What Drives Characters?

As writers, we all know that characters need drive or their actions will come across as unmotivated.  But what is drive, and where does it come from?

At a minimum, every character needs a reason to explain the choices they make and the things they do.  For example, the ex-con who has made a new life going straight takes on one more job because his daughter needs a surgery he can’t afford.  Or, a mother of three who is belittled and abused by her husband falls deeply in love with a man she met in a chance encounter but can’t bring herself to run away with him because she was abandoned by her own mother as a child.

These motivations are enough to satisfy the basic need to understand what drives each character, yet the reasons given still seem unrealistically simple, superficial, or just too pat.

So how do you design drives for your characters that ring true to the complex web of conflicting feelings that form the motive forces each of us grapple with in everyday life?  For that, you need to dig down beneath the reasons a character responds and acts as they do in order to discover their justifications.

Justifications are the tangled up knots of experience that determine both our emotional responses to life situations as well as the courses of actions we think are best.  Like a ball of snarled rubber bands, justification creates a lot of potential, and if something starts to cut into it, sometimes it slowly unravels, and other times it snaps explosively.

The creation of Justification in characters is the purpose of and reason for Backstory. The dismantling of Justification is the purpose and function of the story itself. The gathering of information necessary to dismantle Justification is the purpose and function of the Scenes, with every Act completing a major new epiphany.  It is the nature of the specific Justifications explored in a particular story that determines the story’s message.

Understanding justification is essential to understanding the dynamics that drive story structure.  Fortunately this is not as hard as it might sound as we do this intuitively every day.  We all justify, for better or worse, and then subconsciously add the results of our latest use of the process into our experience base, slightly changing our view of the world every time we do it.

So my purpose here is not to tell you something you don’t already know, but to elevate that process from automatic to intentional.  In this way, you can more accurately and powerfully sculpt your characters, what drives them, and how that leads to the behaviors they exhibit.

Technically speaking, Justification is a state of mind wherein the Subjective view differs from the Objective view. Okay, fine. But how about in plain English!!!! Very well…  When someone sees things differently than they are, they are Justifying. This can happen either because the mind draws a wrong conclusion or assumes, or because things have actually changed in a way that is no longer consistent with a held view.

All of this comes down to cause and effect. For example, suppose you have a family with a husband, wife and young son. Here is a sample backstory of how a particular little boy might develop a particular justification that could plague him in later life….

The husband works at a produce stand. Every Friday he gets paid. Also every Friday a new shipment of fresh beets comes in. So, every Friday night, he comes home with the beets and the paycheck. The paycheck is never quite enough to cover the bills and this is weighing heavily on his wife. Still, she knows her husband works hard, so she tries to keep her feelings to herself and devotes her attention to cooking the beets for her husband and her son.

Nevertheless, she cannot hold out forever, and every Friday evening at some point while they eat, she and her husband get in an argument. Of course, like most people who are trying to hold back the REAL cause of her feelings, she picks on other issues, so the arguments are all different.  Their son, therefore, cannot see an immediate cause for the problem so he desperately looks for one so he can anticipate the problem and either avoid it or at least be prepared – something we all do called “problem-solving.”

Now the child might come to feel that Friday nights are gonna be bad or that dinner is a horrible time, but in our story, he casts his eyes down at his plate of beets so as to shut out the arguing, and this becomes the common factor he fixates on as his canary in the mine – a harbinger of a fight to come.  And, of course, all of this is going on in his heart subconsciously, below the level of his conscious awareness.

With this backstory, we have laid out a series of cause and effect relationships that lead to the child establishing a justification – a connection between the way his parents fighting makes him feel and the serving of beets. With this potential we have wound up the spring of the dramatic mechanism for our story, and now we are ready to begin the fore story to see how that tension creates problems.

The Story Begins: The young boy, now a grown adult with a wife and child of his own, sits down to dinner with his family. He begins to get belligerent and antagonistic. His wife does not know why he is suddenly acting this way or  what she may have inadvertently done to trigger his behavior. In fact, later, he himself cannot say why he was so upset. But we, the readers or audience, know it is because his wife served beets.

Looking toward the backstory, it is easy to see that from the young boy’s knowledge of the situation when he was a child, the common element that he fixated on whenever his parents argued was the serving of beets. They never argued about the money directly, and that would probably have been beyond his ken anyway.  And so, he established a subconscious correlation- a justification – that associated angry interchanges with the presence of beets.  And if there is no argument, he starts one, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Certainly, this makes no sense to the conscious mind – one would never accept nor act upon such a ridiculous association.  But the subconscious does not reason, it just associates.  And therefore, connections made in such a way are simply accepted as being truisms.

Obviously, it is not stupidity that leads to such misconceptions, but lack of accurate information. The problem is, we have no way of knowing if we have the proper information or not, for we can never determine how much we do not know or what we may have unintentionally misconstrued.  Justification is nothing more than a human trait by which we see a repetitive proximity between two items or between an item and a process and assume a causal relationship, as in “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” or “one bad apple spoils the bunch.”

