A deeper look: explaining internal GMC
Now that we've worked our fingers to the bone on external GMC it's time to switch gears and look at the more difficult and frankly more important (at least for romance novels) side of GMC. The internal. On the surface they can seem quite similar, but differentiating between the two can be trickier than we think.
Internal GMC is made of the same elements as external GMC, but don't be fooled, it is different. This is the stuff that’s subconscious, meaning your character, more than likely, isn’t aware of it. If you have your heroine so aware of the fact that she doesn't trust men and that without doing so she'll never have a complete life, then she really has no growth and she should probably be a secondary character, not to mention a therapist. So keep the internal stuff where it belongs, inside.
The most important thing to note about internal GMC is that it exists with or without the hero/heroine or the events of the book. Let me rephrase that for clarification. Your heroine’s internal GMC exists before she meets the hero and unless you’re writing a reunion story, doesn’t have anything to do with him. He might exacerbate the issue, but he certainly didn’t cause it.
I see this all the time in classes and when I'm judging contests. The heroine's internal GMC, all of her internal conflict is solved simply by meeting the hero cause he’s a nice guy and he’ll love and accept her just as she is. Nope, you can't do it. That's cheating. It's the easy way. Let's use a trite example for this, let's say you have a formally abused woman (we'll make her verbally abused) and we'll say she comes from a father who did the same thing. Well, if all she needs to break the cycle is to meet a man who won't verbally abuse her, then that should be easy enough, but what does she learn? How does she change?
Learning a lesson and growing and changing is what it’s all about. That's the whole point about internal GMC, it's about the character arc (which we'll get to in a moment) and growth and change are CRUCIAL to character-driven fiction. So with that abused woman, she must work out that issue before she can have her happy ending, even if the hero will never abuse her, she still needs to work on that issue and clear it up or at least begin to heal. Remember that test from yesterday on how to tell if your conflict is internal or external? This is where it really works well. Pick up that heroine out of your book and drop her on that deserted island, does she still have that distrust of men?
While the hero is not the cause of your heroine’s internal GMC he, more than likely, is the reason she’ll finally deal with it. In meeting him, she’s finally met someone that might be worth sacrificing some things for, might be worth changing for. It’s the hero and her interaction with him that challenges the heroine to deal with her “issues” and eventually grow and change to resolve her internal GMC. Again, the ONLY time this might not be the case is in reunion stories where the characters have a romantic past that might have led to said “issues.”
Let’s look at an example with the movie Twister. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but when I went to see this movie, I expected it to be about tornadoes. And it is, but it’s also a romance. Jo, our heroine, is a tough and witty scientist out to change the warning systems for tornadoes. Obviously her external GMC is wrapped up in the tornadoes themselves, but we also have conflict with the rival team led by Jonah and then we have conflict between her and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Bill.
Now we’re given a hint about her internal GMC (which is often unseen in movie format – why is that? I can hear you all answer. Because it’s INSIDE the character) from the beginning of the movie where we see a family run to the storm cellar only for the father to be ripped into the center of the twister. But it’s truly revealed to us in a scene where she and Bill have missed getting their tracking device up into the tornado. They start arguing and she blurts out that he doesn’t know what it’s like to have a tornado skip this house and that house and come after yours. She took her father’s death personally (obviously) and it has shaped her entire life and motivates all her external actions. Basically she’s afraid of losing the people she loves, exactly why she pushed Bill away to begin with. This conflict existed before Bill, it exists without him, yet it exacerbates her relationship with him. It’s not until Bill tells her to look at what’s right in front of her, meaning himself, that she’s willing to take the risks necessary to overcome this internal conflict. You see how that works?
So you do an internal GMC for your characters just the way that you do external, only I sometimes find it's easier to work backwards and start with the conflict. There are a couple of ways you can identify your character’s conflict. You need to stop and look at your character, and ask yourself some key questions: What is she afraid of? What is her biggest fear? I’m not talking spiders or heights here, what you’re looking for is emotional fears. Chances are she might not even be aware of this fear. Remember, this is the internal stuff, her proverbial bag of junk she hauls around with her that makes her who she is and prevents her from achieving personal happiness. The hero is NOT the answer to her achieving personal happiness, she instead has to deal with her bag of junk, face her fear head on and grow and change. (sorry I keep harping on that point, but it’s an important one. :-) ) So maybe she’s afraid of ever being accepted for who she truly is, or maybe she is afraid of never belonging or finding a true home, or having the family she’s always wanted or always being abandoned. Whatever it is, jot that down.
Now take that fear and look back at the GMC you did for your heroine. And try to figure out if she's scared she'll never be accepted for who she truly is, then what might her internal goal be (I often call this the internal need rather than goal since goal sort of implies awareness on the character's part), then identify the motivation and then the conflict.
Developing a satisfying romance is contingent on having a strong internal GMC for both your hero and your heroine.
Okay so we’ve got our GMC, now what do you do with it. Well, with the external you build the plot and with the internal you craft your character’s arc.