The secret to writing strong characters: Goals, motivation, conflict, and stakes (In-depth guide)
The secret to a great character is similar to a great plot: Goals, Motivations, Conflicts, and Stakes (GMCS). These are the scaffolding that gives your plot meaning and momentum, and similarly, they provide 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, conflicts, and stakes
Goals, Motivations, Conflicts, 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 with plotting 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 regard 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.”
You’ll often see writing advice that emphasizes “character arcs,” “character development,” or “character journeys.” This is just a way of saying that a character should change over the course of the story. That change can be positive or negative, fast or slow, permanent or prone to backsliding, depending on the story you want to tell. Character arcs are rarely linear, and a good character arc will have setbacks where the character looks like they’re going to return to their old ways, but ultimately the forward momentum of the arc wins out.
The purpose of the character arc is to further tie the inner emotional world to the events of the plot by having the character change in response to the events.
The Character Arc is not identical to the Character GMCS. The GMCS defines how the character acts in relation to the plot; the arc is about understanding the character holistically over the course of the story and thinking about how they relate to themselves and how that changes. GMCS is about the character’s role in the story, while the character arc is about describing the shape of the character’s internal conflict. Character arcs are about the character’s internal emotional processes and their orientation to the world, and so they flow from the character’s personal Motivation and backstory.
Types of character arc
Positive: The character gets better. They become more brave, heroic, open-hearted, and loving as a result of the hardships they experience in the story and end the story as a better version of themselves. This is the hero’s journey, the redemption arc, and the promise of every rom-com; these kinds of characters are easy to root for and love because they’re trying to get better.
Negative: The character gets worse. They give in to their worst impulses, close themselves off from other people, and can become mean or cruel. This is a corruption arc or a villain era, but it can be as relatively normal as staying trapped in a self-defeating cycle. This kind of arc is common to genres like horror and tragedy where people aren’t able to save themselves or each other, as well as to literary fiction. Star Wars I through III are a very well-known negative character arc as we watch Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader.
Recursive: The character gets worse and better. Most character arcs will have setbacks along the way, where the character briefly backslides, which still fits into either the positive or negative arcs above. A recursive arc is where a character goes on a whole journey and ultimately ends up back where they started.
Recursive arcs are hard to get right, and they work best in stories with a lot of characters who are at odds with each other. This kind of arc is usually about how characters are unable to fundamentally change even in the face of overwhelming circumstances. A Song of Ice and Fire and Succession are two series that make heavy use of recursive character arcs. These stories are their own kind of tragedy, where the comforts of power and familiarity win out over bravery. Recursive arcs rarely have a happy tone to them, though some sitcoms like The Office use them for cringe comedy effects. Even when a character in a recursive arc does not ultimately change their outlook or behavior, they should still act meaningfully in the story, and the story should still have a lot going on. A recursive arc requires a lot of external change and events happening because the punch comes from the fact even in a crisis situation, the character is still unable to meaningfully internally change.
How to use character arcs
If you want to get started with a character arc, the first step is to set your Character GMCS; for the character arc, the Character Motivation is the most important part, since it dictates what is in view for their future. You should also start working on their backstory. You don’t need to have it all nailed down, but some idea of who this person is will help you shape where you want them to go. From there, return to the list of internal conflicts and pick one that sounds appealing.
- The character wants two opposing good things
- The character is afraid of what they desire
- The character is afraid of themselves/their own negative qualities
- The character attains an end they’ve been striving for and doesn’t know what to do with themselves now that they’ve got it
- The character has a fundamental belief about themselves that is blocking them from happiness
- The character loses the thing they hung their self-worth on
- The character believes a lie about themselves
Any of the above conflicts can be used for positive, negative, or recursive arcs. Whether you choose a positive, negative, or recursive arc depends on the kind of story you want to tell.
For example, let’s look at “the character has a fundamental belief about themselves that is blocking them from happiness.” A positive arc would be that the character learns to let go of this belief and embrace happiness. A negative arc would be that the character doubles down on the negative belief about themselves and gets worse. A recursive arc would be that the character attempts to change, finds it too hard or scary, and goes back to being miserable in the same way they were before.
In all cases, the character should gain or lose their Goal by the end of the story. A character can achieve their Goal but still have a negative arc (e.g. the Goal is a promotion to partner in their law firm, but in order to get it they sacrifice all their personal relationships to backstabbing and workaholism), or fail their Goal and have a positive arc (e.g. the Goal is to get into an Ivy League school, but the process of failing illustrates that the character wants to go on a gap year instead).
Let’s look at an example by returning to an example from "Hooking your readers", with Jade and Grayson. Jade’s Goal is to kill Grayson, her Motivation is because he killed her parents. Her backstory is that she’s a highly trained werewolf hunter who has lived most of her life in isolation and under a strict training regime that taught her to tamp down on her emotions. Her inner conflict is between two strong emotional drives: vengeance for her parents and love for her fated mate. A positive arc for Jade would be about letting go of her grief and understanding that living with her emotions tamped down is cutting her off from love in the form of her fated mate, Grayson. A negative arc for Jade would involve her doubling down on her revenge, cutting off her emotions further, and killing Grayson. In this setup, Jade’s Goal is in conflict with her emotional need for closeness, and most of the story is going to be about her working out that tension before she finally comes to her decision. If this is a romance story, we will expect Jade to choose the positive arc and choose love and healing over vengeance. However, if this is a horror story about becoming monstrous in revenge, or a tragedy about being trapped in cycles of violence, the negative arc makes more sense.
In all cases, the story’s GMCS remains the same. But by changing the character’s internal conflict and character arc, we have radically altered the tone, content, and direction of the story. The internal world of character growth and the external world of plot action are intertwined, and making decisions that affect one affects the other. Being clear on what kind of story you want to tell and what kind of arc you want for your main character(s) will give you the frame to shape the plot in the most dramatically appropriate direction.