Story Perspectives

Another excerpt from the new book I am writing on the Dramatica Theory:

It should be noted that there is a big difference between reading a map and actually traveling the road in person.  While both have value, a map most clearly shows you the terrain; a journey gives you the most immediate experience.

If they are to fully captivate an audience, stories must be able to provide these contrasting perspectives.  In fact, they do so through an Objective View, which is like a wide angle look at the story as a spectator, much as one might watch a football game, and a Personal View which is like that of a participant on the field.

We are all familiar with the Objective View.  From it, we see a Protagonist and an Antagonist as if they are opposing soldiers in a battle.  We watch them fight it out over the effort to achieve a goal.  Sometimes they both want the goal, but only for themselves.  Other times, one wants to attain the goal and the other wants to prevent that.  Either way, though we may very well become all worked up in rooting for one side or the other, we are still sitting in the stands.

In contrast, the Personal View is provided by the Main Character.  We, the readers or audience, walk in his or her shoes and look through his or her eyes.  We experience the story as if it were happening to us.

Often, the Protagonist is chosen by an author to also provide the Main Character View as well, and though that is common, it isn’t the only choice.  Any character can be the Main Character, just as we might attach a helmet-camera to any player on the field.

In addition to providing an avatar for the reader or audience, it is also the Main Character who grapples with some crucial inner problem or personal issue around which the passionate side of the story seems to revolve.

In the Story Mind, the Main Character represents our sense of self – that is, the awareness of our own identity as in “I think, therefore I am.”  Since the Story Mind is modeled after the human mind, it is not surprising that story structure must include such an essential component of being human.

Up to this point, we have referred to the readers or audience as if they were passive recipients of the author’s argument, but they are much more involved than that.  In fact, communication is a collaborative effort and the audience brings its own active participation to the process.

When a story presents an involving Main Character, the audience forgets itself and identifies with that character, heart and soul.  Certainly most of us have had the experience of being sucked into a story to the extent that we laugh when that character is happy and cry when they are hurt, almost as if it were happening to us in real life.

(It is often interesting to watch how many movie-goers recklessly drive out of a parking lot after having enjoyed an action picture, and how many people have dreams that draw on elements of a truly “moving” picture they had seen earlier in the evening.)

When the Protagonist is also selected as the Main Character, you have the beginnings of a typical “Hero,” as in “the hero’s journey.”  While there is nothing wrong with that arrangement, it is much overused, and in fact there are many other interesting stories to be told if those two types of character functions are not placed in the same person.

For example, in both the book and film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, those roles are not combined.  Rather, the character of Atticus (the righteous 1930s Southern lawyer played by Gregory Peck in the movie) is the Protagonist, for it is he who is trying to acquit the black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl.

The Main Character, however, is Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, for the story is told through her eyes – from her point of view.   As the reader/audience identifies with Scout, they are shown how the nature of prejudice appears to an innocent child – something that would not have been possible if the audience identified instead with Atticus.

In fact, there are far more reasons in Mockingbird why the Protagonist and Main Character attributes were split, and we’ll explore them all in the section of this book devoted to characters.  For now, consider that if you have only been creating typical heroes, you may have been limiting yourself from exploring other options.

Now before we leave this brief overview of perspective behind, there are two more critical points of view that need to be included in a story for the readers/audience to become completely involved in the story’s argument.

The first of these is called the Influence (or Obstacle) Character View.  To get a feel for this unfamiliar character, let us think (for a brief moment) of a story as if it were a battle between two great armies, one of them led by the author and the other commanded by the audience.

The author hopes to make a successful story argument in two ways: First, to make his case logically through the “headline” we spoke of at the very beginning of this book and second, through the “heartline” that is its compatriot argument.

On the field of battle, the Protagonist is leading the charge of the logistic argument as he or she attempts to achieve a goal, while the antagonist is rallying the forces of opposition, which include all those other ways of logically solving the situation that the audience might consider as alternatives.  By the end of the story, the author hopes to prove that the Protagonist’s approach is either the best of the worst of them all, depending upon the intended message.

Similarly, the Main Character heads up the passionate argument as he or she attempts to resolve a personal issue, while another character (soon to be introduced) opposes that approach philosophically, and marshals all the passionate arguments contrary to the Main Character’s attitude or approach.  Again, by the end of the story, the author hopes to sway the audience’s feelings to match his or her proposed message.

If successful, by the time the audience leaves the theater or the reader closes the book, the author will have swayed both their hearts and minds.

So who is this unnamed character who stands in philosophic opposition to the Main Character?  To answer that question, let me tell you a tale.

In this war for hearts and minds, the Audience is like a general on the hill, watching the maneuvers below.  (The author sits on a hill on the other side of the valley, pushing forth his argument).  The view from atop the audience’s perch is the Objective View with which we are already familiar – that of the spectator.

Now, imagine that the reader/audience could zoom down onto the field to stand in the shoes of and experience the battle through the eyes of a single soldier in the heart of the clash.  That soldier would provide the Main Character View with which we have also already become acquainted..

And so, to recap, the readers or audience can concurrently see what forces are awaiting the Protagonist and all his forces on the other side of the forest, while through the Main Character they can only see what is right in front of them.

In a nutshell, the General’s Objective View illustrates all the grand strategies and the overall flow of the battle, but the Soldier’s Main Character View gives the first-hand impression of what it is like to try and defend oneself while avoiding the bullets whizzing overhead.

