The Dreaded GMC

I’ve hesitated to post this after Thanksgiving, because I didn’t want to slide so quickly back into a spirit of snarkiness. However, I’ve decided after all to share it for the entertainment of my writing friends if nothing else—and possibly to spark a bit of useful discussion.

Though it was probably contentious of me, and rebellious and every other spiritually negative adjective, I recently kicked over the traces on one aspect of the writing craft—the infamous “GMC,” which stands for “Goals-Motivation-Conflict.” Goals and Motivation describe not only what the character of a story wants externally (say, to find a wife or get a job), but what drives them internally (to fill some deep emotional need, or not lose the kids and farm, or usurp the throne). Conflict is what happens when circumstances conspire against the character and hinder his efforts to obtain what he desires. You can see this in any story or film, at some point or another.

So here’s how the conversation went.

Me to Writer Friend #1:

I'm wondering … whether the GMC has to be immediately apparent in a story modeled after the hero’s quest ... I mean, isn’t the whole point that you have this character who basically just wants to live life and be left alone, but then is forced by circumstances beyond his control to become something great? I'm just not sure the rule applies so strongly there.

Or maybe it's just that I need to show more clearly that my character just wants to be left alone ...

Writer Friend #1 back:

That's an interesting thought--that the motivation for a journey-quest story might be different. I'm thinking of Donaldson's protag. His main “want” early was to stay safe. But he took specific steps to accomplish this in this world. In the fantasy world ... his main steps seemed to be to dodge the mantle of “savior.” He was a very negative character, though, and hard to like. I tried to make my character in his image and he fell flat on his face. Readers HATED him. So I went for the engaging protag instead. Part of that is having a want/need people can relate to, can root him on to obtaining.

Then Writer Friend #2 emails me. She’d gotten some negative feedback on the beginning of a story that I found so entrancing I stayed up until 3 AM reading …

… it was an issue of goals, that [my main character]’s goals and motivations weren’t clearly defined. This is true in a sense (and I’ve worked over it some with this in mind - a bit more *telling*), but ultimately, when one has been an idiot and a mute, treated as she was all her life, how many goals is she likely to have?

My response:

BAH! Bah! BAH!! and BAH!!!!!!

< rant >

I am sick to death of hearing about "goals, motivation, and conflict." I suggested to [Writer Friend #1] a few days ago that you can't always "properly" show a textbook GMC in a hero's quest type of story (which I sorta think [your main character]’s tale could be, in its own way), or even in a Cinderella story [which hers is]. I'm not sure the reader cares about GMC. I'm beginning to think it's one of those stupid-picky things that other writers make up to torture their fellow writers.

< / rant >

Anyway, [Writer Friend #1] did find my theory interesting. Wonder if that will surface as a blog topic.

Writer Friend #2 wrote back:

Oh. My. Good. Gravy.

I am sososososooooo with you on the < rant > < / rant > (your html cracked me up, by the way).

Let me tell you a dirty little secret: the ABA thinks this whole GMC thing is bullshivick. Honestly, in the CBA it functions as a crutch, a formula, and any of us who dares DARES not put a sentence in chapter 1 that says something like: "More than anything in the world, Jake wants XYZ. More than life and breath and sex and a good cold malty beer, he wants it. But ABC stands in his way. How can he ever hope to get XYZ with ABC always there? And how can he go on living if he doesn't get XYZ?" I swear. Read [unnamed author] again. It's there. The first three POV chapters s/he does this MORE THAN ONCE for each character. "More than anything [main character] wanted [other main character] to [fulfill this very noble desire]." "More than anything [other main character] wanted to [again, very worthwhile pursuit]." This, I will just say it as I see it, is the work of hackdom.

