GMC: The Swiss Army Knife of Writing Tools
One of the best things I ever did for my fiction writing was determine what my main character wants, why she wants it, and what’s in the way of her getting it. Figuring this out helped me know my character better (obviously), but also helped me to plot more effectively, build tougher villains, raise the stakes, and increase tension in my story. And I accomplished all this through the use of one tiny but powerful tool, “GMC.”
I guess you could say GMC is the Swiss Army Knife of writing tools—compact, multi-functional, indispensable, and fits neatly in your pocket. I never leave home without it. And now you can have one, too. But it’s not sold for a low, low price via a very special television offer that’s only good for the next ten minutes. No, it’s available in abbreviated form here on this very blog, and also in all of its glory in this nifty book:
GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon.
Here is my brief interpretation of Dixon’s GMC process:
GOAL (G) – A goal is what a character wants.
In commercial fiction the protagonist always has an external goal. If you want the character to be complex and multi-layered, you should also give him/her an internal goal. Goals should be important, urgent, specific, and attainable. The character’s big central goal is often accompanied by smaller goals that drive the action of the story. Every scene should move a character closer to or farther from a goal.
A character can have multiple goals simultaneously, and a character’s goals can grow and/or change over time. Keep in mind that readers like things to connect, so if a character’s goal changes, it’s nice if the new goal relates in some way to the old one. Dixon points out that internal goals often remain consistent while external goals change.
Some goals are achieved, some not. If the character’s overall goal for the story is not achieved in the end, the story should still feel satisfying to the reader.
MOTIVATION (M) – Motivation is why the character wants what s/he wants. It’s the character’s reason for wanting the goal.
Dixon advises keeping motivation simple, strong, and focused. Readers will “buy” a character’s decision if they understand and accept the character’s motivation. Think about the girl in the horror movie who goes into the dark basement alone. You might be inclined to say, “That’s not realistic—I’d never do that,” unless you know the reason she’s going down there: to save her puppy.
Internal motivation is often psychological, like “to be loved” or “to be a success.” It should be logical given the specifics of the character and story—think about the genre expectations of your story, as well as the character’s age, gender, culture, etc. A good way to understand your character’s internal motivation is to create a backstory that explains why your character is motivated in that way. For example, the motivation “to be accepted” could stem from a history of rejection.
CONFLICT (C) – Conflict is the thing that gets in the way of a character achieving his/her goal. It’s why the character can’t have what s/he wants. It’s what opposes him/her.
Conflict comes in many forms. A villain can be an excellent, well-defined external conflict for the hero, and is often the main conflict in the story. When you craft a villain, don’t neglect to provide his/her own GMC. It can work well when the hero is the “C” for the villain, and the villain is the “C” for the hero. If there’s not an evil villain in your story, there’s someone who works at cross purposes to your hero. For example, in a romance, the hero and heroine often work at cross purposes to each other. Be sure to provide that “someone” with GMC, too.
Don’t forget to provide both internal and external conflicts for your characters. It may help to think of external conflict in terms of plot, and internal conflict in terms of character arc.
Here’s a handy-dandy chart (similar to the one Dixon suggests) for jotting down the GMC for a character.
I fill in one of these charts for each character for the book overall. This helps me to be clear and specific about what each character wants, why s/he wants it, and what’s in his/her way. I refer back to this big picture GMC frequently to make sure I’m keeping it in mind as I’m writing each scene. If a character’s overall GMC changes during the course of the story, I’ll fill out another chart and label it accordingly. For example “Act I GMC” and “Act II GMC,” or “GMC before finding the sword” and “GMC after finding the sword.” Of course feel free to customize if your story doesn’t happen to have a sword.
I also fill out GMC charts for individual scenes. You can certainly chart GMC for each character in every scene, but I tend to reserve this for scenes that aren’t working. If a scene is “falling flat,” it’s often due to some aspect of “G,” “M,” or “C” in that scene. Maybe it’s that the goal isn’t clearly defined, or the motivation isn’t strong enough. Maybe there’s not enough conflict. Often the problem is that the scene doesn’t move the character farther from or closer to a goal. Filling out a GMC chart can illuminate the problem and get you back on track.
When a story isn’t working—either on a scene level or the big picture level—it’s frequently because the protagonist is not highly motivated, is not overcoming obstacles, and/or is not trying to achieve a clear goal. GMC can help with that. When your plot starts to seem convenient or contrived, it’s often because the antagonist isn’t strongly motivated to do the “bad things” s/he does to the protagonist. GMC can help with that, too. When you’re stumbling, stalled, or severely hamstrung by writer’s block, GMC can get you unstuck. Yes, GMC can do all that and more.
So don’t be fooled by the cute little moniker and the simplistic chart—GMC is a super-tool that can turn you around when you’ve reached a dead end, tighten your plot like a steel-boned corset, turn your Flat Stanleys into fully fleshed-out characters, and extract you from the mire of writer’s block. Writing a novel? Put this tool in your pocket and don’t leave home without it.
Chris Mandeville is the author of 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. She also writes science fiction and fantasy, and is author of the forthcoming Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure. She served for more than ten years on Pikes Peak Writers’ Board of Directors, five of those years as president, and remains an active volunteer in the nonprofit sector helping writers, military families, and service dogs. For information about her books, upcoming events, and tips for writers, see www.chrismandeville.com