But why is this so important to writing stories?  In fact, the purpose of stories is to shine a light on these erroneous connections that can get stuck in our motivations, just as Scrooge is shown that his world view is in error by having the ghosts expose the roots of his justifications and their ramifications on others.  Stories show us a greater Objective truth that is beyond our limited Subjective view. They exist to convince us that if we feel something is a certain way, even based on extensive experience, it is possible that it really is not that way at all, at least in this particular kind of situation.  And the more we consume stories, as readers or audience members, the more skillful we become at questioning our most strongly held assumptions and beliefs, leading to a more clear understanding of our lives, and therefore to a better ability to navigate them.

But not all assumptions of cause and effect are wrong.  In fact, most of the time we get it right, seeing repeated connections over and over again and accurately accepting that there is a direct connection between one set of circumstances and what happens next.

Characters, whether their assumptions are right or wrong, will be tested by a new set of circumstances that make it appear as if a given earlier assumption is actually wrong.  But are they truly wrong or do they just appear to be wrong?  That is the dilemma that leads to a character facing a leap of faith – to stick with the tried and true that currently seems to be failing, or to embrace a new understanding that seems to explain more but has never been tried.

The question here is that in our lives, our understanding is not only limited by past misconceptions, but by lack of accurate information about the present as well.  And stories are all about sending a message that in this particular kind of scenario, trust your beliefs OR in this particular scenario, abandon your beliefs.

“Keeping the faith” describes the feeling that drives characters who refuse to change their long-held views., even in the face of major contradiction, holding on to one’s views and dismissing the apparent reality as an illusion or falsehood.

“Seeing the light” describes the feeling that drives characters who ultimately embrace a new view, even in the face of potential disaster, accepting a new reality and recasting the previous belief as either having always been in error, or at least not being accurate right now.

At the climax of a story, the need to make a decision between remaining steadfast in one’s faith or altering it is presented to every main character. Each must make that choice. And as a result of that choice, the character will succeed or fail.

If we decide with the best available evidence and trust our feelings we will succeed, right? Not necessarily. Success or failure is just the author’s way of saying she agrees or disagrees with the choice the character made.  So, just making a leap of faith does not, in and of itself, guarantee success.  Rather, a story leads a character to a point at which that choice – to change or remain steadfast in one’s beliefs – can no longer be put off.  Circumstances are such that failing to make the choice at all leads to certain disaster.  The only way to have a chance to succeed is to choose to either stay the course, or to set off in a new direction.

In the original Star Wars movie, for example, Luke Skywalker is ultimately faced with trusting in the targeting computer or in himself and turning off the computer to rely on his own skills in destroying the Death Star.   He turns off the computer, trusting in himself, and destroys the Death Star.  But that is only one of four possible outcomes.

Imagine if Luke had made the the choice to turn off his targeting computer (trusting in the force), dropped his bombs, and missed the target, Darth blows him up and the Death Star obliterates the rebels… how would we feel? Sure you could write it that way, but would you want to? Perhaps! If you made Star Wars as a government sponsored entertainment in a fascist regime, that might very WELL be the way you would “want” to end it!

But there are still two other options.  Suppose Luke left the targeting computer on and succeeded, or if he turned it off and failed.  Any of these outcomes makes sense, but each sends different kind of message.  And that, as was said in the beginning, is the purpose of stories – to convey a message that a particular believe is a good or bad one to maintain in the given situation that this particular story explores.  And you can do that by showing the steadfast choice succeeds or fails, or that change leads to success or failure, each creating a different kind of message.

In summary then, the point of stories is to provide a message about the best way to respond to a specific given problem – either to stick with one’s long-held beliefs or to adopt a new way of looking at things.  Backstory explains how a belief was formed through the process of justification.  Over the course of the story, circumstances continually build pressure on your main character to change that belief, eventually arriving at a climax that forces a choice because failure is certain if one does not choose at all between the old belief and the new.

By this point, there is equal evidence supporting the original belief as supporting the new one.  And so, the main character must make a leap of faith and choose to stick to remain steadfast in its views or to adopt a new view.  Either way could lead to success or failure, depending on the flavor of message you wish to impart.

In conclusion then, think about the process of justification when you consider where your characters’ drives come from, how that creates problems for them in the here and now, and the message you want to send.  The more you become familiar with how justification works, the more you can take control of the affect your story will have on your readers or audience, and the more adept you may become in making solid choices in your own life as well.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Author’s note:  Most of these concepts come from the Dramatica theory of narrative structure I developed along with my writing partner, Chris Huntley.  They became the basis for our Dramatica Story Structuring Software.  Click the link to try it for free.

Here’s something else I also made for writers…

 

 

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What Is Story Structure?

Most writers are not story theorists, and don’t want to be. Still, an understanding of the way stories work can help support a writer’s instincts to make sure a flawed structure won’t get in the way of the creativity.

