakness is a strength in a situation where it doesn’t help, when you don’t realize you’re still relying on it.)

    One point I’d like to add: I’ve never liked stories that ended just with the protagonist understanding his problem. That skips how in real life a huge part of the challenge is *sticking* to that new path, not just watching a lifetime of weak habits vanish in one insight. Unless the story’s very short, it ought to show at least one struggle after that moment to show our hero at risk of backsliding, and what helps him hang on. After a demon’s made manifest, it has to be *fought* at least once, right?

  13. This makes so much sense! I have been stuck with my WIP for a few months now. The problem is the story straightaway gets into the protagonist’s inner demons…shown in nightmares, in flashbacks. It a first person narrative and he thinks a lot. Hasn’t been much action so far. 🙁 I struggle with action and dialogue but this post reiterates what I have been thinking and why I have been avoiding to start re-work on my WIP.
    Which novels in your list, have done a good job exorcising the inner demons of the protagonist?

    1. “Big, Little Lies,” “Luckiest Girl Alive,” “Girl on a Train,” “Joy Luck Club,” “Winter’s Bone” are a handful of varying genres I would recommend 🙂 . This is NOT easy so breathe and give yourself some slack. There is a learning curve to this. It is called a CRAFT for a reason. You wouldn’t build beautiful hand-carved furniture a week after entering a wood shop would you? You would need time to learn the tools, gain skill, understand the varying hardness or softness of woods, epoxies, stains, textures, sandpaper, etc. Same here. Keep learning and writing.

  14. Love this post!

    • Debra Spearman on March 18, 2017 at 3:30 pm
    • Reply

    I find myself mentally considering my protagonist as I read this. Very helpful post. Yours is the only blog that appears in my inbox that I always read.

    1. Thanks so much! That is of course the best of all compliments 😀

  15. Another fabulous post. My mind is running like crazy, thinking over my current WIP. What you touched on here is very similar to what I’ve been reading by Larry Brooks: Story Engineering. Oh those lovely demons. Thank you.

  16. I really think your comparison between getting to know characters and getting to know a date is spot on. I think that could easily work as an extended metaphor for not only the characters, but the story as a whole. First the story lures us in with a mix of curiosity and fun, then gradually intermingles levity with more serious elements.

    “Fiction is the path of greatest resistance.” I like that.

    The point that “all characters have both an inner demon and a BBT” is also well made
    I think the concept of the “inner demon” is at the heart of how characters change.

    I hesitate to say that all stories feature a protagonist that changes, but it certainly seems common for the final confrontation to feature the protagonist making a choice that formally demonstrates their commitment to change, or their failure to overcome their “inner demons”.

  17. Love the series you’re doing. My question, how do you determine your charater’s flaw(s)? A character profile?

  18. This is my first time reading your posts and I’m hooked! I am working on a character driven series and this is a huge help for me. There’s a lot of helpful information here!

    First, I love the dating analogy as I have realized at least one writing flaw is to dump too much too quickly on the reader.

    Second, I love the demon parallels too. I hadn’t thought of the character progression in quite that light.

    And finally, it was actually the cat with the glowing eyes that snagged my attention! Brilliant and so appropriate.

    Thank you for posting this!

  19. Thank you. This was helpful.

  20. Since following your blog I’ve upped my writing game. Great advice. Amusing delivery. Who wouldn’t love this blog! No wonder your among the Writer’s Digest 101 Best sites for writers. I have nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award. I was nominated by a sister blogger and now I’m passing it on to you to do with what you will… or not.

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