Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Writing Wednesday: GMC - A Stupidly Simple System for Great Character Creation

As I promised yesterday, I am back with the first of the many many new writing tricks I picked up at RT 2016!

One of the things I love most about writing is that no matter how much you know or how experienced you are, there is always something new and awesome to learn. This year, the piece of writing advice that I put to immediate use was Linnea Sinclair's GMC character creation method. Now I'm not sure if Linnea actually invented this, but she's the first person I'd heard it from, so I'm going to give her credit because she's awesome and a super smart writer. Totally go check out her stuff if you like action packed romantic SF (like my Devi books!)

UPDATE! The creator of the GMC method emailed me! This amazing system was created by Debora Dixon who actually has an entire book about the GMC method! Thank you SO SO SO much to Debora for bringing this amazing thing into my life. Seriously, I don't know how I wrote so long without it.

So what is GMC? Let's find out!

Writing Wednesday: GMC - A Stupidly Simple System for Great Character Creation

Historically, my character creation process has happened in one of two ways: either a character came into my head fully formed and I just jotted down details (this is often how my main characters begin), or I created a character specifically to fill a need in the story (everyone else). For example, when I wrote my Paradox series, Devi was a character I'd had fully formed in my head for a long time. She just walked into my brain one day and was like "Get in, loser. We're writing a book." Eli was exactly the same, though far nicer about it.

Point is, I've never had to think very much about my characters because, for me, they just happen. I always make sure to get down the basics like what they want out of life, their histories, what they look like, etc. When it comes to their personalities, though, I usually just know.

Serendipitous as that might sound, this has actually been a huge weakness for me as an author. Because my characters come to me from the void of creation largely intact, I've never needed to make any kind of system to keep them in line, which means when things do go wrong with my characters, they go catastrophically wrong, and I have no idea how to fix them.

This is a problem I've been pecking at for a long time as a writer, but while I love granular systems in all other aspects of my writing (see how I plot or how I edit for examples of the too organized author in action), I've shied away from doing the same for characters because I didn't have a system of my own, and none of the ones I found ever felt right.

And then I discovered GMC, or Goal, Motivation, Conflict.

Like all really good writing tools, the GMC system is extremely simple on the surface, but has endless layers of depth. All you do to start is ask your potential character 3 questions:

What do you want? (Goal)
Why do you want it? (Motivation)
What's stopping you? (Conflict)

That's it. Answer those three questions and you will know everything you need to know about why this character is in this story and how they're going to react to the other characters around them.

Like all really good ideas, this one was so simple, but the moment I heard it, I immediately started using it on Heartstrikers 3, and I found so many problems. Keep in mind, these are characters I've been working with for years. I should know them inside out. But one of the big mistakes I've been making as a writer is confounding Goals and Motivation, and my favorite part about GMC is that it forces you to separate what a character wants from why they want it.

These are ABSOLUTELY not the same thing. To illustrate the importance of this difference, Let's take one of the most motivated characters ever, Monkey D Luffy from One Piece.

For those of you not familiar with this amazing show, Luffy is the main character who is absolutely defined by his desire to be the Pirate King. That's actually his catch phrase, "I'll be the Pirate King!" Every arc in the series, every wacky adventure is fueled by Luffy's Unstoppable Force to become the Pirate King.

Now, last week, if you'd asked me "What is Luffy's motivation as a character?" I would have told you that "To be the Pirate King," and I would have been wrong. Becoming the Pirate King is what Luffy wants. It's his goal, the star he's aiming for. His motivation, the why he wants to be the Pirate King, is far more complex, and now that I can see the difference, I love it.

This combination of simple goal and complex motivation is story gold, and it's one of the reasons One Piece works so well. We instantly know what the character wants because he shouts it in the opening, but why of it, the reason Monkey D. Luffy fights so hard, is incredibly deep and complex and ties into the themes of friendship, the innate nobility of reckless daring, and the importance of doing the right thing that the show as a whole revolves around. If Luffy's motivation really was to become the Pirate King, he'd be a literal one note character, but as millions of fans around the world will go on forever about, he is so so much more, and that depth is entirely due to the complex motivations behind his character. The why.

