My Goal is to Have Motivated Characters: An Author Toolbox Post

My current nemesis: GMC. (Not the car company.)

The unfortunate side effect of all the research I’ve been doing on how to write is that I have found out, well . . . how to write. Oops.

So I have entered the forest of GMC; Goal, Motivation, Conflict. It is a thicket with deceptively large entry signs that turn into wandering little footpaths of hope, angst, self-doubt, and double-guessing. There is no yellow brick road.

Authors swear by this method. I’ve found article after article rhapsodizing about how critical this is to writing your novel. There are charts. There are helpful little tables. It’s perfectly obvious in the articles, but when I start applying it to my own writing it goes something like this.

the light gif

Goal-What does my character want?

My main character has a crystal clear goal. I mean, she is the main character. By the laws of such things, that means she has a goal. QED.

After looking it over several times. . . no, she doesn’t. The way I’ve written it, she’s just drifting along and happened into marrying the man who loves her. Why? Who knows? My readers sure don’t. In my head she’s decisive and practical, family oriented and loving. The more I read and edit, the more the sneaky idea that she’s not in fact the main character bobs out from behind bushes, waving and grinning.

Her new husband, the man who has always loved her, is edging into my main character spot. It’s easier for me to get in his head and his goals are clear. Also, easier to throw roadblocks in his way to torture him and hopefully my readers (she wasn’t in love with you when she married you, dude. You’re going to find out you were the Second Choice and there was Another Man. It won’t be fun). And I now need a new opening chapter to my finished* manuscript, from the point of view of my real main character.

*Finished, for a given value of finished.

Motivation-Why do they want this?

I feel like I’m stomping around like the most spoiled actress in Hollywood, the kind who demands silk toilet covers and golden bowls full of petit-fours and ice balls. What is going on with my characters? Why are they making these choices? What is my motivation? *wails*

This one is harder than the goal, and sounds suspiciously similar. Isn’t motivation the thing that makes you go after a goal? So is it the steps to that goal, or the roots of that goal? Or is it more Freudian; the deeply buried schema, the fears, the primal urges that motivate you toward that particular goal? I’m over-thinking my thinking, about thinking. I give up. The nice GMC chart I printed out now reads like this: “My characters, one of which is the newly elected MC, have external and internal goals. No, they totally do. They are trying to meet those goals while the obstacles pile up. End O’Story.

Conflict-What’s in the way?

By now I’m reeling around this GMC forest banging off the trees and barking my shins on the knobbly roots, blind in the dark. This sucks. In the plot in my head, my characters face definite conflict. The way it’s written and the way I see it, there are plenty of clashes coming. Unrequited love that turns into requited love with big speed bumps made of pride, stubbornness, self-realization and fear of being vulnerable dropped in the way. The more I try to summarize it and fit it into the chart, though, the more I second-guess myself. This doesn’t sound conflicted enough. I’d better throw a tornado at them. Maybe bandits. Something slimy? A wild animal? The Nasty-Ex-Comes-Back-Because-Plot-Complications™ ? Wait, my MC doesn’t even have an Ex.


By the end of the exercise I’ve just about decided GMC tables are not for me. Yes, it’s important to have a clear plot and at least a vague sense of where this is all going in the back of my mind. I should definitely know my character’s motivations, but I think I’ll be using a different method to figure it out. In the end, to stay sane, I have to toss a strict GMC table out the window and leave this forest.

I realize I just spent an entire post outlining why Goal/Motivation/Conflict tables don’t work for me, but they might be the perfect thing for your Author Toolbox. If they are, and you have found your way out of the dark GMC forest, I would really appreciate some directions!

Here’s an excellent starter on a three-part series from author toolbox member Cheryl Sterling (using The Princess Bride to illustrate, which doesn’t get any better).

And author Sooz at Pub has great examples of GMC, as illustrated by famous stories. She makes it look easy.

And here’s good summary of GMC and why it matters from Valerie Comer from To Write a Story

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This is an Author Toolbox blog post. To find other wonderful tools for your writing head over to our host, Raimey Gallant

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GMC is one of those writing things that’s easier said than done. Here is how I’ve had it explained:

What does your character want? [Goal]
Why does s/he want it? [Motivation. And remember the five Whys from @CherylProWriter’s post]
Why can’t s/he have it? [Conflict]

Of course, you still have to work out internal and external, but this is a start. Michael Hauge suggests the external GMC drives the plot, while the internal GMC drives the character change.

All so easy to say … and not so easy to do!


Your posts always make me smile 🙂
I’ve never heard of the GMC method before. Thinking about my works in progress the goals are easy, and the motivation too. Conflict though? That’s where it gets messy. A lack of distinguishable conflict is probably why I have so much trouble when I hit the middle of my stories! At least I know what the problem is now, so hopefully I can fix it!


Sometimes I think, in the process of resolving one question, another one emerges via the ripples, and while it can be frustrating, there’s also something wondrous about the discovery. Usually when I outline I choose one thing to start with, and let the others be reflections/extensions of that one thing.
In some ways the fact that it’s so challenging sounds like it might also be pushing you into interesting places. For example, if the conflict doesn’t feel tense or dire enough, maybe there are additional reasons why this marriage conflict is so important to the main character. Speaking from my own experience, I know there are times where I feel time passing, and sometimes the desire to connect can be quite strong, the concern about being alone quite intense.

Chrys Fey

What’s funny is that I actually never take time to figure out my character’s GMC. Every writer is different, and for me, I guess it just comes naturally when I’m working out the story.


Goal: I thought your MC wanted to be married and accepted this was her chance. Motivation: Maybe someone else was lined up if she said no. Conflict: Her waking up after the wedding was done, and looking the squished toothpaste oozing out on the sink. This was her life now. What had she done?

I don’t use the GMC either. hehehe Excellent exercise for me though.

Anna from elements of emaginette

Raimey Gallant

How interesting. I’m definitely following something like this, but I had never heard it referred to as GMC before. Great post! P.S. It might be easier for other hoppers to figure out which post to click into if you add something about the toolbox in your post title. I know you’ve done this in the past. I know I forgot to do this a couple of times. 🙂

Erika Beebe

Learning to write is the most difficult and humbling experience. I think my writing turned around with the tool 90 Days to your Novel by Sarah Domet. Her writing exercises and prompts after each learning section ignited my creativity in new logical ways. I wish you the best of luck and happy hop day 🙂

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