Character goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMCs) form the heart of every story we write.
Or, at least, they should. If you’ve ever struggled with lackluster characterization or underwhelming dark moments, you’re probably not digging deep enough. Lazy setup of GMCs can also affect pacing and on-page relationship chemistry, but more on that in a future post.
Let’s start with the basics of GMCs.
An easy way to think about GMCs is:
Character wants A [GOAL]because/so B [MOTIVATION]but C [CONFLICT],so Z [RESOLUTION]
A Goal is something the character WANTS (or needs) and is in active pursuit of. It is quantifiable and achievable.A Motivation is a reason or driving force. This is, ideally, succinct and singular. It can come from a positive or a negative place, inspired by something good or something bad. A Conflict is an obstacle to achieving the Goal. This must be specific and difficult (or impossible) to overcome. Let’s take this one step further and add a Resolution. The Resolution is an action your character takes in order to overcome or work around the Conflict in order to achieve the Goal. I’m not focusing on Resolutions in this lesson, but I want you to keep them in mind as you work through your heroes’ GMCs. Resolutions define a character’s path forward through a Conflict.
Let’s start with GOALS.
Not all wants or needs are necessarily goals. We’ll talk more about that in other lessons this and next month. For now, I want to be sure the definition of a Goal is crystal clear. These are the five most important criteria to consider when identifying and setting up your characters’ goals:
- The character must be actively working toward the goal
- The goal must be concise and actionable
- It should be achievable within a specific time frame
- It should be specific enough that a reader can easily gauge progress
- And success criteria should be defined in the story.
The character must need or want something badly enough that they are in active pursuit of it when the story starts. Or, the character needs to be in a frame of mind where they are open to pursuing something new shortly after the story starts. Whatever the character wants or needs to accomplish—the GOAL—should be achievable by the end of the book (or series, in an overarching series plot). However, that doesn’t mean that character goals don’t change over time, nor that a hero can only have one goal per story.
As an example, let’s look at Disney’s Frozen.
For this entire exercise, we’re only focusing on Anna. If you haven’t seen Frozen—really?? (you must not have young children)—I recommend watching the first movie before continuing the exercises below.In the first part of the movie (after Elsa’s seclusion), Anna’s goal is to entice Elsa into playing with her. This is something she wants and is actively trying to achieve.
- Goal: Convince* Elsa to play with her
- Method of goal pursuit: Talking through the keyhole and mentioning memories of happier times
- Time frame: Anna’s time frame is somewhat prolonged here and she doesn’t have an end date for trying, so it’s a soft goal (realistically the time limit is either the end of her childhood or the end of one of their lives). This isn’t ideal, but since it’s not her primary goal in the movie, it works to get things started.
- Success measurement: Not strictly defined, but the opening of the movie shows clips of Anna and Elsa physically interacting and playing games, so we can assume some version of personal interaction will satisfy Anna’s initial goal.
~~~~~~~Pro Tip: Use strong action verbs to form your Goal statement.Notice how I said “convince Elsa to play with her” rather than stating the goal as “Play with Elsa”. While Anna does want to play with Elsa, her actionable goal is to convince Elsa to agree. If Elsa didn’t need convincing, playing together wouldn’t be a strong goal. Keep that distinction in mind as you look more closely at your own characters. Being concise is important.~~~~~~~ For the majority of the movie’s plot arc, Anna is trying to find Elsa and bring her back to Arendelle to stop the eternal winter.
- Goal: Find Elsa and bring her back to Arendelle
- Method of goal pursuit: Heads into the mountains on a horse
- Time frame: While no explicit time frame is mentioned, Arendelle is slowly freezing to death. The town’s supplies can only sustain the full population (plus its frozen-in visitors) for a finite amount of time before they begin to starve, freeze, or riot. The time frame is implied and somewhat open, but still carries urgency because the consequences of failure are severe and the peace within the kingdom is tenuous.
- Success measurement: Elsa physically returns to Arendelle
In this part of the movie, Anna’s focus is only to bring Elsa back home. While Anna wants to stop the never-ending winter, it is not her active Goal. Anna expects Elsa’s goal to be ending winter, since Anna does not believe she can accomplish it herself due to her lack of magic. We’ll talk more about how wants and needs can differ from Goals in next month’s Pro Tip.
Now that we have a good idea of what story goals are, let’s talk about why a character works toward a goal.A character’s reason to pursue a Goal is their Motivation. Once you dig deep enough to identify the actionable goal, the motivation usually follows right behind.
Actionable goals lead to clear motivations. Stuck? Dig deeper on the goal.
