Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and suddenly the main character does something so completely uncharacteristic it ruins the entire story? This happens when the writer doesn’t understand a character or wants the story to go a certain direction so they force it. Unfortunately, this can leave the audience confused at the best and disgusted at the worst. I know I have thrown down books and never picked them up again when this has happened.
A good example of this is the character Claire in Jurassic World. She’s a tough businesswoman. She keeps calm when things go wrong. She handles things. Her blind spot is in thinking of dinosaurs as products. Like they are overgrown iPhones or robots or something.
But then suddenly she panics when things go wrong. She’s unsettled and disoriented. She becomes unsure and relies on Owen to save the day. Totally not the same person at all.
Some argue that being chased by a dinosaur might bring out new character aspects. Fair enough in your average person. However, this is a woman who is in charge of a dinosaur park! She has to have had training and procedures and backup plans to her backup plans. Dinosaurs getting loose are an everyday possibility. She’d be prepared for it. It’s a “C’mon people we’ve practiced this!” moment. But we’re supposed to believe she freaks out when it happens. It’s completely out of character for Claire to crumble when faced with a problem. Much like John Hammond or Mr. Arnold (without the death), she’d be…you know…a leader. Instead, she got all emotional, because…lady parts, I guess.
I understand why they chose to push the story this direction. They wanted Owen and Claire to be together and they wanted Claire out among the dinosaurs so she could have her “these things feel” epiphany. Unfortunately, the whole thing feels forced. The Claire at the start of the movie would have kept her calm, stayed in ops, and run the evacuation from there instead of running around the island accomplishing nothing.
So how do we, as writers, avoid such issues? By understanding your character. Really understanding them. Deep down inside what do they really need? What motivates them to act the way they do? And what conflicts stand in their way and keep them from achieving their goals?
Jurassic World would have us believe that Claire’s underlying goal is to find a man to rely on. As if. A strong independent businesswoman who has overcome barriers to become the head of a multi-billion dollar company at a young age is really just searching for the right guy? Uh huh. This is what I meant about understanding your character. Something else drove Claire to her position with InGen. Something drove the wedge between her and her sister. Unfortunately, we have no idea what that is, and so Claire loses that something that drives her story forward.
Owen is easier. His underlying need is to be the best. And not an ordinary best. Someone unique. Anyone could tame lions. He tames raptors. This need motivates him through everything he does in the movie. He’s the best at tracking down the nephews. He’s the best at leading the raptors into battle. He has a setback when the raptors change sides (conflict), but he is validated at the end when Blue turns on the Indominus and doesn’t attack him, Claire, or the kids. He was indeed the best.
Since we don’t know Claire’s underlying goal, she really has no motivation. So she is given an external one by putting her nephews in danger. Her conflict is all external as well. The only internal shift she has is when she finally realizes dinosaurs are not decor.
Goal – Motivation – Conflict
There are actually multiple versions of this trio in a well-written story. I touched on this earlier when I spoke of Claire’s motivation all being external.
The external goal of Jurassic World is to stop Indominus Rex. That’s fairly obvious. This goal motivates the characters and provides the action. Your characters internal goals dictate how they react to this external event. It’s their response which drives the story forward. If Owen didn’t have the need to be the best, he wouldn’t have cared if Hoskins took the raptors after Indominus. But only he could run them. If someone else could do it, then he wasn’t the best. So we have him on his motorcycle hunting with the raptors. You’ll note I never said they had appropriate or rational responses, just that their responses spring from what drives them.
Conflict is also internal and external. There’s the internal conflict Claire suffers for about 5 minutes when her sister guilt trips her about not spending time with her nephews. This is supposedly the catalyst for her abandoning her job and running off into the park to find them. It’s inauthentic because it’s outside anything we’ve been shown about Claire previously. She thinks in terms of satisfaction surveys and focus groups rather than personal feelings. The real Claire would have sent people off to look for them and worried about mitigating damage so share prices didn’t drop.
So we have internal and external Goals, Motivations, and Conflict. Each scene rests upon this tripod as well. And each character. Even the antagonist. And the great thing about GMC is that it works for pantsers as well as plotters. Plotters can plan an entire outline by asking themselves about goals, motivation, and conflict for each scene and chapter. Pantsers can keep GMC in mind as they dive into writing.
Know your character and you know your story. It’s as simple as that.