Mary Poppins and Sherlock Holmes enter a house. Mary sees the sharp corners, the ungated stairs, and the unprotected plugs that could hurt a child in her care. Sherlock notices the broken window clasp, the barely visible footprint on the freshly vacuumed carpet, the disturbed papers on the desk, leading him to conclude that someone had entered the house and taken something. Who’s right?
They both are. They viewed the house through the filters of their perceptions.
We all tell ourselves stories. If I ____, then I’ll ____. Because of _____, I _____. Fill in the blanks with your own (or your characters’ filters.) We make snap decisions about who’s a foe and who’s a friend based on our past experiences. A dark parking garage is just another garage to a hulk of a weightlifter, but a minefield of danger to a petite woman wearing high heels. Because the weightlifter doesn’t perceived the dark garage as dangerous, the sound of footsteps behind him may not even register. The same sound most likely would make the woman palm her keys as a ready weapon, wish she’d worn sneakers and taken a karate class.
What we don’t realize is that we draw boxes around ourselves that limit us. These limits affect how we engage in the world. This truth applies to your characters, too.
Every character whether he lives in a mansion or in a cardboard box, wakes up with unseen assumptions about his world, about how to survive and how to get ahead in a place of limited resources. The frame of his mind defines and confines him. Every problem, every dilemma, every obstacle appears unsolvable within his specific point of view. How he gets himself out of his box is by changing the borders of that box to allow for new opportunities.
What is his daily reality? What are his borders? How do you force him to change those borders? Those types of questions will get you to the meat of your character, show you how he’ll act and react to the obstacles you place in his way, and point the way to creating organic conflict that keep your story moving forward.
Mary, Sherlock, the weightlifter and the woman all acted and reacted to their situation from the base of their perceptions. The answer to a great internal conflict that complements your outer conflict is all in how your character sees his world.