So what is story structure?  It is a map of the way people go about solving different kinds of problems, and a message by the author as to which methods are better than others.

Where did story structure come from?  Well, for thirty thousand years or so we’ve been telling stories, but nobody every really invented story structure.  Rather, story structure just kind of emerged as a byproduct of the effort to describe how individuals deal with problems and how they interact with others when dealing with problems that affect more than one person.

Story structure first appeared as the conventions of storytelling – certain truisms about the way people think and feel and they behave with one other.  These truisms might not have covered every real world situation, but they were useful enough as general guidelines for crafting a story that would feel real to readers or audience members and make a clear point about personal choices and behavior in general.

Now a lot of writers wanted something a little more tangible – something they could rely on as a framework for a story that really worked.  In addition, a few theorist-types like Aristotle, Jung and Campbell, were interested in seeing if there was some sort of common thread in structure, perhaps an overarching perspective in which it all made sense, or at the very least a way of better connecting what was going on in stories with real life issues and how people dealt (or even should deal) with them.

These kinds of inquires led to the development of everything from the concept of a three-act structure to the “hero with one thousand faces” to the famous and nearly ubiquitous “hero’s journey.”

Some twenty-five years ago, Chris Huntley and I developed our own model of story structure based on one new idea no one had ever proposed before called the Story Mind – as if the story itself had its own psychology, in which every character represents a facet of that larger group mind.

In our research we came to believe that every individual has certain common traits we all share, such as Reason and Skepticism.  And we each use all of them to try and solve our personal problems.  But when we gather together in groups to solve problems of common concern, we begin to specialize so that one person emerges as the Voice of Reason for the group, and another comes to be the group’s resident Skeptic.

In this way, the group can get greater depth or resolution on how to go about solving complex problems than if all the members worked as general practitioners, all trying to do all the jobs, each and every one.

It was our feeling this sort of thing naturally occurs whenever we gather toward a common purpose because, in a sense, it is a good survival trait for the group as a whole, and therefore for everyone in that group.

Well, there’s a lot more to our theory of story structure than that, but armed with this initial breakthrough concept, we spent about three years trying to build a model of story structure.  And the end result was an interactive model of all the different kinds of traits we all share, both large and very small, and how they hang together.  Those, we felt, were the elements of structure, and we created a kind of periodic table of story structure to show their dramatic properties and how they all related to one another.

And beyond that, we discovered that there were dynamics built right into the conventions of story structure that could only be seen if you looked at it as a Story Mind.  We cataloged those and how the whole structure was really a very flexible affair in which truisms were no longer needed because you could create very specific structures for just about any issue you might like to explore as an author.

Eventually, we converted those relationships into a software-based Story Engine in which you could make choices about the kinds of dramatics you wanted to put forth in your story, and the Story Engine would actually be able to determine the ramifications of each choice on the other dramatics in your story.  Ultimately, we used the story engine as the heart of a new story structuring software product called Dramatica.  We got a patent for it, in fact!  I was very proud.

Now, if you own the Dramatica software, you’ve probably noticed it presents a flat chart called the “Theme Browser” that shows how dramatic subjects relate to one another.  Though it isn’t in the software, there is also a 3D projection of the flat chart that looks something like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids, or a super-complex 3-D chess board. You can download a free copy of it in PDF.

The flat chart provides a map of the elements that make up stories and the 3D chart is the best way to understand the  “winding up” process of dramatic tension of your story.  Essentially, when you run into troubles in life, you try one kind of a solution after another – one different item in the flat chart after another until you find one that works.  In the 3D chart, this is like moving the dramatic  element around in a Rubik’s Cube manner.

Whenever you try one solution instead of another, you not only bring the new one to the front but simultaneously push the old one into the background or onto the back burner.  In the 3D chart, we call that “flipping and rotating” because sometimes you flip positions of dramatic items and other times you rotate them to change the order in which they are applied.  After all, some problems are caused by using the wrong process and other problems are caused  by using the right processes but in the wrong sequence.

The Story Engine at the heart of the Dramatica software tracks all of those elements to make sure no dramatic “rules” are broken. What’s a Dramatic Rule? As an analogy, you can twist and turn a Rubik’s Cube, but you can’t pluck one of the little cubes out of it and swap it’s position with another little cube. In other words, you can create all kinds of patterns, but you can’t break structure. Similarly in stories, you can create all kinds of dramatic patterns, but you can’t just drop story elements wherever you want – they have to MOVE into place and take others with them or the structure won’t hold up because it doesn’t match the way our own minds work.

When you answer questions about your story in Dramatica, you are expressing your dramatic intent – the dramatic pattern you want to create for your audience. That says something about the final arrangement you want with the “colors” in the Rubik’s Cube of your story.

Every time you make a choice, you are saying, “I want my story to look like this, as opposed to that.” You are choosing just as much what you DON’T want in your story as what you do.

