All stories are about a journey—a journey of discovery, a journey home, a journey toward adventure, a journey of the heart. While taking this journey, your characters must have a GOAL—something they want or need to achieve. There must be a reason—MOTIVATION—to achieve that goal. And of course there must be something that stands in the characters’ way—a CONFLICT.
GOAL, MOTIVATION and CONFLICT can best be answered by filling in the blanks on the following statement: My character wants (GOAL) because (MOTIVATION) but (CONFLICT) stands in the way.
On the topic of goals, a few things to remember:
1. The goals of both our hero and heroine MUST BE HONORABLE! Sure, they can be looking for money, but they should have a decent reason to desire money. They shouldn’t want money to euthanize dogs, or to kill their spouse (unless the spouse is just plain ol’ evil, and then they have to find another way to achieve their goal at the end anyway), or to settle their own gambling debts.
2. The goal is never love; love is the reward our hero and heroine gain for their growth along the journey in the story. Even with a chick-lit style story, the heroine might be looking for love in the big city, but she should be seeking another goal, as well—generally, this is a new career, a solution to a problem brought on by her big city lifestyle, or a way to atone for some mistake brought on by her lifestyle.
3. Often, the best romance setups have the hero/heroine at odds through conflicting goals.
Let’s take a simple scenario to build a story around. Our fictional heroine, Polly Pureheart, wants to save an old building from the wrecking ball. Our hero, Dirk Dogooder, wants to tear down the same decrepit building. Those are their goals. Now, we’ll add some motivation.
Motivation is the reason why your hero and heroine want what they want. What makes them long for their goals? So much so they can’t ignore the need?
Don’t be surprised if your characters’ motivations come from an ideal that’s close to your heart. In fact, embrace that facet of your writing! When you write from your heart, your story is more visceral and will resonate more strongly with readers.
How does motivation translate to our mock romance between Polly and Dirk? Well, what’s Polly’s motivation to save that old building? Maybe it was once owned by a famous historical figure. Or her great-grandma. Or maybe she knows there’s a secret buried under the foundation that could ruin her family—or the town. Maybe a litter of endangered animals has taken up residence in the rafters. All good possibilities. So what’s Dirk’s motivation to tear the old building down? The town might have hired him because the building’s unsafe and they fear trespassers might get hurt or killed. Or he might have bought all the surrounding property sight unseen and plans to build a hospital on the spot. Maybe he wants the “secret” unearthed to redeem his own reputation, or that of his family. In any scenario you choose, if you put your hero and heroine’s goals and motivations in direct conflict with each other, you’ll really raise the emotional stakes for your reader.
Which brings us to the third segment of GMC: conflict. Conflict for all characters should be internal and external. External conflicts have to do with the characters’ outside environments: weather, location, pursuit by bad guys. Examples: the iceberg in Titanic, Shawshank Prison in The Shawshank Redemption, the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. For added external conflict, give your characters a time limit to achieve their goals. A ticking clock helps build tension. (Think of the Jeopardy! theme or the heartbeat thump-thump played in the background on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?)
Internal conflicts are fears, habits, attitudes based on personal experiences: Ebeneezer Scrooge’s miserly ways in A Christmas Carol; Scarlett O’Hara’s spoiled, self-centered nature in Gone With the Wind; Norman Bates’s obsession with his mother in Psycho. Notice how, in the case of each internal conflict I’ve listed, the character’s name is now synonymous with that very conflict. Cheapskates and misers are often known as Scrooge. A hundred years after the book’s first publication, Scarlett is still the epitome of the spoiled Southern belle, and the mere mention of Norman Bates’s name evokes images of shower stabbings and a creepy guy wearing a wig and his mother’s dress.
Back to our fictional romance story. What kind of conflicts do our hero/heroine have to deal with? Let’s start with Polly’s external conflicts. Maybe she only has thirty days to gain the approval of the local historical society to save the building (ticking clock!). Maybe Great Grandma’s losing her memory and the house is her last link to the past. Weather’s getting snowy and the holes in the roof could kill the endangered species if they aren’t repaired soon. Internally, Polly hates developers like Dirk because her father went bankrupt on a bad land deal. Or the secret buried in the foundation has to do with her long lost sister’s disappearance. She relates better to animals than people because she’s always felt incompetent around strangers. Try a combination of these conflicts. Then throw her into situations where she has to face these conflicts head-on!
Same for Dirk. He could be facing bankruptcy if he doesn’t have the hospital construction started by a certain date (ticking clock!). Weather’s getting snowy and he has to tear down the building before the roof collapses. The secret in the foundation could clear or condemn his uncle for the murder of Polly’s sister. Internally, he dislikes “causes” because his mother abandoned him to be raised by foster parents while she spent her life trying to save the whales. He’s afraid of animals because he was bitten by a rabid dog when he was three and spent months in the hospital getting brutal treatments. His last girlfriend left him because he’s a workaholic. Again, throw him into situations (preferably with Polly) where he has to face his conflicts head-on.
If, when you start writing, you find yourself flying off into tangents, or blocked after the first few chapters, revisit each character’s GMC. Chances are, you’re either trying to circumvent someone’s goal, motivation, or conflict OR you’ve lost track of someone’s goal, motivation, and conflict.