Are You Writing a Story or a Tale?

When an author tells a tale, he simply describes a series of events that both makes sense and feels right. As long as there are no breaks in the logic and no mis-steps in the emotional progression, the structure of the tale is sound.

Now, from a structural standpoint, it really doesn’t matter what the tale is about, who the characters are, or how it turns out. The tale is just a truthful or fictional journey that starts in one situation, travels a straight or twisting path, and ends in another situation.

The meaning of a tale amounts to a statement that if you start from “here,” and take “this” path, you’ll end up “here.” The message of a tale is that a particular path is a good or bad one, depending on whether the ending point is better or worse than the point of departure.

This structure is easily seen in the vast majority of familiar fairy “tales.” Tales have been used since the first storytellers practiced their craft. In fact, many of the best selling novels and most popular motion pictures of our own time are simple tales, expertly told.

In a structural sense, tales have power in that they can encourage or discourage audience members from taking particular actions in real life. The drawback of a tale is that it speaks only in regard to that specific path.  But in fact, there are many paths that might be taken from a given point of departure. Suppose an author wants to address those as well, to cover all the alternatives. What if the author wants to say that rather than being just a good or bad path, a particular course of action the best or worst path of all that might have been taken?

The message has now become no longer just a simple statement but a “blanket” statement. Such a blanket statement provides no “proof” that the path in question is the best or worst, it simply says so.

Of course, an audience is not likely to simply accept such a bold claim, regardless of how well the tale is told.  The audience will want proof.  In the early days of telling tales, an author related the fiction to his audience in person. Should he aspire to wield more power over his audience and elevate his tale to become a blanket statement, the audience would no doubt cry, “Foul!” and demand that he prove it. Someone in the audience might bring up an alternative path that hadn’t been included in the tale.

The author might then counter that rebuttal to his blanket statement by describing how the path proposed by the audience was either not as good or better (depending on his desired message) than the path he did include.

One by one, he could disperse any challenges to his tale until he either exhausted the opposition or was overcome by an alternative he couldn’t dismiss.

But as soon as these expanded tales began to be recorded in media such as song ballads, epic poems, novels and stage plays, , the author was no longer present to defend his blanket statements.

As a result, some authors opted to stick with simple tales of good and bad, but others pushed the blanket statement tale forward.  Through centuries of trial and error, a new art form evolved that was able to support a blanket statement and satisfy an audience even when the author isn’t present: the “story”.

A story is a much more sophisticated form of communication than a tale, and is in fact a revolutionary leap forward in the ability of an author to make a point. Simply put, when creating a story, and author starts with a tale of good or bad, expands it to a blanket statement of best or worst, and then includes all the reasonable alternatives to the path he is promoting to preclude any counters to his message. In other words, while a tale is a statement, a story becomes an argument.

Now this puts a huge burden of proof on an author. Not only does he have to make his own point, but he has to prove (within reason) that all opposing points are less valid. Of course, this requires than an author anticipate any objections an audience might raise to his blanket statement and include a response to them as part of the story itself.

The most efficient way to do this is to create additional characters, each of which represents one of the major alternative approaches to solving the story’s issues that a reader or audience member might consider.    The story’s plot is then designed to pit one approach against another until only the character representing the author’s “message approach” must make the final choice or take the final action.  As long as each approach has been given its due, the audience will tend to accept the author’s message that his promoted approach is either the best or the worst.

In time, these characters evolved into the archetypes we know today, such as a character who represents the voice of Reason, and one who stands for the Passion of the heart.  The Mentor, Trickster, Conscience, Temptation, Sidekick, and Skeptic all developed to illustrate the impact different approaches had on solving the story problem.

The avatar of the author’s point of view became the Hero, and the diametrically opposed approach became the Villain.  As the art form continued to grow and the arugments became more complex, the Hero stopped being a single player in the story and split into two separate kinds characters:  a Main Character who grapples with the moral or ethical aspects of the story’s problem and a Protagonist who struggles with the physical or logistic aspects.  Similarly, the Villain split into an Obstacle Character who represents the opposite moral or ethical stance to that of the Main Character, and the Antagonist who works in the pyhical or logistic realms to thwart the Protagonist’s goal.

Today, this subdivision of archteypes continues and has reached a point where stories clearly exhibit as many as sixty four different character attributes, each representing a different attitude or approach to solving the story problem.  And just as some approaches are compatible while others mix like oil and water, there are underlying dynamics that indicate how we might combine groups of these basic character building blocks together to form more complex characters, more appropriate to this complex age.

But of course, that is another story….

To learn more about characters and story dynamics,

read the free online edition of the Dramatica Theory Book

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