Storytelling is an art…but it’s also a science. While each story varies in how it’s written (the art), it must have characters and a plot (the science.) To bring the characters to life and avoid “cardboard” personas, your characters need GMC.
What is GMC? No, not the automobile company. Good storytelling involves giving your characters Goals and Motivation, and creating Conflict to those goals.
For example, if Goldilocks walked to the bears’ cottage and they were home and invited her in, had her sit in the perfect chair, eat the perfect porridge, and nap in the perfect bed, you’d be yawning and DNF the book, right? Readers want to invest in the character and go along for the ride as that character navigates roadblocks, disappointments, and tragedies, to rise victorious by the end of the story (or keep fighting if that’s what your novel/series calls for.)
Bring your protagonist to life by giving them both internal and external goals. The external goal should be action-oriented and relate to the internal one. The inner goal digs into their motivation.
For example, your protagonist wants to save the world. Why? Because he couldn’t save his little brother, best friend, or someone else he cared about at a pivotal point in his backstory. He or she may not even realize that is their motivation, but you will know and it will make them a more interesting character when you write the story so they figure it out, too.
Don’t forget to do the same to your antagonist. Too often in fiction the enemy feels flat. They simply sneer, bully, and cause mayhem without giving the reader a clue as to why they’re doing it. Some of best characters in literature and film are the anti-hero/antagonist because the author took time to make them “real” and gave them great motivation. Think of Snape in Harry Potter, or Loki in the Marvel films.
When it comes to motivation, dig deep. What secret is your protagonist carrying that could be revealed at an important moment in the climax that forces them to face their darkest fear?
Speaking of fears, what’s the one biggie your protagonist has? They should always have one. Why is this their biggest fear? Keep asking “why” until you strike gold, then tie it to their external goal, bringing the two together at the climax for maximum impact.
Your interview could go like this:
Q: What is your biggest fear?
A: My father demanded success in everything I did – grades, extra-curriculars, sports. I had to excel. If I didn’t, XXX happened. I hate to fail, even now.
A: Because I have to prove myself to the world.
A: I need to prove to myself I’m worthy.
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! The trick is then to tie the hero’s underlying feelings of unworthiness, no matter how successful he appears, to the success or failure of his external goal.
Say, while he’s trying to save the world from the bad guys, he discovers they’ve taken his father hostage. Now, he has to decide: is it more important to save the man who made him hate failure or to save the world, even if it means failing his father?
Or perhaps his father IS one of the bad guys. Lots of juicy conflict there.
Conflict is essential to the plot, otherwise, you don’t have a story readers want to read. Tension on every page keeps them turning those pages and that’s YOUR goal.
You don’t have to blow things up or kill a character in every scene. That would most likely be too much. In fact, layering smaller conflicts over the main one works much better for raising the stakes until you hit the climax. For every step forward, be sure there’s something the protagonist has to overcome, be it a pandemic that affects the entire world or simply a speeding ticket that causes them to miss a crucial appointment with their ex, who always badgers them about their lack of responsibility.
As the example above points out, their motivation gives you direction for the tension and conflict. Perhaps the hero lacks self-confidence, is afraid of commitment, or fears betrayal. Along with those internal conflicts, they encounter people and situations actively working against their external goal, which brings those inner fears and insecurities front and center for them to overcome.
One caveat: Your hero does not have to achieve every goal, every time. Depending on your genre, and whether you’re writing a stand-along novel or a series with the same main character, be sure you do what fits the story. For most readers, however, they like the hero to “win” at least some of the time.
If you are writing a series with the same main character in each book, choose an over-arching goal for them to pursue. And if they have an enemy who continually shows up as well (think Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty), then the antagonist can also have an over-arching goal. If you’re writing a stand-along, be sure you’ve tied up any loose ends pertaining to the goals and motivation you’ve set up.
To wrap up:
Goal: what does your character want?
Motivation: why do they want it?
Conflict: What’s in their way?
A simple way to brainstorm GMC, and therefore your story, before you write it is to fill in the blanks of this formula:
My character wants ____________________________(goal),
but ___________________________________________(conflict) stands in the way.
So what is your current story’s GMC? Are you digging deep enough? Can you layer in more meaningful conflict to show the reader what motivates them?
Need more ideas and inspiration? Check out the Writing Raven Character Description and Interview Worksheet or schedule a consultation to walk you through the GMC process (it will save you time writing AND editing your book!)
Until next time, may your fingers fly over your keyboard,
The Writing Ravens