Exposing Inner Conflict in non-POV Characters

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photo adapted / Horia Varlan


Major secondary characters deserve a life of their own—I wrote about that here back in March. Their robust inner lives and unique perspectives will motivate their actions in each scene and put them into conflict with your protagonist so that they don’t come across simply as an author’s “tool.”

It is dangerous to think of our secondary characters as tools meant to apply pressure to the protagonist, because a hammer always acts like a hammer. Ideally, we’d like the interactions between our characters to be a tad less predictable. If the secondary character is so obvious that the reader can reliably predict what they are going to do or say, there’s no point to reading on—they can predict the rest of the book.

One way to introduce variability is to identify a source of hidden conflict within our characters.

That’s easy enough if we’re talking about the protagonist. Maybe the protagonist’s husband wants her to do something that’s against her values, for example, but because she loves him and doesn’t want him to think she’s judging him, she smiles and says, “I’ll think about it.” Then, we’d have access to her thoughts: Those were the values I was raised with, yes, and they’ve always kept me safe, but I’ve changed so much through the years—could I be clinging to a moral code that no longer has use in my life? Maybe he’s right, and it’s time to bust out of my self-righteous box.

But what if we don’t have access to the point of view (POV) of the character whose thought processes we want to represent? How can we show that this secondary character is also struggling with inner conflict, so we can surprise our readers with a hammer that, in this situation, might just act like an oven mitt?

The following six techniques were plucked from Emily Henry’s #1 New York Times bestseller, People We Meet on Vacation. From genre alone we know what’s going to happen—it’s a rom-com after all—but I hope this examination stops short of delivering significant spoilers. If you want to experience the story for pure enjoyment first, flag this to read later, although I think that as a writer, it could be instructive to read the examples first and then see how they nest in their home environment.

Here’s the setup. Ebullient Poppy and staid Alex met at college, found they were from the same Ohio hometown, and become unlikely best friends. The novel is structured around their commitment to sharing a summer vacation each year over the course of a decade—first on the cheap, then later on a corporate dime when Poppy writes for a prominent travel magazine. Plenty of obstacles stand between these two: the glaring differences in their personalities, their troubled back stories, lack of proximity after Poppy moved away, and intermittent coupling with other people. Their timing was off for so long that they feared losing an important friendship if they dared take it a step farther.

Since this post has to do with perspective, let’s look first at why Henry tells a story focused on two main characters through only one POV.

  1. Poppy is the character who needs the most profound growth arc. Her writing for a travel magazine serves as metaphor for the fact that she’s ungrounded and doesn’t know what she wants, leading her toward relationships with others who seek temporary solutions. Alex knows what he wants: to teach English in the hometown Poppy escaped.
  2. Alex is a firm foundation that the flightier Poppy has always been able to depend on. The stakes, should she lose her friendship with him, are higher.

The use of present tense works well for this book. As it flips back and forth through time from the current vacation to vacations past, we get the sense that they all coexist in Poppy’s mind as treasured memories.

Here are six methods—often subtle—that Emily Henry uses to suggest Alex’s inner conflict in the novel.


1. Body language

In the opening scene, Poppy approaches a man at a bar and asks if he comes here often.

He studies me for a minute, visibly weighing potential replies. “No,” he says finally. “I don’t live here.

“Weighing potential replies” stops short of a POV breach. That’s when a POV character explains to us what they can’t possible know—namely, what’s going on in the other person’s head. That’s because we can envision Alex tilting his head side to side, trying to decide how to respond. We’ve all done it. This works.


2. Dialogue

After ten years of do-si-do, one can only imagine that once Poppy and Alex hook up—no matter how wonderful it might be—they’ll wonder if it was a bad idea. The stakes are high: they’ve been friends for so long that they don’t want to blow it.

After they shared a drunken kiss that almost became something more, they share this loaded morning-after dialogue.

Alex coughs. “I’m sorry about last night. I know I started it all and—it shouldn’t have happened like that.”

“Seriously,” I say. “It’s not a big deal.”

“I know you’re not over Trey,” he murmurs, looking away.