The choices are cumulative – they pile up. The more you make, the more Dramatica’s Story Engine winds up. Your ongoing choices start to become limited as to which options are still available, not by arbitrary and rigid rules, but because some choices or combination of choices simply prevent other options from being possible in that particular story if the structure is to be true to our own way of thinking as human beings.

Imagine – what would happen if you put any combinations of things into a story without limits? Then anything goes. That means there is no good structure or bad structure, in fact there would be no structure at all, just a heap of conflicting dramatic messages.

So, what is structure? Structure is nothing more than making a point, either logistically or emotionally or both. Many stories don’t need structure because they are not about making a larger point or having a message, but are designed to be experiences without any greater overall meaning.

We call experiential structures “Tales” and greater meaning structures “Stories.”  So, if you have an unbroken chain of events that makes sense coupled with a series of emotional experiences that don’t violate the way people really feel, that’s all you need to have a complete Tale structure.  But, to have a complete Story structure, each event and experience is part of an overall pattern that becomes clear by the time the story is over.  There is nothing better or worse about a Tale compared to a Story, but authors of Stories take upon themselves a more demanding rigor.

Historically, it has been easy to miss a step in the events of a tale or a beat in the emotional journey.  And, it has been even harder to ensure that each of those dramatic moments contributes to the greater meaning in a story.  That’s why Dramatica’s Story Engine was built –not to inspire or help you build your story’s world per se, but to ensure that whatever you want to write about, and whether you want to tell it as a tale or a story, the underlying structure will be sound, complete, and tuned to just the message you want to convey to your readers or audience.

You can try out the Story Engine for free!  The demo version of Dramatica is fully functional, other than saving your work.  So if you want to try some of the questions and play around with the other tools, you can download the demo here and get everything the Story Engine has to offer except for saving your work to continue with it in later sessions.

Honestly, you may find Dramatica a little daunting, as it is extremely powerful and wide ranging with all kinds of features and functions.  And, it is built on our theory of story structure, which (though elegant) is also extensive and detailed.  Nonetheless, my feelings are that the more you learn about story structure in Dramatica , the more you have improved your ability to visualize and actualize your story.  So, my advice is to give it a try for free.  All you have to lose is a little itsy bitsy crumb of time, but what you have to gain is a much deeper and powerful understanding of stories and how to structure them.

Melanie Anne Philips

Click here for more Dramatica details and Demo

Here’s something else I made for writers…

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Plot Order vs. Exposition Order

The order in which events unfold in a story is not necessarily the order in which those events occurred to the characters within the story.

In movies, for example, a story might open with a scene in the present, then put up a title card saying, “3 Days Earlier…” and dissolve back to an earlier time to see how things got to this point.  As another example, in the classic book, The Bridge at San Louis Rey, five travelers arrive at a bridge at the same time, then the book jumps back to see how they all came to be there.

These are simple instances of a very common practice of jumping around in time in the storytelling to create suspense and generate interest and mystery for your readers.  The problem is that mixing up the sequence of events makes it very easy for you, as author, to accidentally leave out essential pieces of the linear logic of the timeline.

When this happens, readers eventually realize that there’s something wrong with the actual order of events, and if it is a serious enough gap it can destroy the readers’ suspension of disbelief and pull them right out of the story emotionally.

You might think, then, it would be a better idea to just write things in their actual order and then mix them up for storytelling later.  But, authors often create best when envisioning their stories in the order they plan on unfolding them.  Exposition is an integral part of the creative process and forcing oneself to write only in sequential order might very well hobble the Muse and result in writers block.

Fortunately, there is a simple technique you can use to avoid temporal mis-steps than can cause your story to stumble, while still supporting the free form creation of stories in exposition order.

First write your story as usual, then jot down all the major events in your story on index cards in the order they are revealed.  Next, rearrange the cards to put the events in character time, rather than exposition time.  Finally, follow the order of events to see if you have left out any crucial steps .

With this clear view of the event-order timeline, you can easily find and plug any holes and correct any pacing issues and then apply those changes to your existing storytelling order so that it all flows perfectly in both the character-sequence and the exposition sequence.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Archetypes vs. Stereotypes

Archetypes represent human qualities we all share, such as Reason, Emotion, Faith, Skepticism, Conscience, and Temptation.  Stereotypes represent the different kinds of personalities we encounter in life.

In story structure, archetypes, by definition, are characters defined by their plot function, such as the protagonist, who is trying to achieve a goal.  The protagonist represents our initiative – the desire to improve things by affecting change.  The antagonist represents our reticence to change.  The antagonist tries to stop the Protagonist  – too keep things as they are.    These two human qualities are always at war with each other within ourselves, and by assigning those traits to characters, we can get a more objective external look at that battle and thereby better understand within ourselves when to act and when to hold back.

All of the archetypes have a counterpart whose approaches are opposite one another. For example, there is a Reason character who tries to solve plot problem with logic, while the Emotion archetype hopes to succeed through passion.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, are collections of personality traits, such as a Nerd or a Bully. So you can think of archetypes as the underlying psychology of a character, and stereotypes are the personalities that are built on top of that psychology.  In other words, we all share the same building blocks of psychology (archetypes) but we don’t all share the same personalities (stereotypes).

