Day 5: an overview of character goals, motivations & conflicts
Okay so let’s move onto to the nitty gritty stuff. Now I’m sure that most of you have heard of Deb Dixon’s GMC. That’s kind a biblical text in RWA. And if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard a workshop or your critique partner has explained it to you. And well, Deb didn’t actually make that stuff up, she just put it in easy to understand terms. Dwight Swaine has a lot of the same material in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer – now I don’t know how many of you have tried to read that book, I can say it’s worth the time and effort, but it is very dry.
But I think the thing about GMC is is that we all get it, we understand it. If writing a book involved taking a multiple choice text or even fill in the blank on the components of GMC, we’d probably all get A’s. The thing is though, the concept is easy to grasp, but applying it into your book is a whole ‘nothing ball of wax. So here’s the way I like to explain it.
Goal – what do they want?
Motivation – why do they want it?
Conflict – why can’t they have it?
You could sum up GMC in the following sentence: Character wants (blank) because (blank) but (blank). The blanks are the three elements – the G, the M, and the C.
GMC is essential to good fiction, and I always like to start with the M, which I realize is a bit unorthodox, but bear with me. The M, the motivation is what makes your fiction readable. It’s like the secret decoder ring that comes in cereal boxes. This is the element you use in order to effectively communicate with the reader – what they’ll use in order to understand why our characters do and say the crazy things they do. If a character is properly motivated, a reader will follow them anywhere no matter how improbable their actions may be. In the GMC equation, the motivation is why the character wants their specific goal – why they want to open that bookstore or why they need to trust others and why they act the way they do throughout the story.
Take a familiar scenario of the clichéd woman in a horror movie who runs out into the darkness in her pajamas, or equally silly, goes into the basement, all because she hears a noise. And let’s not forget that she knows very well that there is a madman on the loose and he’s got an ax with her name on it. It’s a funny situation and it makes us roll our eyes or yell at the screen.
But why is the above scenario humorous? Character motivation. Or rather the lack of character motivation. Most of these movies are shot with one thing in mind, to scare the movie-goer, so they get their characters in scary situations no matter how poorly motivated said character is simply because it suits the plot. But in romance, we don’t have that luxury. We simply can’t stick our characters in Idaho because we need them to be there for chapter seven. We have to give them legitimate, believable reasons for going to Idaho in the first place or for going into the basement.
Haven’t you ever read a book that wasn’t that exciting or perhaps wasn’t that well written, yet the characters were so compelling you couldn’t put it down? More than likely motivation played a big role in why you loved those characters. Likewise the lack of proper motivation can ruin even the most well-written prose.
Let’s go back to our woman from the horror movie; investigating a noise is not enough motivation for most people to go out into the night when a crazy murderer is on the loose. What if the noise she hears is her dog that's outside tied to the swing set? Is that believable? To serious dog lovers it probably is. Let’s try something else, suppose she hears someone cry for help, is that believable? Well, for those of us seasoned horror movie watchers, this is an old trick - scary mad-man generally CAN talk so they can be the ones crying for help. So this might not be believable either. (you know where I’m going with this and it’s a trite example, but it works.) Okay let’s say the voice she hears is not one of the crazy mad man or any other stranger, but the voice of her own 10-year old daughter. This gives her plenty of motivation to swing open those doors and run out into the night in nothing more than a robe and her bra. A mother’s urge to protect her children is a strong and universal motivation.
Here’s another example, and one not dealing with horror movies or crazy mad-men. Let’s say your heroine needs a job - that’s her goal. But why does she need the job? That’s our motivation. Well, she needs this job because there are some pink shoes in a store window downtown that she simply must own. So is wanting the pink shoes enough motivation to sustain your story? Probably not, unless this is a very short story and they are some very special shoes.
Let’s beef up the motivation. How about she wants those shoes because her grandmother owned a pair just like them and her memories of her grandmother are the only ones she has of being loved and cared for. Now we have a reason to care. Now we can cheer for our heroine to get that job so she can buy those shoes. (This example shows us something clear about goals as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)
The bottom line is motivation gives the reader a reason to care for the characters. It is one of the greatest tools we have as writers to make our imperfect characters that we love, loveable to other people. Developing strong motivation forces you to think, to dig deep into your characters, and in the end it can be the difference between someone finishing your book, or putting it back on the shelves.
Now onto goals. Every character needs them. And in romance they generally need both internal and external goals. But asking the question, “what does your character want?” can be like asking a six year old what they want to be when they grow up – a fireman, a veterinarian, a dancer, a teacher, etc. The options are limitless especially when you’re thinking of the large scope of your entire story. There will always be exceptions to the “rules” but let’s, for argument’s sake, say that both your hero and heroine need one main external goal each. Keep in mind that external goals need to be three things: concrete, specific and they must require action in order to be obtained. Subsequently internal goals tend to be more subconscious and less concrete since they are emotional in nature. However, they too require action to obtain them, but action of a different sort. But we'll get to more detailed explanation of the internal elements later.
