Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Goal, Motivation & Conflict ~ SIMPLIFIED

Goal, Motivation & Conflict ~ SIMPLIFIED
 “I am – I Need – I Desire…”

Goal, Motivation and Conflict seems to be the BIG MYSTERY of fiction writing. Everyone says that they’re essential to good writing – and they’re right, they are. Absolutely. But this stuff can be a little confusing.

Lets begin at the beginning…

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict:
What are these things, and why do stories need them?

Goal is what your character THINKS they are after.
Motivation is what makes them WANT to go after it. 
Conflict is what Gets in their Way.
- Internal conflict being ANGST or Drama.
- External conflict being the PLOT or Events.

Plot (Events) Arc
The stuff that happens to the characters – the plot-line. There are 5 basic stages in a Plot Arc:

1 - Inciting Event
2 - Challenge
3 - Crisis/Reversal
4 - Ordeal
5 - Confrontation

Character (Drama) Arc 
The complimentary (or contrary) stage of Angst that the character goes through at each stage in the Plot Arc. This maps the emotional stage they go through when dealing with the plot. (*note – I use the "Stages of Grief" as a map for my Character Arcs.)

1 - Denial*
2 - Anger
3 - Despair
4 - Bargaining / Sacrifice
5 - Acceptance 

To get back to the main point...

I use Goal, Motivation and Conflict all the time, but a little differently than everyone else. I have discovered that for me, a better order for GMC – is MCG:

MCG – instead of: GMC!
Motivation – Conflict – Goal 

You need to know each main characters' Motivation to know what kind of Conflicts will force them to choose what Goals they are likely to chase.


Each Main Character needs a Motivation that brings on Conflicts that forces them to choose – and change – their Goals.

I find that GMC makes a whole lot more sense as MCG.

So what ARE, Motivation, Conflicts and Goals. Lets break these down into bite-sized, chew-able pieces...

Motivation – “I Am…”
Motivation is what drives them to Do things and Want things. The drive itself comes from the character’s personal Neurosis. It’s the basic drive that makes a character WANT to do and have stuff. When under pressure, it can make the character leap in the Wrong direction.

In Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast…
Beauty’s motivation was BOREDOM. Smart girl in a small town. The only excitement to be had was in books. Her Neurosis was CURIOSITY. Under pressure, her curiosity would take over and either get her out of trouble or deeper into trouble.

Gaston’s motivation was SELFISHNESS. The only pretty male in a small town. Everything he tried came easy to him – and he was worshipped for it. His Neurosis was PRIDE. This made him try suicidal stunts because he was convinced that he would succeed. He always had before.

Beast’s motivation was also SELFISHNESS. Once upon a time he was pretty much as Gaston was – in fact Gaston represents everything he used to be – only the beast was richer and more powerful. When Beast bargains with Belle’s father for Belle, he is still operating under the motivation of SELFISHNESS. Pride is still his neurosis – only it has gone in reverse – he smashes mirrors and assumes that he’ll have to strong-arm Belle into staying, because no one could possibly like him as a beast. This is also a form of Pride that has developed into the “Why bother?” attitude.

Conflict – “I Need…”
Conflict is Angst. Plain and simple. Conflict is either External; something physically preventing them from accomplishing their chosen task, or it’s Internal; they Don’t Want to accomplish their task because it hurts them emotionally.

Internal conflicts:
These are the characters' emotional Achilles Heels, the essential neurotic ingredients to making it really hard for your character to defeat the bad-guy and survive the climax – because they have to fight THEMSELVES first! However, try to avoid tossing in too much angst. No reader can handle whiney characters.

A physical dependence: “I need…”
A vampire needs blood. A cyborg needs maintenance. In Erotica they need to get laid – sex is a PHYSICAL need. Beast needs a Female. In the beginning of the fairy tale, Beast doesn’t know that he needs love; he thinks he just needs Beauty’s presence.

An emotional need: “I want…”
The desire to belong, to be loved, to be hated, to be feared, to be rich, to be famous, to be understood, to control others, to be safe, to be free, to achieve revenge, to achieve greatness, to know something...