If you’re not sure why your character wants something, the goal is probably not specific enough or you haven’t identified the true goal. To figure out what a character truly wants, take a closer look at their backstory. This is where traits like Void, Wound, and Need will come into play, but to keep things simple for now, we’ll explore those separately in March’s Pro Tip.As you dig deeper into your character’s psyche, one of your first impulses will be to defend the conclusions you’ve come to. These are usually motivations. Just keep in mind that, like wants and needs, not all motivations indicate an active story goal.
Let’s look at Anna’s motivations
Earlier, we established that Anna’s goal in the beginning of the movie is to get Elsa to play with her. She remembers those earlier, happier times when they played together and misses her sister. She also has no other outlet for social interaction, so Elsa is her only real option for companionship. All of that can be simplified into, “She’s lonely.” So even though she misses her sister, loneliness is the the heart of her motivation in the first part of the movie. Let’s plug this into our formula from above.
Anna wants to convince Elsa to play with her because Anna is lonely.
In the main part of the movie, we know that Anna’s goal is two-fold: First, find Elsa, then bring her back to Arendelle. Anna believes that she is personally responsible for the never-ending winter because she goaded Elsa into lashing out. Her reason for finding Elsa and bringing her home is to absolve herself of guilt.
Anna wants to find Elsa and bring her home because she believes Elsa is the only one who can stop the eternal winter and Anna believes she herself is responsible for causing it.
~~~~~~~Pro Tip: Motivations can be deceptive. Be sure the motivation you identify matches the goal you have stated.If you go through the verbal exercise of asking yourself why it’s important to Anna that the eternal winter curse is reversed, you might be tempted to say, “because she loves Arendelle”, but that’s actually a motivation for a different goal. If Anna’s goal were to “reverse winter at all costs”, her reason might be because she loves her country. But even then, a more succinct “to keep her people from starving to death” would be the true, concise motivation. While it’s true that Anna does love Arendelle—enough to endanger her own life in an attempt to save it—her motivation for finding and bringing Elsa home is more succinct and personal. Anna not only needs to find Elsa, she needs her sister to take a specific course of action (reverse the winter spell), hence (or so she hopes) relieving Anna of her burden of guilt. Nailing down the heart of your story’s Goals and Motivations will guide you toward the Conflicts that will most effectively challenge the heroes.
A story would have no tension (and probably wouldn’t be worth reading) if protagonist could simply waltz in and snatch whatever it is they want. They should have to work for their goal. If there’s no struggle, there’s no energy. The event or story element that incites the struggle spotlights the Conflict.The conflict is usually something that causes stress, grief, or panic. It’s often a difficult choice (internal conflict), but is sometimes an unexpected barrier or surprise event in the story (external conflicts). I talk more about internal vs. external GMCs in the second part of this Case Study.
In our first example, we know Anna is lonely, so she’s trying to convince Elsa to play with her. This wouldn’t be an interesting part of the story if Elsa simply agreed. So there must be something stopping Elsa from simply saying yes. However, those reasons are part of Elsa’s character journey and don’t really matter as far as Anna’s goal is concerned. Elsa says (and keeps saying) no—well, technically Elsa ignores her, but you can take that as a “no”—and that is the reason they can’t play together. Elsa’s reluctance is Anna’s conflict.
Anna wants to convince Elsa to play with her because Anna is lonely, but Elsa ignores her pleas.
Anna’s conflict in the main part of the movie is similar to the that of the beginning. Elsa refuses to return, and physically ejects Anna from the ice palace. It’s much harder for her to simply give it another go when there’s an aggressive snow giant guarding the palace.
Anna wants to find Elsa and bring her home because she believes Elsa is the only person who can reverse the never-ending Winter that is plaguing Arendelle and Anna feels personally responsible for it, but Elsa kicks her out of the ice palace and bars the way back in.
Once you’ve identified your character’s GMCs, plug them into this formula:
Character wants [GOAL], because/so [MOTIVATION], but [CONFLICT], so [RESOLUTION].
Does your filled-in character statement make sense? If not, start by looking more closely at the Goal. Is it specific and concise? Is it something the character can actively work toward? Is is achievable within the story’s time frame? If the answer to any of those questions is no, keep digging deeper. If the Goal seems fine but the character statement is still lackluster, look more closely at the Motivation and Conflict. Is the Motivation strong enough? Is the Conflict disruptive enough? We’ll explore how characterization affects the plot and pacing in other ways in the coming weeks, including how a character’s wants and needs may not necessarily align and how their Void can play into other story elements. So give my formula above a try and see how it works with your work in progress, then you can refine your story even more in the coming weeks.