Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

Sooz here! I originally posted this on Let the Words Flow, but since it still gets a lot of hits, I decided to re-share it with the world here on Pub(lishing) Crawl.


Maybe you’ve heard the letters bandied about—“Oh, my hero just doesn’t have a strong enough internal GMC.” Or maybe it’s all Greek to you.

G = Goal. (What is it the character wants to achieve? Or what is the character wants to avoid?)

M = Motivation. (Why does the character want this goal?)

C = Conflict. (What stands in the character’s way? Why can’t the character have the goal?)

There are two types of GMC: internal and external.

Internal GMC is the character’s emotional journey — their internal arc and growth. External GMC is the plot—the external force that propels the character through his/her story. Oftentimes, the internal and external GMCs work together and intertwine.  (If you really want to learn about GMC, check out Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, & Conflict.)

How to Use It

For example, Ulysses has been warring with Troy, but now the war is finallyover. He and his soldiers want to sail home to their families, but Ulysses has this problem: he’s a totally cocky arse. After he rouses Poseidon’s anger (boasting to the gods = very bad idea), Poseidon tries to keep Ulysses from reaching home (via Cyclops, the Sirens, Circe, and more). It could all go away, but every time Ulysses has a chance to save the situation, his arrogance shows and gets him back into trouble.

External GOAL: Get back to Greece.
External MOTIVATION: He wants to see his family. (Plus, his wife Penelope is being pursued by suitors.)
External CONFLICT: Poseidon is nooooot pleased, and he’s not letting Ulysses get home easily.

Internal GOAL: Not be such an arrogant jackass.
Internal MOTIVATION: He keeps getting himself and his sailors into trouble.
Internal CONFLICT: He’s always been an arrogant arse, and it’s always easier to stay the same than change.

Often, the character doesn’t necessarily realize his/her internal GMC, but it’s there all the same. Sometimes, the internal and external GMCs overlap. For example, Hamlet’s dad has just been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, and Uncle Claudius has taken the throne. Daddy’s ghost wants Hamlet to avenge his death, but Hamlet’s just not sure it’s a good idea…You know, um, what if, uh…and maybe there might be trouble, er…Hamlet just can’t commit.

External GOAL: Avenge his father’s murder (by killing Uncle Claudius).
External MOTIVATION: His dad’s “ghost” is telling him to.
External CONFLICT: He just can’t commit, and now Uncle Claudius wants him dead.

Internal GOAL: Make a decision—trust the ghost or not?
Internal MOTIVATION: Acceptance or “closure” over his father’s suspicious death.
Internal CONFLICT: He’s absolutely not a decisive, take-action kinda person. Wishy-washy and brooding is more his style.

Fill in the Blanks

Here are some worksheets you can use to prepare GMC for your own characters. When I’m planning a novel and I have a sense of the plot, I like to start with external GMC. But if I’m more in touch with my characters, I start with internal GMC. (I’m using The Wizard of Oz as an example.)

  • External Goal
    • What does this character want to have or want to avoid? This is external, not internal.
      • Dorothy wants to get out of Oz and get home.
  • External Motivation
    • What motivates this character to act? Why doesn’t he/she just sit around?
      • Auntie Em is sick, so Dorothy’s gotta be there.
  • External Conflict
    • What prevents this character from getting achieving the external goal?
      • The Wicked Witch is ticked off at Dorothy and wants revenge.
  • External GMC sentence
    • Combine G, M, & C into one sentence: “MC wants (G) because (M) but (C).”
      • Dorothy wants to leave Oz and go home because her Aunt is sick, but the Wicked Witch wants to stop Dorothy and get revenge.

When Dorothy finally does get home (and wakes up from her dream), she has reached her external goal!

  • Internal Goal
    • What does this character want to have or want to avoid? This is internal, not external.
      • To find a place she’s happy (somewhere over the rainbow and all that).
  • Internal Motivation
    • What motivates this character to act? Why doesn’t he/she just sit around?
      • She’s not content and seems to get in trouble a lot.
  • Internal Conflict
    • What prevents this character from getting achieving the internal goal?
      • She doesn’t know how to have happiness or what she reallywants.
  • Internal GMC sentence
    • Combine G2, M2, & C2 into one sentence: “MC wants (G2) because (M2) but (C2).”
      • Dorothy wants to be happy and find her “place” because she’s not content with her life, but she doesn’t know what exactly she wants.