A physical restriction: “I can’t…”
A vampire is limited by holy objects and daylight. Superman is limited by Kryptonite. Dorothy is limited by being a human child. Jason is part god but limited by his mortal body. Harry Dresden is a powerful wizard whose powers short out every electrical device in range of his influence. Harry can’t watch TV, get on the internet, or have a hot shower.

An emotional hang-up: “I don’t like…”
In Romances liking sex is often a big hang-up. Fear of commitment. Vampires and other monsters often fear the loss of what little humanity they have left. Neo is limited by his disbelief. Jason is afraid of failure. Selene has racial prejudices; she is a vampire but the man she loves is a werewolf.

External Conflict:
Anything that happens TO the characters physically, in the course of the story. Depending on where you are in the story, the conflict is Internal, External or both. Here’s a quick plot map:

Plot Arc stage - Character Arc stage
Act One
1-Inciting event - Denial = Emotional Conflict

Act Two
2-Challenge – Anger = Physical Conflict
3-Reversal (Crisis) – Despair = Emotional and Physical Conflict

Act Three
4- Ordeal – Sacrifice = Emotional Conflict
Act Four
5- Confrontation – Acceptance = Physical Conflict
Note: Only Tragedies end at Act 3!
Once you know their personal Conflicts; what has them tied up in knots mentally and physically, you can tell what Goals they are likely to choose, then adjust the plot events accordingly to worsen their situation, and their angst.

Goal – “I Desire…”
What are they trying to accomplish?

"How do I USE this stuff?"
Motivation, Conflict and Goal rules Character Behavior -- the Character Arc, not necessarily Events -- the Plot Arc. MCG is how the Character acts in reaction to the Plot. MGC is NOT the Plot itself; the stuff that happens to the character.

I think the confusion is coming from the fact that everything I read about Goal, Motivation and Conflict states that you’re supposed to have them in “Every Scene”.

A scene is a sequence of actions that add up to one event. A scene is not limited to a merely single chapter, Scenes can be any length from really long (Some love-scenes take several chapters,) to really short, (one paragraph,) depending on the event.

Depending on what you are writing, you don't always have ROOM for a Motivation, a Conflict, and a Goal for every single scene.

I usually only have room in each scene for a Conflict, as my Goals and Motivations spans a single story stage. I only need to illustrate all three MCG's at key turning points –Story Stages- and I write 100k novels!

I’m of the opinion that “Every Scene” is a misinterpretation.

Change the word SCENE to the phrase STORY STAGE and suddenly the whole thing makes a lot more sense.

“I am – I Need – I Desire…”

A Motivation that brings on Conflicts 
forcing them to choose – and change – their Goals.

This drives ALL THREE MAIN CHARACTERS, (Antagonist, Protagonist and Obstacle Character or Lead, Side-kick & Villain). The rest can go hang, but the Three Main Characters all need a Motivation, a Goal and a Conflict to function in a story.

In The Matrix 
Neo, curious by nature, and Motivated by his “need to know” was brought into Conflict with Agent Smith in his desired Goal to discover the secret of the Matrix.

In Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast  
Beast, proud by nature, and Motivated by his “need to remove his curse of ugliness” blackmailed Belle’s father into bringing Belle back to trade places with him, putting him in direct Conflict with Belle as they both searched for their desired Goal of a cure for their loneliness.

In The Mummy  
Evie, proud by nature, and Motivated by her “need to be an Egyptologist”, was in direct Conflict with what was acceptable for a woman to do, which provoked her desired Goal to find the City of the Dead.

In Conclusion...

Goal, Motivation and Conflict is not that hard to figure out – once you change the order to reflect how it’s actually used: Motivation – Conflict – Goal.

Morgan Hawke


  1. Deal Morgan, You are swesome. I have read and reread DD'd GMC but you have simplified it for me and I hope someday to be able to send you a link to My website as a published Paranormal auther. Thanks again Tina W

  2. oops, I had to jump through hoops to send this (sign up for a blog etc) so didn't get back to spellcheck, sorry TinaW

  3. I just came across this article and it made everything click for me after struggling with conflict and outlining my whole writing life. Thank you so much!!!