The Very Heart and Soul of Fiction

fire-heartWhether your characters live on planet Earth or in a galaxy far far away, all fiction is really about is relationships. Conflicts arise in relationships due to the disagreements people have with each other’s goals and motivations, and the aim for good fiction is to avoid painting these conflicts in black and white.

What makes the most interesting character to character conflicts is when each party is (or believes they’re) right, but their opposition believes their needs and preferences take presedence over them. And I’m not just talking about the basic hero vs. villain dynamic: Hero wants to save the world, Villain wants to destroy it, big whoop.

Readers and viewers of fiction are drawn to moral gray areas because they allow the consumer to make their own decisions about who’s right or wrong according to their own moral code. It gives them the freedom to feel the way they want to about the events, instead of being spoon fed like melodramatic stock characterization so often does.

The Greatest Allies = The Greatest of Enemies

movie-xavier-and-magneto-chessSome of the best conflicts usually happen within the same alliance, as opposed to the standard “my team is better than yours,” spiel. Take the classic example of Professor Xavier and Magneto from the X-Men series, particularly the First Class storyline.

Sure, as seasoned veterans of the mutant war they each have their own teams of mutants on their sides, and are at constant odds with each other on what the fate should be for humanity’s relationship with mutants. But when they were younger men still discovering and developing their own respective abilities, they were friends. Together they formed the first team of X-Men that ended up dividing due to a conflict of interest.

Professor X wanted to train fellow mutants and help them understand their own unique powers, but wants to keep them blended into society, if not hidden from it completely. After all, the world would not have be ready to accept these strange individuals.

Meanwhile, Magneto wanted mutants to embrace their individuality and stand out from the rest of society. That they should be world reknown and a force to be reckoned with if they were met with disgust and indifference. This causes him to rile against a world that initially becomes afraid that such beings exist.

Professor X and Magneto admire each other’s abilities and tenacity, but this clash of values is what creates nearly a century long feud between the two. Yet despite of all the broken bones and epic fights between their factions, along with all the havoc and destruction the common populace has to experience amidst all this…the two can still kick back and have a nice little ol’  game of chess and chill like old times as old timers.

X-Men features a huge cast of different mutants, some more popular than others–

*coughcoughWolverine>Cyclopscoughcough*

and they all have their own ways in which they relate with each other.

How I Met Your Mother By Becoming a Better Friend

However, a personal preference of mine is to keep casts to a smaller number. A handful of characters is all you ever really need to write compelling fiction that’s rich with unique relationships between all individuals. Such is this case with one of my favourite sitcoms How I Met Your Mother.

Here’s a quick and digestable Mind Map I made to outline the value they each offered to the other.

himym relations

Fiction is Friction

Despite of the value characters can offer to each other, the assisstance in growth is always met with resistance from whom they’re trying to help, either intentionally or unintentionally. The most potent and blatant clash of values in HIMYM is between the hopeless romantic Ted and the womanizer Barney. They’re polar opposites, yet they’re best friends. Why? Because they have a lot to teach each other.

how-i-met-your-mother-season-9-spoilersBarney shows Ted how to have a good time, how to act instead of over thinking everything, and not be so stuck on finding “the one,” which ironically inhibits Ted from having any success. He’s got his head so stuck in the clouds that he needs Barney to pull him down to Earth.

Likewise, Ted teaches Barney the consequences of screwing around with too many women. He shows Barney that true happiness can only derive through monogamy as opposed to an endless string one night stands. Barney’s behaviour derives from a great place of hurt from his childhood and romantic history. Seeing his bestfriend Ted get hurt over and over again, but still have the hope that he could find his true love becomes, much to Barney’s detrement, an inspiration to him.

Ted and Barney undo each other’s illusions by pulling each other out of their extremes so that they can meet somewhere in the middle. But it’s not like they initially accept each other’s differences from the get go. It is usually met with messy and hilarious hijinx.

A Peephole Into Another Reality

Reading or watching a piece of fiction gives us the chance to eavesdrop on some of the most vulnerable exchanges between people. It cuts through the mundane day to day conversations about sports and the weather, and in turn, highlights the challenging and life changing conversations that most people tend to avoid.

We are drawn to stories because we get to sit back as objective and passive participants to watch how these characters maintain or diminish their relationships. Fiction helps illustrate how people from different walks of life can find common ground…or not. All fiction ends with either a resolution between people’s differences or an even wider divide between them.

What are your favourite ensembles of characters?

Do any of their relationships mirror some of your own?

What have you learned about relationships through your consumption of fiction?

How much more interesting can your fiction become if you focused more on character relationships and development instead of crafting a compelling plot?

I would argue that intense focus on character relationships and development CREATE compelling plots. Let me know wat you think!

