Another Post on Character Arc

…rethinking the terms: goal, motivation, and conflict.

This post comes about as a result of plea in my inbox this morning from my crit partner, Kait Nolan. Kait’s writing strengths are legion, but character arc can be Kryptonite. Fortunately, playing with the brain dolls is one of my favoite things.

We’re both fans of the book, Goal, Movtivation, & Conflict, by Debra Dixon. It’s really a fabulous teaching book, and in the email waiting in my inbox this morning, Kait told me that she broke it out, refreshed her memory, and got to work on her charts. Briefly, External GMC is sort of the action part of your story. Your character must have a goal. She must be motivated to achieve that goal. There must be a conflict that gets in the way of the goal. (It sounds simple. It is. But the book takes it farther than that and is wholly worth buying. Also note that the book discusses the use of a charts with GMC down the side and External/Internal across the top. So when I start talking about boxes later, that’s what I mean.) GMC makes up the heart of your story concept.

I’ll take a stab at Edward in Pretty Woman.

Goal: To use hired female companionship to get through the week while making the big deal.

Motivation: To avoid complication and relationship drama.

Conflict: The diamond in the rough charm of the companion takes his mind off his work and draws him into an impossible relationship.

That might be enough for a zany comedy if you can get by on the likes of flying escargot. But what elevates any story are the changes made and lessons learned by the characters. Edward and Vivian can’t be together at the beginning of the story. They must go through the events of the story and be changed by them. That what Character Arc or Internal GMC is.

Now reading through Kait’s email, I started to get the feeling that the words “goal”, “motivation”, and “conflict” were giving her problems because she was trying to apply them to her story in the same way for the Internal as the External.

In the above example, having seen the movie about a million times, we know that what Edward had to come to understand was that he wanted and needed more out of his life than success in business. Ultimately, he finally wanted to make something, build something–a life. Before that, he wasn’t capable of having a long-term relationship with anyone. So we know that Edward’s lesson to learn was that there is more to life than monetary and social success and that he wants more.

Do you see where “goal” becomes a confusing term here? It’s not Edward’s goal to learn this. He doesn’t say, “I want to go out and find what’s missing in my life.”  Some characters might, but for a lot of characters that thing they learn over the course of the story that changes everything–it’s kind serendipitous.  But it’s not for the writer. The writer puts that lack in the character in the first scenes and works, over the course of the story, to teach the lesson. It’s not Edward’s goal, but the writer’s goal. I like to think of it as the Lesson or Change.

What allows him to make that change? Yes, it is just Vivian herself because she’s his perfect match, but a reader wants more than One True Pairing as a reason. Because Vivian needs so much tutelage to be an acceptable companion in his circle, he has to put business aside for periods of time to work with her. Because they’re so different, he’s exposed to parts of life he hasn’t experienced and perhaps just things he’s forgotten. And he likes it. He starts to laugh. He takes a day off!

So, looking at it this way, “motivation” doesn’t work really well either. Where the G question in the Internal column was What lesson does your character learn or what change does he make over the course of the story?, the M question might be: What allows the character’s lesson to be learned, or makes the change possible? This is not so much a question of what things in the story bring about the change. It’s more…global than that, I guess, more abstract. What circumstance will facilitate the change? But I guess my current favorite way to think about it is: What’s the crack that allows the mind to be opened?

During the course of the story, we watch this build. With these ideas firmly in our heads, that Edward will change as a result of spending time with Vivian and being exposed to new things, we can go through and pick out one scene after another showing the differences between them, his revelations, his growth as a character, and, indeed, his struggle not to grow–to avoid change.

So then we come to “conflict”. If you think in terms of the word “conflict” you might just write a line like, Edward wants to stay focused on business and resists Vivian’s attempts to get him to live a little. Which might do the job. I like to think of my C as a series of teaching moments. In this box think of some of the story moments you probably already have in mind, scenes that are going to be turning points for your character in terms of their inner journey. In doing this, you’ll begin to see if your story really teaches this lesson and develops this character.

You might write:

Goal: Edward must see that there’s more to life than business,

Motivation: and Vivian’s just the girl to do it

Conflict: but Edward is resistant and wants to stay focused.

And if you’re the kind of writer who “gets” that and can run with it, that’s good enough. If you’re not, then you’ll want to force yourself to think more deeply about your character arc and perhaps write something more like…

Lesson: Edward must see that there’s more to life than financial and social success.

Facilitation: The differences between them force Edward to spend time on Vivian and non-business activities, and open him up to new experiences.

Moments: Edward and Vivian in the tub, Edward takes Vivian shopping,  fun at the polo match, lunch in the park, etc.

When you go beyond your GMC chart and into plotting your story, you’ll be able to elaborate on those moments to talk about what happens to affect change, how the character reacts, etc, to add more points, and to make sure that you provide resistance and setbacks to pace your character’s growth.

The terms goal, motivation, and conflict probably work fine for a lot of people. And then, what I’ve put here may be more confusing still for some. Kait said that showing it in these terms was helpful for her, so I’m hoping it might be click for someone else. YMMV.


Filed under writing

4 responses to “Another Post on Character Arc

  1. It is confusing at times, but once you have the concept in mind then it makes more sense the more you write. Another excellent book is ‘Techniques of the Selling Writer’ by Dwight V. Swain. It’s an old book but he discusses all of that, Goal, Conflict and Motivation and how important it is to add emotion.

    I’ve watched ‘Pretty Woman’ maybe once when it was shown on television (I can’t listen to Julia Roberts’ laugh for more than three seconds) so I’m not the best one to comment on it. But I was thinking as I read your post that his goal was to have one night of companionship and go on his way. The conflict was, as you said, meeting someone he couldn’t just push out the door and forget about. The theme of the movie is how he changed because of it. Also, not every scene has to include, in order, GMC. It’s a writing tool or technique to keep in mind to help build effective scenes.

    Enjoyed your post.

    • I suppose the argument for what his goal was depends on where you think the real story begins. For me, the initial night together is part of the all important setup, but they’re not really drawn into the story together until they agree to spend the week together. That’s the First Plot Point for me. (I don’t know if everyone uses that term; check out Larry Brooks’s series on Story Structure. Starts here:

      Techniques of the Selling Writer is definitely on my keeper shelf. Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Pingback: In Which I Am An Eedjit « Shadow and Fang

  3. Thanks Susan. I’ll definitely check out the link. As for ‘Pretty Woman’ I don’t recall much of it so I can’t add too much to the conversation. You make good, valid points and now I’m off to follow that link…

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