For example, a protagonist could be a bully or a nerd and still be a protagonist. And so could an antagonist or a reason archetype or an emotional archetype. It is the archetypal function that determines what a character will do in the plot and the stereotype personality that determine how they will act while doing it.

In this way, characters very accurately reflect the people we encounter in real life. We understand them by their functions and relate to them through their personalities.

Stereotypes allow us to connect with fictional characters because, quite literally, we’ve seen that type before. Archetypes allow us to understand where these characters are coming from – what their motivations are, and what they are trying to achieve.

Archetypes exist because each represents a facet of our own minds, turned into a character, so we can learn what is the best way to go about solving a problem in our own lives.

By observing how each archetype fares in the effort to resolve the story’s issues (which extend far beyond simply achieving a goal), we come to understand the author’s message about how to achieve satisfaction and fulfillment for ourselves.

Learn more about archetypes and stereotypes in this video clip:

If you liked article, try this product I created for writers:

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Archetypes vs. Stereotypes

Archetypes, by definition, are characters defined by their plot function, such as the protagonist, who is trying to achieve a goal, and the antagonist who is trying to stop him. All of the archetypes have a counterpart whose approaches are opposite one another. For example, there is a Reason character who tries to solve plot problem with logic, while the Emotion archetype hopes to succeed through passion.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, are collections of personality traits, such as a Nerd or a Bully. So you can think of archetypes as the underlying psychology of a character, and stereotypes are the personalities that are built on top of that psychology.

For example, a protagonist could be a bully or a nerd. And so could an antagonist or a reason archetype or an emotional archetype. It is the archetypal function that determines what a character will do in the plot and the stereotype personality that determine how they will act while they do it.

In this way, composite characters reflect everyone we encounter in real life. We identify them emotionally by their personalities, and classify them logically by the roles they play.

Stereotypes allow us to connect with fictional characters because, quite literally, we’ve seen that type before. Archetypes allow us to understand where these characters are coming from – what their motivations are, and what they are trying to achieve.

Archetypes exist because each represents a facet of our own minds, turned into a character, so we can learn what is the best way to go about solving a problem in our own lives.

By observing how each archetype fares in the effort to resolve the story’s issues (which extend far beyond simply achieving a goal), we learn the author’s message about how to achieve satisfaction and fulfillment for ourselves.

Learn more about archetypes and stereotypes in this video clip:

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The Four Throughines in To Kill A Mockingbird

There are four throughlines that must be explored in every story for it to feel to readers or audience that the underlying issues have been fully explored and the message fully supported.

Throughline 1: The Objective Story

The Objective Story is the big picture – the situations and activities in which all the characters are involved.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Objective Story Throughline explores opinions in a small 1930s southern town where Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white girl . Though he is being brought to trial, many of the town folk think this case should never see trial and the defendant should just be lynched. Defending Tom Robinson is Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie version).  The father of the ostensibly-raped girl, Bob Ewell, leads a mob to murder Tom Robinson, but Atticus stands firm against them.  Enraged, Ewell seeks to hurt Atticus children in revenge.  This makes Atticus the protagonist of the story and Bob Ewell the Antagonist.

Throughline 2: The Main Character

The Main Character is the one we identify with, the one whom the story seems to be about at a personal level.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus’ young daughter, Scout in the Main Character, and her throughline describes her personal experiences in this story.  We see this story of prejudice through her eyes, a child’s eyes, as she watches her father stand up against the town and Bob Ewell.  It is because we stand in her shoes, that makes her the Main Character.  Though the story is about the trial and about prejudice, it feels like it revolves around her impressions of it.  But Scout has many issues of her own as well, not the least of which is Boo Radley, the monstrous child-killing boogey man who is locked in the basement of his family’s home on Scout’s street.

Throughline 3: The Influence Character

The Influence Character is not the antagonist but the character who most influences the Main Characters outlook and feelings.  In To Kill A Mockingbird Boo Radley is the Influence Character, the reclusive and much talked about and dangerous crazy man living down the street from Scout. The rumors surrounding this man, fueled by the town’s ignorance and fear, makes scout concerned for her safety and along with anyone else, tends to hold him in derision.

Throughline 4: The Subjective Story

The Subjective Story is the tale of how the Influence Character and Main Character change each other over the course of the story.  One will be forced by their interactions to grow in their steadfast outlook.  The other will be affected by that steadfastness to ultimately change to adopt the outlook of the other.  This is the heart of a story’s message.  In To Kill A Mockingbird the Subjective Story centers on the relationship between Scout and Boo Radley. This throughline explores Scout’s prejudice against Boo’s solely by virtue of heresay. Boo has been constantly active in Scout’s life, protecting her from the background, ultimately saving her and her brother from Bob Ewell. When Scout finally realizes this she changes in her feelings toward him, thereby strongly supporting the story’s message that it is very easy to fall into prejudice for anyone, if we judge people by what we hear, rather than what we have determined from our own first-hand experience.

