It’s not the first time I’ve talked about it, and it won’t be the last. Suck it up and deal.
(Aside: Oh, if you’ve just arrived, I’m doing this series explaining the story blueprint I use. I’ve got a link to the file on my download page–see tab above. Click here for Part 1.)
Theory: A story is about
who has a goal,
because he is motivated by something,
but faces a conflict.
Easy-peasy and seems pretty obvious, right? And you’d wonder that someone could write a whole book on this very simple, obvious thing. Enter Debra Dixon and her book, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. It’s awesome. It should be on your shelf. It covers everything you could ever need to know about GMC in a story–which, it turns out, is a lot more than what I just said above. There’s internal vs. external GMC, there are multiple levels from an overarching, whole-story type GMC to the Dwight Swain-esque GMC* of each and every scene.
But today we’re dealing with the very most basic story goals of the main characters. Remember in Step 1, where we talked briefly about the “story problem”? That goal. What is it the hero is trying to get? What’s his focus? What is his external goal, meaning something he can go out and get, as opposed to some feeling he wants to change within or about himself. Know what that is, why he wants it, and what’s standing in his way, and you’ve got yourself a story.
Step 2a: External GMC
Goal, Motivation, Conflict
CHARACTER wants GOAL because MOTIVATION, but CONFLICT.
- Starting at the beginning of part 2, what is the hero’s external GMC?
- Starting at the beginning of part 2, what is the heroine’s external GMC?
- What do you know about the antagonistic force in the story?
Now, since I write romance, there’s pretty much always going to be a hero and a heroine. Even when I try not to go that way, I just do. If you only need one main character slot, then go for it. If you want to use one of those slots for a very important supporting character whose GMC will affect your protagonist or who will carry a subplot, go for it. Write out that GMC as a sentence or two with the basic format: Character wants/needs [goal], because [motivation], but [conflict].
Now the antagonistic force… This may be an antagonist character, a villain, a sibling, a competitor. Or it may be something else, a force of nature, a storm, a mountain, a circumstance like poverty what-have-you. So I’m not going to say you need to write that in terms of GMC because you’re going to argue, Your Honor, the mountain didn’t mean to do it! (Even though it’s sitting there all smug like that.) But if you can, you’ll want to, and if you can’t, don’t. The point is that your characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and whatever conflict the protagonist faces, it’s brought on by something or someone. You need to be developing an awareness of what or who that is and how it will impact the hero in his quest for his goal.
Step 2b: Character Arc
- What does the hero lack or what is his skewed view of the world? What lesson does he need to learn over the course of the story and how will that be achieved?
- What is it that will allow the hero to learn his story lesson?
- What are some ideas for scenes, events, etc, that will provide the teaching moments the hero needs?
- What does the heroine lack or what is her skewed view of the world? What lesson does she need to learn over the course of the story and how will that be achieved?
- What is it that will allow the heroine to learn her story lesson?
- What are some ideas for scenes, events, etc, that will provide the teaching moments the heroine needs?
Character Arc is basically Internal GMC. It’s that thing that the character gets out of the story internally. The lesson they learn, the sense of self restored, etc. It’s some change that occurs entirely within the character. Now to me, this is pretty important. If the events I just lived through with the character were not enough to affect some kind of internal change, if he learned nothing, takes away nothing from the experience, what am I supposed to take away? Why did I bother? It doesn’t have to be huge or life-altering, but character arc is one of those things that allow your story to resonate in the heart of the reader. Please don’t blow it off.
Now the problem I’ve had with the concept of character arc as GMC is that sometimes it’s not. Because you’re going to look at it and say: well, yeah, my character may learn this lesson, but that certainly wasn’t a goal. He didn’t set out to become a better person, he just wanted to find the treasure. And that’s cool. I agree. That’s why I’ve tried to come up with a different way, different terms, to think about regarding internal GMC.
What I came up with was the notion that the hero has some internal lack. Some people call it a skewed world view, sometimes it’s a lesson to be learned. That’s what goes in the goal slot. It’s not his goal, it’s your goal as the writer, how you’re going to change the hero from the beginning to the end of this thing.
Then for the motivation slot, it wasn’t so much knowing why the hero needs to learn this. That’s often obvious. What’s less obvious is the how. What’s going to be the chink in his armor, the crack in the facade that will allow your brilliant fictional life-lessons to get in there and fester?
I mean, is he a Mr. Darcy, strutting around, knowing he’s it? And then, CRACK! something just blows his mind. Um, excuse me, did you just tell me no? But…but…I’m Mr. freakin’ Darcy! Well, yes, but you’re being a jackass. And suddenly the poor man has stop and reevaluate.
No, it’s not always just like that. Sometimes it’s just a matter of something getting under his skin. Something that keeps nagging at him. Something he keeps needing to follow. Obviously, as we’re talking about writing here, there are permutations galore. But your hero’s gone on like this for years, and he’s never started to change before. So what happens in your story that makes the difference for him?
Conflict sometimes translates to me as: stuff that happens. So into this slot I would put things that may happen in the story to affect this change. What kinds of teaching moments can I come up with to teach the hero his lesson?
That’s how I came up with my three Character Arc questions, and that’s how I answer them, for both my hero and heroine. You may not be ready to come up with all of this yet, and that’s fine. Remember that you can always come back and refine your answers later, as you learn more. Part of what may be holding you back in this section is that it works in with the big and important question: How Does it All End?
But that’s the subject of tomorrow’s discussion.
If you actually want more babble on my views on Character Arc, and Internal vs. External GMC, click here for another post.
*From Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain, nutshell version: in every scene a character has a goal, experiences a conflict, meets with disaster, from which he must then regroup and start over.