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Weekend Writing Inspiration: GMC — Your Secret Weapon for Story Conflict and Character Development

May 15, 2020
7 min read time

A few weeks ago, we covered methods to try when your plot rocks, but your characters fall flat. Today, we delve into another useful tool for getting clear on your characters and their motivation with GMC: Goals, Motivation, and Conflict. I was first introduced to this concept by Cathy Yardley of Rock Your Writing, and her books “Rock Your Plot” and “Rock Your Revisions”. In turn, she introduced me to the titular book on the subject, “GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict” by Debra Dixon.

On the surface, the method appears simple, but it’s actually quite nuanced and can take multiple passes to sort out. GMC can also be used to diagnose story problems and discover lack of story or writer clarity. In other words, it can help you see where things aren’t working overall.


  1. External vs. Internal

Before you begin working with GMC, start with the distinction between external and internal GMC. Your character will have an external goal and an internal goal, which will ideally be at odds. Your character will also have external and internal motivations that differ, and are also possibly at odds. Same with conflict.

Think about it this way: There’s what happens in your character’s external, visible experience—how the story plays out—and there’s what happens inside their hidden, personal experience—what’s going on in their mind and heart.


  1. Goals

What does your character want in this story? This is often a place writers get tripped up by being too vague.

Your character’s external goal is what they want to attain or accomplish in the external world by story’s end. It should be a tangible, and a binary either-or; something you could check off with a tick mark as “done” on a To Do list. For example: The bomb was or was not defused, the girl said yes or no to the marriage proposal, the boxer won or lost the fight. Done or not done.

Writers run into trouble with vague external goals because they’re hard to write toward. Think about an external goal like “creating world peace” or “trying to boost morale” to understand this. How does your audience objectively know if that goal has been attained? Adjust these sorts of goals by tying them to something tangible, like getting 195 countries in the world to sign a peace accord, for example.

When well-designed, your protagonist’s external goal translates directly into your overall story question. For example, “Will Castle defuse the bomb in time?” Or “Will Rocky beat Apollo Creed?”

Internal goals are about the feeling state a character wants to achieve and thus don’t need to be measurable. This state is also usually far from where they begin, emotionally. For example, your character might want to feel safe and secure, accepted or loved, while currently feeling the opposite of that. Or they might want something that seems less desirable, like staying emotionally isolated as a way of staying “safe.” Internal goals may not be achievable at all, especially if the character ties them to someone or something they can’t control (like an adult who is still striving to earn a parent’s approval), or may not be achievable through the route the characters believes it will take (they may find a path to self-acceptance, instead).


  1. Motivation

A character’s external motivation is their “why” and is directly connected to the reason they want to achieve their external goal. Why do they want to defuse the bomb? Why do they want to marry the guy? Why do they want to win the fight?

Cathy Yardley describes motivation as the “why behind the why,” and encourages writers to dig even deeper into a character’s drive to achieve their goal. So keep asking “why” as you delineate your character’s intention.

A character’s internal motivation is their why behind the feeling state they’re trying to attain. Why do they want to feel this way? For example, if a character’s desired feeling state is emotional isolation, their motivation might be that they lost their parents at a young age and the pain of losing someone again would be too much to bear.


  1. Conflict

External conflict is about the external (tangible) forces that stop the character from achieving their goal. This is often a personified antagonist, but other characters and circumstances can play a role, including environmental and world factors. Generally speaking though, your antagonist is the primary source of external conflict for your protagonist, and your protagonist serves as the primary source of external conflict for your antagonist, like yin and yang.

In terms of internal conflict, think about what gets in the way of the character attaining the feeling state they’re pursuing. In our example, the character who’s trying to stay emotionally isolated might be conflicted by falling in love in spite of their instincts to the contrary, or be forced into a situation where being emotionally vulnerable and connected is required.

To get even more bang for your buck, screenwriting instructor Corey Mandell teaches about “mutually exclusive goals” in which one character’s goal can only be reached if the other character’s goal is not. In other words, they both can’t win.

When you design your characters’ external goals to be mutually exclusive, you’ll automatically build in conflict, which is a screenplay’s engine.


  1. Need

When I build GMC for characters, I add their internal need: how they need to grow or change as a person, usually in order to achieve one or both of their goals. Their need often runs counter to what they think they want. Think about a character who wants safety but ultimately needs to learn to be independent.

And by the way, it’s okay if your character doesn’t achieve both their external and internal goals. As you know, you can’t always get what you want, but you might just find you get what you need.


  1. Build GMC for all of your characters

Design your goals, motivation, and conflict for your protagonist, antagonist and secondary characters so you know what each of your characters wants, why they want it, what they’ll do to get it, and what will get in their way over the course of your entire story.

Now you’ve got your “secret weapon” — and you’ll be able to pit your characters against each other in dramatic, compelling and conflict-driven scenes.


Your weekend writer’s assignment

Create a GMC table for each of your major characters. List Goal, Motivation, and Conflict in the left most column as row headings, with External and Internal as the column headings across the top. Then fill each of them in for each of your major characters. You’ll quickly be able to see where you have holes or issues. Hint: Make sure you have a compelling, measurable goal your protagonist is pursuing for the entire story. Then, check that your antagonist is working directly against them by making sure their goals are mutually exclusive.

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