One thing I’ve seen over and over again in teaching classes or judging contests is having a character’s goal be to maintain the status quo – I won't say that this is wrong because there will always be a successful book out there to prove me wrong, but this sort of random goal isn't concrete and doesn't require any action. In addition, won’t it be a futile goal when our heroine learns in chapter one that the status quo is gone? This is a popular goal for heroines in historicals where she is expected to marry yet she wants to remain the rebellious girl she’s always been. Riding her horses with her hair whipping in the wind and tending her garden or writing her novels or whatever it is she wants to maintain. But wanting the status quo or to remain independent doesn't really work, neither are tactile and for our external goal we should strive for something more concrete.
What about that garden she loves? What if she’s been working on cross-breeding roses since she was a young girl and if she marries she’ll have to leave her precious garden and resign herself to a life of parties and needlepoint? This will never do. So our heroine doesn’t just want to remain unmarried as a means to maintain the status quo, more specifically, she wants to complete her cross-breeding of her roses. This is a concrete and worthy goal.
What about our heroine from the previous example who wanted to buy those pink shoes? More than likely this heroine doesn’t consciously think, “I want those shoes because Grandma had some just like them and she loved me and if I own them then I’ll feel that love again.” That would be awkward and clunky and let’s face it, if your heroine is that in touch with her emotional needs, then she probably has no internal conflict at all. So instead she thinks she wants those shoes simply because they remind her of her grandmother and she remembers always liking them. But as readers we know that while this is a tactile goal, what our heroine really wants is for someone to love her and give her security. That’s her internal goal and she’s going about satisfying it in the wrong way – thinking that by owning the shoes, it will “fix” everything, fill that hole inside. This is a common mistake for our characters and one that usually takes an entire book to figure out, which is good news for you, the writer.
The trick for creating strong and believable goals is to make them specific to your character and their situation. If you can plug any goal in, just so your character has a goal (cause that’s what you’ve heard is required) then you haven’t done your job.
If you’ve been in the writing business long, then you’ve probably heard things like “fiction is conflict” or “the strength of your conflict is the strength of your book” or some such statements and frankly I can’t argue with them as they’re completely true. Because when you’re writing popular fiction, without conflict you have no book. At least not one worth reading.
This is the easiest of the three elements to understand, but it seems to be the most difficult to get right. Conflict, in its simplest form, is opposition. That’s it. According to Webster it is “a clash between opposing elements or ideas”. Simple enough. But we really struggle with this and maybe it’s because most of us are women and we tend to be the peacemakers in our families – I’m not really certain why, but conflict can be a real struggle. But it doesn’t have to be. Conflict, in the GMC equation is why your character can’t have the goal they’re seeking. External conflicts can be acts of God, other characters, or the character gets in their own way. (Think of that thing your high school English teacher used to say about conflict, “there are three kinds of conflict: man vs. man; man vs. God; or man vs. himself.) This is the hero’s meddling mother, the evil other woman, the villain, the fire that destroys their house, whatever, just remember it is external. Use this test to figure out if which kind of conflict you’re dealing with…Imagine taking your characters out of the world they live in and plucking them down alone on a deserted island. If it’s just the two of them, all alone, then all the external conflict should disappear, provided they have no hurricanes and they have plenty of food and necessities to survive.
Now that we’re on the same page in terms of external GMC I should point out that oftentimes you have sort of two layers of external GMC. It’s what I call the Big GMC and the Story GMC – and here’s the way it breaks down. When I started working with GCM charts I found myself drawing a line to divide those little boxes because my characters often had a GMC that drove them before the story opened, like your heroine could want to be a world class ballerina or your hero could really want to make lead detective, that stuff still matters and has a place in your book. While I said that the only thing matters is who they are once the book opens, that’s true, but the reader should still feel like this character was living life before they turned to page 1. So you have the Big GMC and then Story GMC is the stuff that changes once the action of the plot begins. If you’re a believer in the Hero’s Journey then Story GMC starts after the call to adventure has been accepted. So we have our hero who wants to be lead detective and the story gmc starts when he gets suspicious about a new serial killer and maybe the rest of the force thinks he’s nuts b/c the MO is too different to be the same guy. But our hero knows something is going on so he does some investigating on his own, that’s the story GMC, and this GMC affects the Big GMC b/c if he’s right, he can score lead detective, but if he’s wrong, then he’ll probably lose his job all together. See how that works?