The Main Character,then, is trying to accomplish his mission and save his skin at the same time as he marches forward into the fray when suddenly, through the smoke of dramatic explosions, he spies a murky figure standing right in his path. In this fog of war, the Main Character cannot tell if this other soldier is a friend or foe. Either way, he is blocking the road.

As the Main Character approaches, this other soldier starts waving his arms and shouts, “Change course – get off this road!” Convinced he is on the best path, the Main Character yells back, “Get out of my way!” Again the figure shouts, “Change course!” Again the Main Character replies, “Let me pass!”

The Main Character has no way of knowing if his opposite is a comrade trying to prevent him from walking into a mine field or an enemy combatant trying to lure him into an ambush. And so, he continues on, following the plan that still seems best to him.

Eventually, the two soldiers meet, and when they do it becomes a moment of truth in which only one will win out. Either the Main Character will alter course or his steadfastness will cause the other soldier to step aside.

This other soldier is called the Obstacle (and sometimes Influence or Impact) character. He represents that “devil’s advocate” voice we all have in ourselves that makes us consider changing our ways.

In our own minds we are often confronted by issues that question our approach, attitude, or the value of our hard-gained experience. But we don’t simply adopt a new point of view when our old methods have served us so well for so long. Rather, we consider how things might go if we adopted this new system of thinking.

We look at it, examine it from all sides and ask ourselves, how would my life, my self-image, my identity be if I were to become that kind of person by giving up my old views in favor of this new, unproven one that is only potentially better?

It is a long hard thing within us to reach a point of change, and so too is it a difficult feat in a Story Mind. In fact, it takes the whole story to reach a climax in which all the research has been done that can be done. And even then, both sides of the argument are so well balanced that the Main Character cannot see a definite edge to either.

Since logic cannot help the Main Character decide, he or she must ultimately rely on his or her heart – the culmination of the passionate argument of the heartlien.  This crucial moment leads to those weighty decisions where Main Characters step off the cliff into the darkness, hoping they’ve made the right choice – the classic “Leap of Faith.”

Of course, not all decisions are that cataclysmic. And as we shall later see, there are many other ways the differences between Main Character and Obstacle Character points of view can resolve in a gradual shift of opinion.

But for now, it suffices to acknowledge that a Story Mind that did not include an Objective view, a Main Character view, and an Obstacle Character view could not possibly feel like our own minds in real life as we seek to make the best choices based on our best information and guided by our feelings.

Many novice authors fashion only the first two points of view (Objective and Main Character), believing that providing an epic panorama and also a personal view is enough. But more experienced authors recognize the need to show an alternative philosophy to that of the Main Character, and they therefore include the Obstacle Character as well. But a surprisingly small percentage of authors ever realize that a fourth perspective is necessary or a story will feel incomplete.

What is that final view point? It is the actual passionate argument between the Main Character and the Obstacle Character that runs the length of the story, right up to the climax. You would think that if an Obstacle Character is included, that duel over philosophic ideals  would almost unavoidably occur in the course of the story.  In fact, this is not the case.

As an example, the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas has an overall Objective story, a Main Character with a problem, and an Obstacle Character.  Yet for all that, it is lacking any real interaction between Main and regarding their opposing views.  They simple take positions, describe them, and let it stand at that.

Specifically, in “Nightmare,” Jack Skellington is not happy with his true nature.  This is the Main Character View.  His girlfriend states that he should be content with who he actually is, and not to try and be something that really isn’t him.  (This is the Obstacle Character View).

Jack will have none of it, and sets a plan in motion (kidnapping Santa Claus) that causes all the problems of the story.  (This is the Objective View).  In the end, he realizes she was right and resolves from now on to be the best of what he truly is.  (This is the message.)

But the problem is that they never discuss these differing philosophies. They simply state their opposite beliefs and in the end, Jack changes course and she remains on the road where she started.

Though there is a message, without the give and take between the Main and Obstacle we are given no information on how to achieve that change of heart within ourselves. The author makes no passionate argument as to the pros and cons of either position.  So the message is simply acknowledged as being noble, but it isn’t personalized or taken to heart by the readers or audience.  As it is, the movie is strong.  If this other perspective has been included, it would have been even stronger.

This fourth perspective is called the Subjective View. It is the story of the battle over philosophies, the war of ideals, that explores the value of each belief system fully and completely, testing one against the other and pitting them against each other in all contexts. Only if this is seen in the Story Mind does it satisfy the part of the minds of the readers or audience that do the same thing when they consider changing their feelings in regard to an issue.  Only through the Subjective View will the audience become convinced that the message is of real value to them.

So, these four perspectives – Objective, Main, Obstacle, and Subjective are all required for a story structure to both make sense and feel complete. They likely seem pretty strange and unfamiliar in contrast to your usual way of approaching stories.  Fortunately, there is a much simpler way to get in touch with them.

The Main Character View comes across to us as the “first person” perspective: “I” (This is what I believe).  The Obstacle Character’s philosophy appears to us as “You” (That is what you believe). We consider the personal skirmish between himself and the Obstacle character as defining “We” (This is where we are coming from).  And finally, we see what all the other characters are doing in the overall story as “They” (That is what they are doing).

I, You, We, and They – the simpler, familiar equivalents of Main Character View, Obstacle Character View, Subjective View, and Objective View. They are the four perspectives we have in real life, in our own minds, and they must all be represented in stories through the Story Mind if an author is to successfully press home both the logistic and passionate arguments to the readers or audience.