Goal, Motivation, Conflict

One of the most important driving forces of fiction is characterization. Without character, there is no story.

The reason why many of us are drawn to the art of storytelling (be it from film, music, TV, theatre or books) is because we like to relate to the characters who have clear goals, motivations, and conflicts to help build their character arcs.

It may not be clear to them–at least not right away at the beginning of a story–but as an audience we can easily identify with these concepts because as human beings, we all have unique goals, motivations, and conflicts to be confronted with in our own lives.

hiking-hiker-standing-mountain-top-1024x682

Writing is just like anything in life, it not only requires practice to make perfect, but also preparation. You can not just run a marathon without having gone on your own runs every morning to exercise them leg muscles. Well, you could, but you would most likely not have the endurance or capacity to do so. If you do, then you are a unique super human whom I will bow down to and feed grapes to from now until the end of eternity.

To help prepare your character for the journey that lies ahead, you outline their goals, motivations, and conflicts in a chart that looks a little something like this:GMC Chart

This GMC Chart is designed to help you gain clarity in undertanding exactly what your character wants, why they want it, and the conflicts that will arise to help challenge them. Without pressure, challenge or conflict, characters cannot grow. Think about your own life for a second and all the hardships you may have faced. Can you imagine who you would be today without having had overcome them?

“Pressure makes diamonds.” – George S. Patton

Let’s take a quick look at the purpose of each section of the chart and why they’re important.

WANTS TO/GOAL: This is where the clear cut desire is stated and outlines what the character wants to achieve. At the internal level, it’s what they would like to achieve at a personal level and  how they will grow as a person. The external level describes the effect they would like to have in their immediate world, or the entire world at large depending on the size and scale of your story.

BECAUSE/MOTIVATION: Why does the character have this desire? Internally, what do they struggle with or wish to improve on within themselves? Externally, what is it about their current circumstances that drive them to action? Once a goal is set, they need to have logical (sometimes illogical) reasons why they desire these things or we won’t understand why we should root for them in the first place.

BUT/CONFLICT: The but is the meat of fiction (hehehe) where the character will face obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals. Internally, what holds them back from moving forward? Ego, lack of confidence, vanity? Externally, what are the circumstances in the empirical world that stand in their way? Could it be a family member, a friend, or a flat out foe? This is the most essential aspect of a story for the reasons I stated above. Without challenge, there is no growth.

SO: And finally, the so describes the actions the character will take in order to overcome (or attempt to overcome) their challenges and grow from them. Internally, what will be the ultimate personal growth gained from this battle of attrition? Externally, what effect will their overall actions have on their friends, family, and the other characters in their proximity?

Have they gotten what they wanted, or have their desires changed throughout the course of the  story?

Let’s take a quick look at that question in greater depth. Typically, a character should have a desire that gets fulfilled at the end of the story in a linear fashion. The internal and external goals stay the same and they receive the right challenges they need to achieve their goals.

However, sometimes the internal goals change while the external goal stays the same. For instance, a man who was bullied in school may have the external goal to become a teacher for the internal purpose of regaining his lost power. Then maybe he confronts one of the bullies from his past and that bully actually apologizes for his past behaviour. And so this character may remain a teacher, but instead of using his position for power, his internal goal transforms into being an inspiring source of education for his students.

On the flip side, sometimes the internal goal may stay the same, but the external effect will change like for a woman who’s internal goal is to help people. She may start out as a real-estate agent and fulfill her goal by helping people find afforadble housing in areas convenient to their lifestyles, but as the story goes onward, she loses interest in flipping houses. Though since she still has the yearning burning desire to help people, perhaps she becomes a self-help author and motivational speaker to inspire people on how to live instead of where to live.

How to apply this to your life: 

The GMC chart is both used for the long-term and short-term clarification for what drives a character. A GMC chart can be made for an entire story’s overall narrative, but it’s also recommended that writers chart out the GMC for each chapter so there’s logical cohesion and progression throughout the story. You can do the same for the overall trajectory of your life and help understand your own goals and motivations, and then help identify the buts that butt in your way of achieving them. If you know what prevents you from your goals, you’ll have better understanding in what you need to do to overcome those conflicts.

“Knowing is half the battle!” – GI Joe. 

 Why this exercise is important:

Like writing the narrative of a character’s life, you can take control over your own with the GMC chart by identifying what your desires are and why they are important to you. Take the time to understand what’s holding you back in terms of your own inner-critic, as well the outer-critics in your life, and you can formulate an action plan to overcome them. It may be something as large as cutting poisonous people from your life or attempting to repair and transform your relationships–or it may be something as simple as stepping out of your own way.

 

Download the: GMC Template here!