Susan Vaughan here. I recently spoke to a group at the Jackson Memorial Library in Tenants Harbor, Maine, about the “anatomy” of a novel. The talk was aimed at readers, not writers. So often readers ask how writers come up with ideas and also how we can create characters and plots out of thin air, so I addressed the basics of characters and plot, hoping the information would boost these readers’ understanding of plot movement and character development within a novel.
I’m going to limit today’s post to character basics, although it’s nearly impossible to separate character and plot. A standard mantra of both novelists and film makers is that character is story and story is character. Yes, writers create the personality and background, called backstory, of story people. From that and the plot idea come the heart of a novel (from an anatomy standpoint), the basics of character—goal, motivation, and conflict. A character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts are what create believable story people and make readers care and want to follow along. We as readers want to live vicariously through the characters, feeling every setback, feeling the conflict, and cheering when the characters achieve their goals.
True enough that character is story, but it is conflict that drives a story. Without conflict, we’d have very short, boring books no one would read.
Author shorthand for goal, motivation, and conflict is GMC. An easy way to remember GMC is this: a character wants a Goal because she is Motivated, but she faces Conflict. To be compelling and three dimensional, story characters need both external (plot) and internal (emotional) GMC. I’ll explain and then offer examples.
External GMC first. A character’s external goal refers to what he or she wants in the story plot—to stop the bad guy, to solve the murder, to help family, to save the honeybee, etcetera. The external motivation, the why he lands himself in impossible, even dangerous situations, why he makes the choices he does. Motivation is possibly the most important of the three elements of GMC. Everything is possible as long as readers understand why the characters do what they do. How many times have you tossed aside a book because you couldn’t believe the characters would do such things? External goals and motivations are usually established early in a story.
That covers the who, the what, and the why. The conflict is why not. Conflict is the reason characters can’t have what they want. Conflict is a struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt. It’s friction, tension, and opposition.
Now for internal GMC. The internal goal, the emotional one, which the character may not really be aware of or one that the character only believes she wants. Examples of emotional goals are to prove oneself, to be in control, to do it alone, to ask for help. Internal motivation can take longer to develop throughout the story and can change, depending on the character’s choices and challenges as the plot develops. Examples might be the character is unhappy with his current situation, doubts he’s worthy of love, or grew up in a household always in turmoil. The internal conflict is emotional roadblocks, a struggle within the self. It’s what internally keeps the character from learning a life lesson, maybe the life lesson, and growing and reaching that goal he may not have even known he wanted, a goal like realizing he’s worthy because he has earned respect or he doesn’t have to control everything to be happy. That’s it, very simply put, for GMC.
I promised examples. First, Barbara Ross’s excellent mystery FOGGED INN. EXTERNAL GMC: Julia, the heroine sleuth, wants to solve the murder of the man found in her restaurant’s walk-in cooler because somehow she’s at the center of the investigation and the murder has invaded her personal space, but the police have a different view of the case, thus complicating the mess. INTERNAL GMC: She wants to commit long-term to her boyfriend Chris by living together because she loves him, but her long-standing trust issues create tension between the two.
Next, my recent romantic suspense DARK VENGEANCE. EXTERNAL GMC: The hero Jack, a government officer, wants to locate an international smuggler, because the smuggler has stolen uranium for sale on the black market, but Sophie, the woman who may know the smuggler’s hideout, can’t remember the past, crucial three weeks. INTERNAL GMC: Jack wants revenge on the smuggler because the man had Jack’s wife and son murdered and he blames himself for endangering them, but punishing himself with his single-minded pursuit of vengeance means endangering Sophie and he could lose her like he lost his family.
Generally, authors don’t spell this out for readers so directly, especially the internal GMC. For me as an author, the GMC statements are tools in my toolbox as I write. The GMCs, both external and internal, are shown in scenes with action and dialogue as well as in characters’ thoughts. In some action-adventure novels and movies, characters may have only external goals, motivations, and conflicts. James Bond comes to mind. But in a complex novel, as the story progresses, the challenges and conflicts characters face, along with character relationships, impact and influence both the plot developments and the characters. GMCs can change, either dramatically or subtly.
Working with character goal, motivation, and conflict for the novels I’ve written has not spoiled my enjoyment of reading novels. My hope is that this post will not reduce your reading pleasure either, but instead will inform and enhance your fiction reading. My library audience asked tons of questions, so I’m looking forward to yours!