To further illustrate how these four throughlines work together to create and support a story’s message, watch the following video clip recorded at one of my seminars on story structure:

Melanie Anne Phillips

Want to know more?  Check out my books on story development, my StoryWeaver software for building your story’s world, and our Dramatica software for structuring your story.

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Your Influence Character is the Heart of Your Story

What is an Influence Character?  It is the one who has an opposite philosophy, morality, or personal code to that of the Main Character.  Over the course of a story, the Influence Character continually pressures the Main Character’s core beliefs, eventually bringing them to a point they must confront the possibility that their beliefs may be wrong.

Ultimately, the Main Character either changes his or her view to adopt the Influence Character’s outlook or holds steadfast in his or her view, believing that is the only way to resolve their personal problems.  This war over opposing moralities is the heart of your story’s message and the arguments and interactions between the Main Character and the Influence Character provide the spine to your story’s heart line.

To get a better feel for the Influence Character, let’s look at how they are employed in some well-known stories.

Example 1

In A Christmas Carol, the ghosts (collectively) carry the message of that moral philosophy opposite to that of Scrooge.  Like runners in a relay race, Marley’s ghost, followed by Past, Present, and Future, advance the argument that scrooge must change.  By the end of the story, he is convinced and his very nature is altered.

Without the ghosts the story would just be about Scrooge learning on his own that maybe there’s a better way, but much of the passion of the story and the power of the message would be lost.

Message in A Christmas Carol:

Have compassion and generosity for the less fortunate.

Example 2

In the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV), the Influence Character is Obi Wan who pressures Luke to reach his potential and eventually brings Luke to a point of change and trust in his new-found abilities with the force.

Obi Wan’s Influence is very subtle and gradual and culminates with his disembodied voice saying to Luke just before Luke turns off the targeting computer, “Use the force, Luke.  Let go.”  And Luke is able to destroy the death star only because he turns off the targeting computer and relies on his new Jedi skills.

Message in Star Wars (Episode IV):

Trust in yourself.

Example 3

In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is the Influence Character who forces Clarice Starling to confront her personal demons (the slaughtering of the spring lambs) that led her to try and save others with a job in law enforcement – “Tell me, Clarice, are the lambs still screaming?”  Clarice does not change for she cannot let go of her pain –  “You know I can’t do that doctor Lecter” and so she remains steadfast in her belief system.

Lecter is the Influence Character but the Antagonist is Jamie Gumm – the man who kidnaps the women including the senator’s daughter whom Clarice is trying to save.   And so, we can see that the philosophic argument is independent of the effort to achieve the story’s goal.

Message in The Silence of the Lambs: Let it go, or be forever driven by pain.

Example 4

In The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones (Federal Marshall Gerard) is the Influence Character, and does not care if his target is guilty or innocent: Kimble: “I didn’t kill my wife!”  Gerard: “I don’t care!”  But Kimble does care.  In fact, he endangers himself and risks his freedom to help others whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In the end, it is Kimble’s steadfastness that convinces Gerard that Kimble is innocent.  And in the process, Gerard (the Influence Character) is changed.  This is a great example that in the war of belief systems between the Main Character and the Influence character, one will ultimately change to adopt the view of the other.  If the Main Character changes, it is because the Influence Character remained steadfast, and if the Influence Character changes, it is because the Main Character remained steadfast.  Which way the Main Character goes, and how it turns out for them is the essence of the story’s message.

Message in The Fugitive: No matter what the risk, continue to help others.

So, as you can see, without an Influence Character there will be no story-long passionate argument regarding which way of seeing the world is the better way, and therefore there is no clear message to the reader or audience.

As we have seen with Hannibal Lecter, the Influence Character is not necessarily the Antagonist.  The Antagonist is trying to prevent the Protagonist from achieving his or her goal.  The Influence Character is trying to convince the Main Character to change his or her world view, belief system, or outlook.

Similarly, the Protagonist is not necessarily the Main Character.  The Protagonist is trying to achieve the goal.  The Main Character is trying to grapple with a personal issue, and is also the character through whose eyes the reader or audience sees the story – in short, we identify with him or her.

Often, the Main Character is the same “person” in a story who is also the Protagonist.  In this case, we create a stereotypical hero in which the reader/audience position is with the same character who is leading the charge to achieve the goal.

There is nothing wrong with that combination, but it is like always making the story about the quarterback in a game of football but never telling the story of one of the linemen or the water boy or the coach or the quarterback’s wife.  So, if you want a typical hero, make your Protagonist also your Main Character.  But if you want to tell a story where the Main Character is allowing us to look at the Protagonist from the outside and to observe him, then you enable a story such as To Kill A Mockingbird in which Atticus is the Protagonist  who is trying to defend the black man wrongly accused of rape in a 1930s town in the South but the Main Character is his young daughter Scout, who gives us a child’s-eye view of prejudice.

