#ROW80 and a lesson about character arc

Last week was really crazy. My daughter broke her arm on Wednesday. And it was one of those things where it was a very small break and we didn’t find it out was broken until we saw a specialist on Friday. So from Wednesday to Friday she was in a lot pain basically every time the wind blew. And besides the general suck of your kid being hurt, it’s also that that thing where you can’t actually DO anything, which is frustrating, and just have to grit your teeth and keep being soothing and nice over the repeated requests for you to do something. For those of you who don’t have kids, trust me, this is harder than it sounds. But anyway, since getting the cast on it on Friday, she’s been much better. Three weeks in that. It’s bright pink. She was so excited that she wanted to go back to school after the doctor’s appointment to get all her friends to sign it.

So that long introduction was basically to explain why I’m pulling up a re-run post for you today. But unless you’ve been combing my blog for my brilliance, it’s probably not one you’ve seen before as I wrote this right before I started writing Hush Money, back when no one really read my blog. I was talking over this stuff with Andrew a few weeks ago, looked this up, and remembered that I liked this post.

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.


Today begins Round 4 of A Round of Words in 80 Days. My goals lately have been much more about myself and the way that I do things than the kinds of things most people like to list as goals for this challenge. My main goal right now is to get consistent work habits into my weekday routine. Meaning to work, in some way, on my series every day, and to not kid myself about what should count as work. By the end of the challenge I hope to have a well-fleshed outline and at least be well into Act 1 of the draft for Heroes Under Siege.


Filed under tips, writing

12 responses to “#ROW80 and a lesson about character arc

  1. I’m so sorry that your daughter broke her arm! Poor thing! Tell her I said I hope her arm heals fast.

    That’s a great post on character arc. Thanks for sharing.

    Good luck with your goals. I love ROW80 because goals aren’t always about word count. Although they can be.

  2. Good luck with your goal this round!

  3. Ouch – your poor little girl – we are all thinking of her and glad to hear she’s on the mend.

    Love the character arc explanation – very helpful!

    Best of luck with your ROW80 goals. I just finished Hush Money and loved it! I have a couple writing books to read and then I’ll be back to order Heroes ‘Til Curfew! 🙂

  4. @LL-Thanks. I’ll be sure to tell her.

    @Hartford- Thanks. It was pretty pitiful there for a while, but she’s doing much better. I’m glad that explanation helped. I’m so excited to hear you liked Hush Money! Thanks for trying it.

  5. All my sympathies to you and your daughter. I’ve had 19 broken bones, the first at age 6 which was both bones in my arm. They do mend (sometimes better then they were originally) but it is always a difficult process. I truly hope that you are all well.

    Good choice on goals. I suffer the same “writers sin” at times, thinking I am working while staring off into space or doing inane things that don’t really advance a project. All the best for this round and I look forward to sharing your next book with my girls one day soon.

  6. Sadie Hart

    Poor girl, broken arms are never fun. 😦

    Thanks for the repost Susan, I was just trying to figure this out for an upcoming WIP and seemed to have hit the same wall as Kait on that post. My external was there, but I totally wasn’t looking at internal in the right way. Thank you! It finally clicked while rereading this post. Phew! Was beginning to think I didn’t have an internal conflict for the heroine.

  7. Those hairline fractures are the worst…hope your daughter feels better soon. I love your take on character arc and changing the terms for GMC! Good luck with your goals Susan 🙂

  8. Best wishes for your daughter’s speedy recovery. My son broke his arm at 20 months, so I know your pain. Though it was obviously broken, due to the fact they wanted the swelling down some he had to wait till the next day to get a cast (otherwise it would just slip off). It was terrifying!

    Your post was like you-> awesome. Good luck on your goals. 🙂

  9. Sorry your kiddo broke her arm. Kids rebound fast — sounds like she’s already on her way with that pink cast.

    Thanks for the character arc repost. Way to boil it down!

    Good luck with your goals!

  10. Ah, you were right Susan, this is a great post! Thanks for dredging it up. And I hope your daughter feels better and that her arm heals quickly!

  11. Pingback: Plan your NaNo – Organize Your Plot | Sadie Hart

  12. Was just screaming with frustration over internal character arc and a tweep linked me to this, which I have read before (Kait linked me to it AGES ago) but I think I just didn’t GET it then. Anyway, now I get it. Thank you very much!

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