I mentioned this GMC thing to my ABA friend and she laughed. She said, "Bwaa haa haa! I'm sorry, but that is just pure absurdity." Now I'll admit, my opening had other problems - not motivation/goal however - some lack of character development which I've been working hard to remedy. Too much authorial distance from [main character] in the beginning because, when I wrote it, I didn't fully know her yet. But anyway. I think your theory is dead on, and the greatest shame is that editors are perpetuating it as much as authors. I swear, I've worked closely with an ABA editor on a book and I never ever ever ever even once had her mention GMC or anything even remotely related. It's a formula thing, a "genre" thing the way Heartsong has its own genre things - ending books with a wedding, for example. Only this one applies to the whole CBA.

Interesting. Very interesting. So … what say you, fair friends? Is the principle of GMC a hard-and-fast rule, or just one of those "guidelines" that once one has thoroughly learned the craft of writing, one can bend, or even ignore altogether? And does it apply to every type of story structure?


  1. I always thought G/M/C was just for little gegments, within scenes, not for the entire story over all. Mostly a way to ensure suspense (which is probably the dominate CBA genre at the moment that isn't romance) are always moving fast and crazy.

    Don't think it can be so easily set up on the grander scale in other genres.

  2. The GMC thing didnt' come out of CBA. It came out of ABA. :) And it was just shorthand for what was obvious in many successful movies and stories.

    I think we like to cop out and say, "Well, it's a gimmick." It's just a tool to get writers clear on their characters. That's all. Some don't need it, cause they instinctively know to give the characters obsessions and obstacles and inner turmoil. Some need it cause the craft doesn't come as instinctively. Like any article or tool, you take what you need.

    But I wouldn't denigrate it. It's a good tool for many and it helps make people think more focusedly about what makes characters tick.

    I know that I'm only interested in characters who are strongly motivated and greatly conflicted. Characters that aren't obsessed or possessed or stressed don't interest me as a reader.

  3. Oh, and mute idiots can be as obsessed, possessed, stressed, and thwarted as anyone. That's a cop-out on your friend's part. The hard part is showing what makes a mute idiot work. One doesn't have to be intelligent to have a strong goal. One must merely be motivated. :) That's the writer's job.


  4. Mir, I can promise you, my friend's character is very gripping, very engaging. (And if you didn't catch it, the character has been *thought of* as a mute idiot ... she is neither in actuality. :-)

    I'm not arguing that this didn't come from ABA first ... just look in any writing craft book and you see it. I'm just saying that maybe it doesn't have to be so hard-and-fast. I can think of lots of stories where the main character doesn't have a burning goal and motivation from page one.

  5. Well, I'll be nice and not go into detail about my opinion of so many of these Writing Straitjackets, er, rules (whether they be ABA or CBA).


    Oh, well, I'll say a tiny bit -- rules are nice as a guideline or to teach new writers the basics of their craft (as a submissions editor, I've seen many submissions that had no plot, or no denouement, or no something, or no lots of things. LOL So I see a need to teach new writers these basics).
    But when guidelines become Rules, we have a problem.

  6. I recently picked up an ABA novel just to see how it began. . first page stuff. And guess what. . the first couple of paragraphs spelled out the heroines goal. literally. . .and then the next page-- total conflict to her goal. So that story started pretty quick. LOL

  7. As a reviewer...I start out most of my comments that way. But I digress...

    As a reviewer, I read so many cookie cutter books and would love to read something different and well thought out. Novels need the GMC, but they also need to be clever in the way they present these entities to us. For me the best read books aren't so assembly line driven. The main character is introduced and she comes to us with a minor problem that she tries to solve on her own. We jump on her coat tails because we want to see if she can pull it off. As the story progresses--dependent on story structure--the major WMC is revealed.

    When a reader can identify components of a novel so easily, then the writing is lazy. If the story is good I don't mind lazy writing. Isn't that crazy?

  8. Shannon, I don't think of it as a rule, but as a tool. And, like you, I've found it very difficult to apply to the Hero's Quest story -- and missing from those stories that don't work for me. Hmmm...I think you may have given me a great topic for a blog post or two! Thanks.


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