People don’t do things for no reason – there’s something that drives Olympic athletes, successful entrepreneurs, and merciless killers.
The same is true for your characters. You can’t have a woman swear that she’ll never get married without giving her a believe reason for why she made that decision.
Unfortunately, too many writers try to create tension by deciding what they want their characters to say and do without giving them a reason to do it. When that happens, readers don’t scoot to the edge of their seats in anticipation, they scratching their heads as they try to figure out what why in the world anyone would do that.
Don’t let that happen to you!
Earlier this month we talked about getting to know your characters better – everything from where your characters grew up, who their friends are, and what they studied in college – but now it’s time to go deeper. Get inside their heads to figure out your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC).
What is a GMC?
Goal: what your character wants to achieve
Motivation: why your character wants to achieve it
Conflict: what prevents your character from achieving it
Why is it important?
Goals: Without goals, your characters turn into actors wandering across the stage leaving the audience to wonder what’s going on? Goals can be tangible/external (get a job; buy a house; move to another country) or indistinct/internal (mature; become Christ-like; find peace). Whether you’re writing a romance or coming-of-age, your characters need goals that compel them to live and act as they do.
Imagine our fictional heroine, Stacey. She’s just gotten her first job after graduating from college, and she has one goal – to buy a king-sized bed. She spends all of her spare time checking Craigslist and the local classifieds in her search for the perfect bed. That’s her goal, and that’s why she’s passes up opportunities to go hiking on the weekends to shop at consignment furniture stores.
Motivation: Just as all characters need goals, they also need motivations – what drives them toward their goals? Giving your characters motivations not only explains why they act in certain ways, it also helps the reader relate to the characters.
There are several common motivating factors that might drive a character:
You want to make sure these factors are character specific though. People may not care that Stacey insists on having a king-sized bed. It may even become annoying that she’s so determined to buy one and the reader doesn’t understand why. That’s why her motivation matters. When you reveal that she’s one of six daughters from a poor family and always had to share a twin mattress with one of her sisters, it helps the reader emphasize with her situation.
Conflict: Without conflict, Stacey can walk into Art Van, buy a bed, the end.
Conflict increases tension, forces the character into new situations, and, most importantly, keeps the story going.
Don’t make it easy for Stacey to achieve her goal. What if she can’t find a bed that she likes? When she does, it doesn’t fit in her bedroom. She finds a bigger place to live, but she can’t afford it – conflict, conflict, conflict. Will she give up her dream, or will the struggle redefine it? Your reader will have to keep reading to find out!
Make it work for you:
To make sure your characters connect with readers, consider these things as you create their GMCs:
- Make sure your characters goals are urgent and important.
- Be willing to let goals go unmet and/or change throughout the story.
- Include external and internal goals for realistic characters.
- Make sure motivations push characters toward their goals.
- Conflict is required! Like goals, conflict can be external or internal and includes everything from opposition to tension to doubt.
Truly engaging stories include multiple GMCs. For example, characters can have both short-term and long-term goals. Look at Elizabeth in the movie Just Like Heaven. A strange man, David, has moved into her apartment and she wants him out. While she’s threatening him and trying to get him to leave, she realizes she’s become some type of ghost, and she doesn’t know why. Her goals become:
- Short-term goal: Get David out of her apartment.
- Long-term goal: Figure out why she can walk through walls and why she can’t remember what happened.
Characters can also have personal and professional goals. In the movie Something New, Kenya is a professional, African-American woman with two main goals.
- Personal goal: Find her IBM – ideal black man.
- Professional goal: to become a partner at the accounting firm.
Both of these goals drive her in her decision-making processes. Having those clearly defined goals helps the viewer see where the conflicts might arise. Will Kenya date Brian Kelly, a kind, successful white man? Will she make a client happy just to get a promotion, or will she do the right thing, even if it means not making partner?
How many GMCs does your book need?
There’s no right or wrong answer for this question. As your characters move through the story, they may develop several new short-term goals (how to get out of the traffic jam to get to work on time; what to buy the wife when he forgot Valentine’s Day again; etc.). The truth is this: you need as many GMCs as you need.
Another thing to remember: GMCs can – and will – change.
Suppose Stacey falls in love and decides to get married. Suddenly she doesn’t want to have two feet of empty bed space between her and her husband. Snuggling next to someone all night isn’t as disturbing when it’s her husband (instead of her younger sister). The important thing to remember is that, just like the original GMC, any changes to a character’s GMC needs to be believable.
By now, you should have all the tools you need to create solid, strong characters that your readers can relate to and root for – congratulations! But don’t run to your laptop just yet. There’s a little more foundational work to do before you tart writing the first draft. Stop back on March 8 to find out how you can build a strong framework to hold up your story.