Argh! Poppy missed the two most important words in that dialogue exchange—“like that”—and now she’s back-pedaling so fast she runs right over Alex’s feelings.


3. Dialogue beats

The bits of action sprinkled through a section of dialogue are often underutilized in the manuscripts I see, as they carry the potential to reveal inner conflict and therefore raise tension. On one vacation, when their significant others come along to Tuscany, Poppy has a pregnancy scare. Alex gets up early to go for his morning run, sees what she’s up to, and awaits the results with her. When Poppy breaks down, Alex wraps his arms around her.

“What am I going to do, Alex?” I ask him. “If I’m…What the hell am I supposed to do?”

He studies my face for a long time. “What do you want to do?”

I wipe at my eyes again. “I don’t think Trey wants kids.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Alex murmurs.

“I have no idea what I want,” I admit.

At first glance this might seem straightforward, but take a look again—that pause while he studies her face for a long time is important. The question is loaded because we know Alex wants children, but we also sense that he is trying to truly see her, and bring her true feelings forward.


4. Contradictory actions

On one vacation, Alex has wrenched his back. Poppy comes back from a pharmacy with a heating pad and other supplies to help him and asks how he’s doing.

“Better.” He forces a smile. “Thanks.”

Liar. His pain is written all over his face. He’s worse at hiding that than his emotions.

Alex is contradicting what he says with the way he delivers it. We can buy Poppy’s testimony—that he’s forcing a smile, that he’s lying—because she’s known him so long. But we can also tell he doesn’t want to ruin her vacation by causing her to worry over him.


5. Revealing actions

One year, Poppy can’t make the vacation because she is quite ill; she’s urged him to go on and have a good time without her, as their tickets and reservations can no longer be canceled. In this scene, Poppy’s in bed in her apartment and her head is pounding. In her delirium, she thinks someone is calling her name. When she finally consults her phone, she sees dozens of messages from “Alexander the Great.” The last one says, I’m here! Let me in! She slowly makes her way to the door.

“Oh God, Poppy,” he says, stepping in and examining me, the cool back of his hand pressing to my clammy forehead. “You’re burning up.”

“You’re in Norway,” I manage in a raspy whisper.

“I’m definitely not.” He drags his bag inside and closes the door.

After she gets cleaned up, she climbs back into the bed he freshly made. He opens his laptop bag.

He sits on the edge of the bed and pulls out pill bottles and boxes of Mucinex, lining them up on the side table. “I wasn’t sure what your symptoms were,” he says.

She assumes he’s in it for the vacation, as he’d never be able to afford something like that on a teacher’s salary; we know, without being told, he’s in it to spend time with her, even if it’s on her sick bed.


6. Another character “outs” him

After many years, Poppy has accepted that Alex’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Sarah might be better suited to him—she lives in his hometown, she’s also a teacher, she wants kids. In one scene after Poppy and Alex hook up, Alex’s brother David, one of the younger brothers Alex practically raised after their mother’s death, tells Poppy that Alex was going to propose to Sarah and had even bought a ring. This is news to Poppy, who thought she and Alex had told each other everything about their major life milestones.

“Don’t get me wrong Poppy.” He sets his hand on mine. “I always thought it should be you two. But Sarah was great, and they loved each other, and—I just want him to be happy. I want him to stop worrying about other people and have something that’s just his, you know?”

“Yeah.” I can barely get the word out.

Here, we can hear David’s subtext: Poppy better not be messing with Alex’s heart.

Some stories beg multiple points of view; others simply challenge us to dig deep into our creative well to find a way to tease out a non-point-of-view character’s inner conflict. In People We Meet on Vacation, that inner conflict adds to the will-they-or-won’t-they tension that Henry is able to sustain to the very end of the novel. See if a few of these techniques might help you do the same.

In your own writing, do you struggle with how to express the conflict at play within a non-POV character? Do you ever journal in your non-POV character’s voice to unearth their inner conflict, and did you find a way to work that into your protagonist’s story in a relevant way? Did it help you keep readers guessing? What other techniques can you think of for exposing the inner conflict of a non-POV character?

About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.