If you have a hero who is both Protagonist and Main Character, it can be dangerous to have your Antagonist be the Influence Character because then both the philosophic argument and the struggle over the goal is between the same two characters, mixing the conflicts together and muddying the message for your readers or audience.

In addition, as an author, you can get so wrapped up in the combined passionate lines between these two characters that you don’t fully connect the story points of either argument, leaving gaps that will be seen (or at least felt) by your readers or audience as holes in your story.  If those gaps aren’t filled, you essentially have a melodrama in which you don’t make either argument completely yet profess your message at the end as if you did.

Often, authors avoid this problem by creating a dramatic triangle in which one of those two stereotypes (hero and villain) is split into the two parts and the other one remains combined.

For example, in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford, he plays the Protagonist – a cop trying to protect the only witness to a murder: the young son of an Amish Woman, played by Kelly McGillis, who is the Main Character.

So here, the Protagonist and the Main Character are two different people.  Ford (as Protagonist) strives to protect the boy against the crooked cop who wants the boy killed (the Antagonist).  That’s the Goal.

McGillis (as Main Character) shows us the story through her eyes – the most passionate view – as she grapples with a personal decision to remain with her people (the Amish) or to move away with her son for a new life out “among the English” in the big city.  That’s the message argument.

Initially, McGillis is determined to stay, but as Ford remains in her community, showing his human side and participating in activities such as barn raising, she begins to fall in love with him and is tempted to change her mind and make a life with him on the outside.  Ford, therefore, is the Influence character as well as the Protagonist, as it is his influence that  draws her to a point of decision about leaving.

And so, a dramatic triangle is created by making Ford both Protagonist and Influence Character with the other two points of the triangle being the Main Character of Kelly McGillis, and the Antagonist who is trying to kill the boy.

Both the plot line toward the goal and the heart line toward the message are separate and easily followed, yet both hinge on Ford, making him the most central character, even though he isn’t the Main Character.

And so the message is made:

Sometimes it is better to stay in the safety of your extended family than to leave to explore the larger world, no matter how tempting it is.

In summary, without an influence character your story will lose the entire passionate argument leading up to the point of choice in which your story’s message should be made.  Without an argument, any perspective you are trying to convey will come across as moralizing that is tagged on rather than integral to the growth of your Main Character.

So how do you add an Influence character and message to your story?  Here are a few quick steps:

1. Write down a single sentence that describes the moral or message you want your story to convey.

2.  Describe the two sides of that issue such as “Greed vs. Generosity” or “Campassion vs. Self-Interest.”

3.  Outline how your Main Character is locked into a viewpoint on one side of that issue.

4.  If you already have an Influence character, outline how it is locked into the opposing viewpoint.

5.  If you don’t yet have an Influence character but have other characters in mind, briefly describe the core belief system of each.

6.  If one of your characters is in direct philosophic opposition to your Main Character, select it as your Influence Character.

7.  If none of your existing characters fits the bill, you’ll either need to choose one who can be reworked to represent the opposing point of view to that of the Main Character or you will need to develop a new character specifically for that job.

8. Once you have your Influence Character, Find as many places in your plot as you can to smoothly bring your Main and Influence Characters into conflict over their opposed philosophies, whether it be as advice from one to the other, as an argument, or just by example – having the Main Character see the Influence Character act in a different manner than he or she would in that situation.

9.  Over the course of your story, bring your Main Character to a point where he or she must choose either to stick by their guns and hold to their original outlook, believing that their troubles will be resolved if they just remain steadfast long enough,  or choose the Influence Character’s alternative view, believing that it holds a better chance to resolve the Main Character’s personal issue.

10.  In the end, your Main Character may grow in their resolve to remain steadfast or grow to a point of change.  But regardless of how they go, their choice may be right or wrong for resolving their personal issue.  This provides you with many ways to prove your message:
Change is good, Change is bad, Steadfast is Good, Steadfast is Bad.  Any of these are legitimate; it just depends on the flavor of the message you are trying to send.

11.  Don’t forget that if your Main Character Changes, your Influence Character will remain Steadfast, and vice versa.  The idea is that one philosophy will trump the other so that both character will, in the end, share the same philosophy.  And then you show your readers or audience if that’s was the right choice by showing how it all turns out at a personal level.

12.  Keep in mind that whether or not the goal is achieved in a story has no bearing on whether of not the Main Character resolves his or her personal issue.  So, you can have a happy ending in which success is matched with happiness, a tragedy in which failure is matched with personal anguish, or a bitter-sweet ending in which success is achieved but with personal anguish or failure is the result of the effort to achieve the goal but with the Main Character finding peace or joy in the end.

Now you know the nuts and bolts of the role and function of the Influence Character, but what does that feel like in a actual stories?  To provide some insight into how it all plays out, here’s a video clip to illustrate the nature of Influence Character and its relationship to the Main Character in regard to the message issue:

I hope you have found this article useful and, if so, that you might try the StoryWeaver story development software I created or the Dramatica story structuring software I co-created.  Try them risk-free.