Turns out there’s no place like home, and when the movie ends, Dorothy has reached her internal goal!

Troubleshooting your GMC

Essentially, a strong character and a strong plot will often boil down to GMC. Many authors don’t consciously decide their characters’ GMCs, but if you analyze your favorite stories, you’d probably be able to find the GMC. And oftentimes, when you’re having trouble with your story, you can isolate your GMC and find the trouble’s source.

If you don’t have a strong goal, you’ve got no story to interest the reader—Why do I care if Charlie goes to a chocolate factory?

But even a “low” goal can be saved if the motivation is strong enough—Well, it’s been Charlie’s dream forever, but it’s pretty unlikely he’ll ever get that chance.

But none of that will matter if there isn’t enough conflict between Charlie and that candy bar. Conflict has to be high! Charlie has to scrimp and save to get the chocolate bar that might have a golden ticket, and that will be his only chance to get into the factory.

The story’s tension and momentum are built by sufficient motivation to achieve a goal as well as sufficient conflict between the main character and the goal’s realization. Try filling out the worksheet for your WIP, and maybe you can the weakest links in your story.

You tell me: Is GMC new to you? Or are you an old hand at it?


22 Responses to Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

  1. Julie Jul 31 2012 at 6:40 am #

    Sooz, this post NAILS these essentials. You have such a knack for making the murky crystal-clear. 🙂 And if your explanation wasn’t clear enough, your examples – from ULYSSES to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY?!? How could I not learn something from this post? Thanks Sooz!

    • Sooz Jul 31 2012 at 8:56 am #

      I do love me some CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. 😉

  2. Chihuahua Zero Jul 31 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    Didn’t Janice Hardy from The Other Side of the Story wrote a similar blog article centered around this topic?

    • Sooz Jul 31 2012 at 11:31 pm #

      Possibly? I don’t know (though if you have a link, please share!). GMC is one of those things I learned when I first started writing (which was why I originally wrote about the topic early last year on Let the Words Flow–for other aspiring writers). In fact, I took a BUNCH of workshops on just GMC when I was first starting out–and I think they were invaluable for getting me to where I am today. 🙂

  3. Alexa Love Books Aug 1 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    I am so excited about this post! I’m definitely going to take your tips and try to apply them to the story I’m writing 🙂

    • Sooz Aug 3 2012 at 9:13 am #

      Yay!! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask! 😀

  4. Singh Aug 2 2012 at 1:54 pm #

    Thanks for the post,personally helped me just by reading

    • Sooz Aug 3 2012 at 9:14 am #

      Awesome! I’m glad to hear it. 🙂

  5. Preston Fuller Aug 3 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    Oh wow, I just realized how recent this article was. I was doing some research on GMC and stumbled across this little tidbit. Very great info! I checked it out for some clarification on the Internal part, but what ended up being most useful for me was the “combine them into one sentence” part. If you have any inconsistencies in your GMC, it puts them right in your face. x) Thanks for this!

  6. JQ Trotter Aug 4 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    What a great post. I’d never heard it put GMC before, but it’s perfect since the three aspects are important to establish both a story and a character. Thanks for sharing it! I’m going to have to bookmark this one to read again in the future 🙂

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  8. James Feb 14 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    This was really helpful. I was not aware GMC is both internal and external. You kind of opened my eyes. In some respects it is similar to T.O.M. (Triple-OM). Interesting and thanks!

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  12. portia May 6 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    GMC is Debra Dixon’s work. You should probably credit her instead of presenting these ideas as though they are your own. She is a university professor and published the book at least 10 years ago. http://www.amazon.com/GMC-Motivation-Conflict-Building-Fiction/dp/0965437108

    • Susan Dennard May 6 2014 at 2:21 pm #

      I am well aware that it is Debra Dixon’s work, and I never credited as my own. I recommend her book frequently, so I’m sorry if you misunderstood the gist of this post.

  13. Marmidotte Aug 6 2014 at 4:13 pm #

    Thank you very much for this article, it was exactly what I was looking for, simple, clean and complete. It has been a great help to me.

  14. Rachel Daven Skinner Mar 26 2015 at 3:07 pm #

    Susan, time and time again I come back to this excellent article. You nail GMC so thoroughly and entertainingly! I’m a freelance editor and I link to this article on my website and frequently send it to authors who are having GMC issues. Thank you for this valuable resource–and time-saver for me!



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