Realizing this blew my mind in the best way. For so many years, I'd been jamming my character's goals and motivations together. I would just ask my character "what do you want?" and treat the why as part of that, never realizing I was putting the cart before the horse. The goal is where the character is running, but motivation is why they run and fight and put their lives on the line, It's the soul of what any character is doing in a story and the key to knowing how they'll act in the face of conflict. It's not something you can brush over, in other words, and the fact that I've gotten this far conflating these two vitally important aspects just shows how instinctive good characters are.

I've gotten this far by trusting my gut and treating my characters as people, but like any blind trust, there are pitfalls, especially with minor characters I might not know as well as my main cast. This is where the true glory of the GMC sheet comes out, though, because you can do one for every character, big or small, named or unnamed, and instantly get a guide for how that character works within your story.

For example, let's say your characters stop at an inn late at night and have to face a grumpy innkeeper. The GMC for this innkeeper would go like this:

Goal: Get these questionable people to leave.
Motivation: Because I want to go to sleep.
Conflict: They won't leave.

Just like that. In three lines, you know everything you need to know about this character. You can probably already see in your head a grumpy innkeeper desperately trying to get these bothersome, probably broke adventures out of his inn so he can go to sleep.

How this actually goes down will depend on your other characters and the plot situation, but that innkeeper is good. He doesn't even need a name. All we need is that GMC and he's ready to play his part. This is the beauty of the GMC system: it can be as complex or as simple as you need it to be, but so long you take the time to figure it out, you'll have everything you need to tell you how a character will act in any given situation according to their goals and motives. But the other really great trick to this system is that it builds in delicious, wonderful conflict by default.

Conflict is what makes stories interesting. It is the story. If everyone got what they wanted at the beginning, they'd have no reason to go on an adventure and there'd be no plot. The GMC system keeps this in mind by assigning every character conflict, no matter how minor. If the innkeeper just said "come on in" there'd be no scene. But if he wants your characters to leave, that's a scene. There's conflict, there's negotiation. Your character's goal for the scene (to spend the night somewhere not outside) which stems from their motivation (they're being chased, they grew up as a prince and hate sleeping on grass, whatever fits your story) runs counter to the innkeeper's goal (to get them to leave) and motivation (because he wants to go to sleep).

As you see, there's nothing really complex going on here. This is a simple conflict, and that's okay. Not every conflict has to be life or death. At the same time, though, there has to be some level of disagreement for the story to be interesting. A plot where everyone says yes to your characters is a plot where nothing happens. By building conflict into every character right from the start, though, you're guaranteeing yourself an interesting story. There's simply nothing else it can be with that much conflict waiting to spark.

So if you've been struggling with character creation, or you just want to try something new, I highly recommend making a GMC sheet for your characters. Even if you're like me, and you already know your characters inside and out, just getting the basics down can still be incredibly eye opening. Just speaking for myself, I ended up completely redoing parts of Chelsie's backstory because I was mistakenly treating her goal as her motivation. Just by implementing this simple fix, Chelsie's part of the Heartstriker story is infinitely more interesting, moving, and heartbreaking. I am thanking my lucky stars I discovered GMC before I published this book, because I would have missed an incredible opportunity to make one of my favorite characters even better.

I hope this system blows your mind as much as it did mine! Stuff like this just goes to show how important continuing education is for writers. I've written 13 novels (20 if you count the ones I never published or can't talk about), and I'm STILL discovering new fundamentals for my writing. We're never too experienced to learn a new trick, and I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did!

I'll be back next week with more writing gems from RT, starting with what I learned about Romance plot lines and how they're fundamentally different from other forms of fiction. Also, I've convinced Travis to do posts about the amazing author business panels he attended since 1) he was the one who was actually there while I was at the craft panels, and 2) there's no way I can write all of these blog posts myself! So look out for that next week as well.

