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Giving characters goals, motivation, conflict, and stakes

Giving characters goals, motivation, conflict, and stakes Giving characters goals, motivation, conflict, and stakes
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    The secret to a great character is the same as the secret to a great plot: Goals, Motivations, Conflicts, and Stakes (GMCS). GMCS are the scaffolding that gives your plot meaning and momentum, and similarly, GMCS provides the gas to keep your characters moving and engaged in the world and events around them.

    For most readers, the events and actions of the plot matter insofar as they matter to the characters. And characters come alive when they’re in situations that challenge them and force them to grow. Ideally, we want what happens (the plot) and who it happens to (the characters) to be intertwined, where the plot acts on the characters, who change in response, and then the characters act on external events and create plot changes. Having a character who is exclusively reacting to circumstances around them can feel very passive and boring; similarly, a character who is able to flawlessly manipulate their surroundings and win every challenge feels overpowered and boring.  We want things to happen to characters, and characters to happen to things. 

    Goals, Motivations, Conflict and Stakes for your characters help to tie the characters and the plot together so that there’s a balance of “things happening to characters” and “characters happening to things.” 

    Developing your Character GMCS flows from developing your overall Story GMCS, so start there before returning here.

    Goal: What is your character’s specific sub-goal within the larger story goal? What’s something that only they want, something specific to them?

    Example: In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s specific goal is to bring the Ring to Mount Doom and throw it in, which is the central piece of the larger Story Goal of defeating Sauron. Aragorn’s specific goal is to restore peace in Gondor and reclaim his ancestral throne. These differing goals are united by the shared Story Goal of defeating Sauron, but each character has a very different take on that central goal, which in turn governs their actions throughout the story. 

    Motivation: This is the part of the GMCS that is most personal to the character, and the one that is most important to creating reader investment in the story. This is where you really want to develop your character’s backstory and place in the world. Characters with the same character Goal can have very different Motivations, which will shape their actions in different ways. 

    Example: Frodo’s motivation is that his uncle gave him the ring and he feels responsible for it. Aragorn’s motivation is that he is not allowed to marry his beloved until he is King. 

    Conflict: What is the character’s internal conflict with regards to the external conflict? What internal battles does the external circumstance stir up for them? In what ways does this circumstance specifically challenge each character?  

    Example: Frodo’s internal conflict is that he feels isolated by the burden of the Ring, and unsure of his ability to complete the task. Aragorn’s internal conflict is much more pronounced in the films than in the books. In the films, he is unsure if he wants to or should become King, and if power will corrupt him. Whereas in the books, he is fairly convinced of his right to the throne, and his internal conflict is around his leadership decisions and how to gain the trust of Gondor’s people. 

    Stakes: What is the character’s personal stake in the broader stakes? What is their specific investment in this situation? What do they, personally, stand to lose or gain here? What are the specific ways the Story Stakes show up for the individual characters?

    Example: Frodo stands to lose his homeland, the Shire, in addition to the danger to his life. Aragorn stands to lose his ancestral throne and his beloved. The background stakes of the fate of Middle-Earth are still in play, but these are the specific ways in which each character relates to them.

    When you have your Character GMCS set out, you have a template for thinking about the character’s decision-making, response to situations, priorities, and ways of acting. Character GMCS offers a way to think about both how the character responds to situations, and what kinds of actions they might initiate. We come to understand characters primarily through what they do, and character GMCS is a way of shaping that “doing.”

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