Debra Dixon wrote a wonderful book, Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction. It's very helpful for writers who need to work out a more thorough understanding of their characters. It's also very helpful as a checklist for writers to make sure their story has enough oomph.
But I would maintain that the strong goal is only one way to envision a character so that her story is dynamic. There are others.
Recently, I had someone tell me the characters for my NaNoWriMo novel lack sufficiently strong goals and that there was no way I could generate enough conflict for a full length novel. I really had to think about that. Surely there was a counter-example to The Wizard of Oz -- a compelling movie where the characters start off with weak or no goals?
Absolutely no conflict there. And really, what little conflict these two characters have is fleeting and rather inconsequential. What Vivian and Edward have is alchemy: Each of them has the power to change the other. Mostly, Vivian changes Edward through example. First, he identifies with her ("We both screw people for money") but gradually he sees the appeal in her approach to life. She's spontaneous, she makes him relax and enjoy himself, she gets him to see the futility in destroying businessmen who remind him of his father, and she has integrity.
We see that she has integrity in a variety of ways, but mostly it's in contrast with Stuckey, the dickwad lawyer played by Jason Alexander. Over the course of the movie, Edward comes to see Stuckey as an unprincipled jerk and Vivian as someone he can't live without. The Black Moment comes when Edward admits to Vivian that his specialty is impossible relationships. Meaning, he's changed, but not enough to be really happy.
Well, I used the Pretty Woman Defense in support of my NaNoWriMo characters. I figure if that movie can make $435 million worldwide, then maybe I can write a compelling story about the transformative power of love. My detractor countered by saying that all great romance novels have lots of conflict arising from Goals and Motivations.
The Pretty Woman Defense, part two: How about To Have and To Hold, by Patricia Gaffney? Many people would rate it the best romance novel ever. (If you don't know it, I blogged about it here.) Both Rachel and Sebastian are vivid characters who stay with you for a long time after you read the book. Let's look at their GMC profiles, shall we?
RachelGoal: To survive
Motivation: Marginally prefers life to its alternative
Conflict: But really, how much cruelty will she have to endure?
SebastianGoal: To prove he's cruel and devoid of humanity
Motivation: Unclear. Boredom? Low self-esteem despite being a lord?
Conflict: He has to do some really crappy things to prove he's as bad as his friends, and in the end, he doesn't have the stomach for it.
Survival is so universal a goal that it's almost invisible. The only reason it shows up in Rachel is because of her backstory (married at 18 to a sadist & pedophile, tried & convicted for his murder, spared the death penalty but incarcerated and then released just before the book starts) -- she has none of the things she needs literally to survive: shelter, food, work. Sebastian offers those to her because there's something so primal about her situation, it prompts him to this fake act of chivalry.
Neither of these characters is very sympathetic, and the first half of the book is harrowing to read. But in the second half, Sebastian changes his goals and motivation just enough that he starts to treat Rachel better. She actually relaxes her goals and motivation just a bit to start to trust him.
This is not a classically GMC-structured set up. Rachel is very much a product of what has happened to her. Arguably, Sebastian is also a product of his past, although that's harder for us to picture because we don't know much about his past. All we know is that -- rather like Edward in Pretty Woman -- Sebastian has the chance to change the object of identification. He identifies with Sully, a nasty piece of work from London, in the beginning, and then identifies with Rachel toward the end.
If To Have and To Hold isn't enough of a counter-example to the strict rules of GMC, then how about LaVyrle Spencer's Morning Glory, where Will's goal is to survive and Elly's goal is to survive, and they can both help each other survive, but there are a lot of natural barriers to their love and then some artificial barriers, but in the end love survives. Not a very conflict-ridden book, but still an excellent romance because the characters are so well-drawn and the writing is superlative. *My husband guest-reviewed Morning Glory here.
What Will and Elly do is -- you guessed it -- improve each other's lives. She gives him a sense of home and belonging; he gives her a sense of security and acceptance. They demonstrate the synergy of love: how two people can fit together so beautifully that as a couple they can do so much more than they could apart. Again, the transformative power of love.
Here then is my heretical belief: Yes, we need to know who the characters are, including their goals, motivations, and conflicts. But sometimes compelling characters are revealed in the course of the story, and the story is basically just how these two people affect each other. The absence of a goal doesn't have to make a character weak provided she has a good reason for not having a goal.
(And, it goes without saying, slapping a strong goal on a boring character isn't going to create a great story.)