“It’s good to want things.” – Winona Ryder in Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael
“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.” — Ray Bradbury
A while back, I talked about Two Sentences That Changed My Life and From Frying Pan to Fire: Scene and Sequel. What both of those posts have in common is that they touched on the three vital elements of a story: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC). Without these, you don’t have a story.
Goal – What your character wants
Motivation – Why/How badly your character wants it
Conflict – What stands between your character and his/her goal
If any of these three elements are weak, your story will be weak as well. It doesn’t matter how beautifully you command the language, or how skillfully you wield action verbs, without a well-defined goal, sufficient motivation, or suitable level of conflict, your story will fall flat and you will lose your reader.
Without a clearly-defined goal, your character will wander aimlessly along, smelling the flowers and wondering what he/she is supposed to be doing. You should be able to answer quickly and concisely what your Main Character (MC) wants. In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett wants Ashley Wilkes. Everything she does springs from this want, from befriending Melanie Hamilton to making her home in Atlanta, it’s all done with the intent to stay close to Ashley Wilkes so she can make him love her.
In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby wants Daisy. In The Sting, Hooker wants revenge for the murder of his friend. In The Princess Bride, Westley wants to claim Buttercup.
Let’s take a closer look at The Princess Bride. That’s a good one to start with because the characters’ goals are so clearly defined. Westley wants to claim Buttercup. Inigo wants to find the six-fingered man. Humperdink wants to start a war between Guilder and Florin. At some point, their goals come into conflict with one another through the action in the story. Westley and Inigo are pitted against each other because Inigo was hired to kidnap Buttercup and Westley is following them so he can rescue her.
This is where the motivation behind the goals leads to the level of conflict created. In the famous sword fight scene, Inigo’s heart isn’t really in it. Why not? Because Westley isn’t the six-fingered man therefore, he isn’t sufficiently motivated to kill Westley. Westley, however is strongly motivated to defeat Inigo because he stands in the way of rescuing his dearest love, Buttercup. The motivation behind meeting the primary goal is stronger than the motivation behind the secondary goal, so there is conflict. With each clash of one goal blocking another, tension builds.
The story comes to a head when the characters’ primary goals come into conflict, when Westley, in his pursuit of Buttercup, stands in the way of Humperdink realizing his goal of using Buttercup to start a war. This occurs at the climax. Will Westley’s motivation (love) defeat Humperdink’s motivation (greed)? If Westley didn’t have deep feelings for Buttercup, would he fight so hard to rescue her? If Humperdink weren’t so greedy for power, would he be so single-minded in his purpose to use Buttercup to start a war?
This is why motivation is so important. How high are the stakes for your character? What does your character stand to lose? How will it impact his life if he fails? How far is your character willing to go to attain his goals? What will it take to make your character give up on his goals? When you can answer those questions, look at your answers and figure out how to throw each and every answer into your character’s path. That is how you build conflict.
Conflict is having your character face the very real possibility of being thwarted in achieving his goals. Conflict is blocking your character from his goal. All your character has to do to reach safety is cross a bridge. What do you do? You blow up the bridge. Now what does your character do? Well, your character has to find another way across. He learns of a ferry just upriver, but he has to fight his way through hostile natives to get there. If he doesn’t have adequate or believable motivation for continuing forward, the reader will wonder why he bothers. Why doesn’t he simply go home?
You have to communicate to your reader just how important the goal is, how motivated they are to attain that goal, and how difficult the conflict is to overcome. If any of these fall short, your story will lose tension and consequently your reader won’t care.
So, say to your character “Tell me what you want, what you really, really want…”