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Characters: Cogs in the Machine?

From a structural standpoint, characters are just cogs in the machine.  They have a job to do in the story as a protagonist, antagonist or any one of the functional roles that must be filled for the story to make sense and move forward.

But characters are much more than that! They also need to be real people with their own lives, fears and desires or the readers or audience won’t be able to identify with them. So characters have two jobs to do in every story – one professional and the other personal.

To illustrate characters’ professional lives,  first imagine that you stepped back from your story far enough that you could no longer identify your characters by their personalities, but just by the dramatic role they are playing in the structure of the story.

Like a general on a hill watching a battle, you could only see each character by its function in the battle:  There’s the guy leading the charge – that’s the Protagonist. His opponent is the Antagonist. There’s the strategist, working out the battle plan – he’s the Reason archetype. One soldier is shouting mindlessly at the pathos and carnage – he’s the Emotion archetype.

The structure of stories deals with this big picture in which characters are no more than cogs in the machine of story.  But at that level of appreciation, your readers or audience can’t invest emotionally in your characters, nor can they identify with them.

To overcome this, each character must be fully developed as a complete human being in their personal lives.  When developing characters at this level, you need to stand in their shoes, see what they see, think what they think, feel what they feel.  You need to make them real, and express them passionately through each of their individual personal points of view.

Taken together these two jobs create the complex juxtaposition of dramatics that make stories so appealing and provide an appreciation of characters that matches what we all experience in real life.  We are a part of a company at work, or of a club or a class.  But we are also individuals with a unique combination of likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, dreams and goals.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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SECRETS if the Protagonist…

The Protagonist is one of the most misunderstood characters in a story’s structure.  It is often assumed that this character is a typical “Hero” who is a good guy, the central character in the story, and the Main Character (the one through with whom the reader identifies).

In fact, the Protagonist is not any of these things, though all of these attributes may be added to what the Protagonist really is.  By definition, the Protagonist is nothing more than the Prime Mover or Driver of the effort to achieve the goal.  That’s it.  He or she is just the archetypal character who keeps pushing for the goal – that and nothing more.

So, sometimes the Protagonist is not a story’s Central character (the most memorable or charismatic character in the story).  Being the Central character simply means he or is is the most prominent to the reader.  For example, Fagin in “Oliver Twist” is perhaps the most prominent, but he is certainly not the Protagonist.  And Darth Maul is an extremely charismatic character in Star Wars, but was not at all the Protagonist.  Clearly, the actual Protagonist may in fact be less interesting than than the Central character, and may even be almost a background character if achieving the goal is not really the focus of the story but just the reason for the chase.

Similarly, the Protagonist is often not the Main Character of the story either.  The Main character is the one the reader identifies with – the character we are most connected to emotionally – the one whom the passionate outcome of the story revolves around.  It is the Main character who grapples with some personal issue they will ultimately try to overcome by the end of the story by making a choice in a leap of faith.

For an example of a story in which the Protagonist is NOT the Main character consider To Kill A Mockingbird, in which we experience the story through young Scout’s eyes, and yet, it is her father (lawyer, Atticus Finch) who is the protagonist, trying to defend a  young black man wrongly accused of rape.

As you can see, while there are many attributes often given to the character who is the Protagonist, these don’t really have to be bundled together unless you are trying to create a stereotypical hero.

Just as in our own lives, we are the Main Character, but may not be the Protagonist on every single project or job in which we are involved, nor are we always the most prominent member of our team, department, or social group.

While it is fun to read books and go to movies in which we identify with heroes, stories that recognize all of those traits don’t have to be given to just one character help us to learn how to be heroic in our own lives.

So in developing your Protagonist, give the guy a break and see if you can’t distribute some of those other jobs to other characters to make them more interesting and your Protagonist more reflective of real life.

This tip was excerpted from StoryWeaver

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Protagonist & Antagonist – Who ARE These Guys?

The protagonist and antagonist may not be who you think they are.  For one thing, a protagonist is not necessarily the hero of a story.  Structurally speaking, the protagonist is the one who shakes up the status quo – that’s the “pro” part, while the antagonist is the one who tries to stop that effort or put it back the way it was.

In a James Bond film, for example, it is often the bad guy who begins an evil process that James Bond is called upon to thwart.  This makes the bad guy the protagonist even though he is the villain, and James the antagonist even though he is the hero.

In practice, a true hero is a protagonist who is also the main character (we identify with him) and is also a good guy.  A villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character (he has an opposing life philosophy or morality to that of the main character) and is also a bad guy.

But these traits can be mixed and matched between the two characters creating, for example, anti heroes and sympathetic villains.

The main point here is to stop thinking of protagonist and antagonist as hero and villain but as structural functions – to begin a quest or to try and stop a quest.  Then, you can have some fun as an author determining which of these is the good guy and bad guy and with which one you wish your readers or audience to identify.

This video was excerpted from:

dramatica-unplugged-jpeg

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