As you can see, we've got lots of good stuff in the pipe! If there's a subject you'd particularly like me or Trav to talk about, please let us know in the comments below, and if you're not already, don't forget to follow me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+) to never miss a post. I post new craft posts every Wednesday and writing business stuff in between plus updates on my own books, so be sure to check back!

Thank you as always for reading. I really hope these tips help you as much as they've helped me. I'll see you all next Wednesday for another post. Until then, keep writing!



Nicole Montgomery said...

Omg-this is brilliant. I didn't realize until you said it that I was doing the exact same thing, conflating the goal/motivation. And finding myself writing to a screeching halt with one character in particular. I get her personality (she's a bit like a less tough Devi), it's the big, overarching motivation that's been nebulous. "Save your friend" is not very concrete as a motivation, although it is certainly a goal.

And the beauty is it *does* work on both the big arc and simple scene levels!

Thank you for these -- you have an amazing way of cutting through the fluff to get to the heart of the matter, and I so appreciate all your tips and methods. Happy Wednesday!

Nicole Montgomery said...

A quick note: one thing I've been doing lately that helps me and goes well with the GMC is to note at the top of a problematic scene, "Point of Scene for Reader:" plus scene character goal. Like "intro X character," or "show X's reactions to Y," then have "X trying to get datacube..." or whatever. It goes perfectly with this.

CS McClellan/Catana said...

Just in time for following up on a friend's very pointed critique. My main character is all over the place, and this goes a long way toward helping me understand why. It also highlights his arc so it makes more sense. I can see now that he actually goes through three rounds of GMC. Which means that the system works for complex characters as well as simple ones. Thank you, thank you. And thank Linnea Sinclair for me.

Tam Francis said...

In my ARWA, we had an entire meeting about this. Most people were either dumbstruck, like "hell ya, how did I not know this," or were already on the boat. There was one gal that said she didn't buy into, but she'd been writing a long time. I think this is GREAT advice especially for the beginning and even intermediate writer! Thanks for putting this idea back in my head!

Sheridan Jeane said...

You need to read "Goal Motivation and Conflict" by Deb Dixon. This concept is actually her brain child. I believe she originally published the book in the 90s. It used to only be available through Writer's Digest, but she recently released it on Amazon. It's an excellent book!

Sheridan Jeane said...

You need to read "Goal Motivation and Conflict" by Deb Dixon. This concept is actually her brain child. I believe she originally published the book in the 90s. It used to only be available through Writer's Digest, but she recently released it on Amazon. It's an excellent book!

Kessie said...

Oh wow, this was exactly what I needed. Motivation = the stakes! Just what I needed to amp things up for my poor heroine-in-planning. :-)

Elizabeth Poole said...

I second Deb Dixion's book GMC. It breaks the theory down further and actually reminded me of 2K to 10K a bit. Also, Libbie Hawker's book "Take Off Your Pants" is super duper good about working the character arc into the plot.

Jennifer Taylor said...

Great blog! I'm looking forward to your next one.

Jennifer Taylor said...

Great blog! I'm looking forward to your next one.

Katherine R. said...

Took your advice, and it really helped! I'd argue that you were taking this into consideration for most of your books without realising it. Eli Monpress is a perfect example. The what and the why of what he wants are totally different, and this novel was written long before Heartstrikers (assuming the one actually did come before the other!). The same is true of Josef, Devi, Rupert, and so many more!

So maybe you were doing this all along and have just seen advice that reconceptualised what you're already doing, or reminded you of something you'd maybe forgotten?

Anonymous said...

Third vote for Debby Dixon's GMC-book! One of the best craft-books IMHO

Jinx King said...

Why do you continually make it easier to write books? I swear, your methods have saved my life like eighteen billion times at this damn point.