Saturday, July 19, 2008

Writing Lessons: Internal and External Goals

Yesterday, we hit on the GMC chart. Now we're going to get specific. There are two types of goals, motivations, and conflicts for each character. Both are important because one drives the story, and one drives the character. Pull out your Character Chart again and look at the middle column, labeled External.

External conflicts are what drive the story. My example yesterday of the movie Mulan was the external GMC. Mulan joined the army in place of her father to protect him, knowing it would be her death if she were caught. This is the conflict the world would see, but shows nothing of her inner thoughts.

You could write a perfectly acceptable story based solely on the External GMC. Many authors do this. It's what readers notice first. Ah, but here's the trick: to "flesh out" the characters and make them become living, plausible, and sympathetic beings, you should give them an inner conflict.

The Internal GMC column is your character's heart and soul. Everyone has an inner weakness and drive they would rather not reveal to the world. Not necessarily a flaw, but what drives them personally.

To use a cliché, let's use a simple Internal GMC we are all familiar with. We've seen it used thousands of times.

Goal: To show disapproving/indifferent parent that they can be someone.
Motivation: To bolster their morale or prove themselves worthy of love and respect
Conflict: Low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy/self-hatred

I purposely tried to muddy the waters yesterday using the movie VanHelsing. MB presented the External Conflict, and I "innocently" tried to point out the Internal conflict of the hero. Quite rightly, MB stated her confusion. Bless you, MB, for putting up with me.

The simplest way to remember the two types of GMC and differentiate between them is that one conflict is easily seen by the "world" around the character, and one cannot. VanHelsing was a vampire hunter ridding the world of evil, but he was also an immortal seeking his own past despite amnesia.

This can be --and IMHO should be-- done with all primary characters and, depending on length of book and how in-depth you're going, even your secondary characters. In a novella (under 30K by e-pub standards) where there is no space to develop secondary characters, this may be unnecessary, but I urge you to do it for yourself.

Now, for the final trick that makes good characters into great ones: The Idiosyncrasies. We all have them. The gestures and "tells" that define our moods. Rubbing a worry stone, biting nails, addiction to coffee, fiddling with objects, hobbies, sexual fetishes, and regrets. You intend to put your characters under stress, so give them a stress habit. (worry stones, snapping gum, rubbing two fingers together, etc.) One of my characters had a tendency to get lost in thought until his cigarette burned down enough that ash fell in his lap constantly.

Give them a sense of humor trait, and/or a pet. One of my most recent characters has a love of weird coffee mugs to go with his addiction to herbal tea. Another character never had time to mess with her hair, so she constantly blew it out of her face instead of securing it with clips. Look at your friends, pets and family for inspiration.

Last but not least, at least with your main characters, give them sexual preferences. Some people are more oral than others. Some people like certain toys or whatever. Is this a BDSM story? Well, someone has to be the submissive and someone the Dominant. A ménage? This had better be someone's fantasy. Give them a reason to want to play. Even virgins have "sensitive spots." The e-book business is rarely about the lily-white virgin who never had an impure thought in their life.

Please note that I've not said you must do all this first. I do recommend that you at least have the external plots noted, since you will most likely need it first to plot, but sometimes the internal conflict may not be clear in the beginning. Don't be afraid to write in pencil, modify, and add in things as you go.

Characters sometimes reveal themselves in stages. You may know a little backstory, or have a few traits clear when you start, but that's it. Then, as you write, suddenly the hero has a dog he adores, the heroine seems to always have gum in her purse, and the meddling boss chomps on a cigar he forgets to light. Write these things down. The dog's name, the brand/type of gum, and the fact that the cigar is cheap or Cuban. The back of the sheet is blank for a reason. The notes section at the bottom is good for noting the hero has BLUE eyes and BROWN hair, not green and blonde.

The muse is a fickle creature with a severe memory issue. Use this paper to remember.


Cynnara Tregarth said...

Thanks for the refresher on Internal and external goals, Lena. Sometimes, I don't give the internals enough play, sometimes I don't make them react enough with the externals and with the other characters to help deepen the story.

One of the things I do when I make my list of Internal and External goals for my characters is I always ask, "Why do you want/hate/need this? What if you don't have it the way you want? What if you have to let it go?" That way I know some of the responses my characters have to being forced to face their desires and their fears.

Lena Austin said...

Exactly, Cyn!! This is all about the WHY they do the things they do.

Their wants drive them forward, their fears hold them back. A fully fleshed out character has elements of both visible to the reader.

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