Category Archives: Relationships

Love Interests and the Dramatic Triangle

A lot of books about writing describe the importance of a “Love Interest.” Other books see a Love Interest as unnecessary and cliché. What does Dramatica Say? As with most dramatic concepts, Dramatica pulls away the storytelling to take a clear look at the underlying structure.

A Love Interest has both storytelling and structural components. The storytelling side is what most people think of – A Love Interest is the character with whom the “hero” or “heroine” is in love. Simple! But what does that tell us about the kind of person the Love Interest is, or even what kind of relationship the two have between them? Not a whole lot!

For example, the Love Interest might be the leader of the enemy camp, in which case he or she is the Antagonist! Or, the Love Interest might be the supportive, stay-in-the-background type, in which case he or she is the Sidekick. In both cases, the hero is in love with this person, but structurally each positions the relationship on different sides of the effort to achieve the story goal. Also, the Love Interest might be a person of noble heart, a misguided do-gooder, or even a crook! And, any of these types of people might fit into either of the two example scenarios we’ve just outlined.

As we can see, the structural and storytelling elements have little to do with one another, other than the fact that there will be some of each. So, what can Dramatica do to help provide some guidelines for developing a Love Interest that works?

Lets start with some basics. Dramatica sees there being two types of characters in every story (and a prize in every box!). The first type contains the Objective Characters such as the Protagonist, Antagonist, Sidekick, or Guardian, who are defined by their dramatic functions.

The Protagonist strives to achieve the goal; the Antagonist tries to prevent that, for example. In and of itself, this aspect of character outlines how the participants line up in regard to the logistic issues of the story. But there is a second side of the dynamics of every story that center on the second type of characters – the Subjective Characters.

There are two Subjective Characters, and unlike their Objective relatives who represent functions, the Subjective Characters represent points of view. These characters are the Main Character and the Obstacle Character. The Main Character represents the audience position in the story. The Obstacle Character represents the point of view, ideology, or belief system opposite that of the Main Character.

The Objective Characters represent the “headline” in the story and the Subjective Characters represent the “heartline.” Often, the character who is the Protagonist is also given the Main Character job as well. This creates the archetypal “hero” who drives the story forward, but who also represents the audience position in the story. Of course, the Main Character (audience position) might be with ANY of the Objective Characters, not just the Protagonist. For example, in most of the James Bond films, Bond is actually the Antagonist and Main Character because although he represents the audience position, he is also called into play AFTER the real Protagonist (the villain) has made his first move to achieve a goal (of world conquest.) It is Bond’s functional role as Antagonist to try and stop it!

Not quite as often, the Antagonist is given the extra job of also being the Obstacle Character. In such a case, not only does the Antagonist try to stop the Protagonist, but he (or she) also tries to change the belief system of the Main Character, whether the Main Character is the Protagonist or another of the Objective Characters by function.

The worst thing you can do is to make the Protagonist the Main Character AND the Antagonist the Obstacle Character. Why? Because then the two “players” in the story are not only diametrically opposed in function regarding the story goal, but are also diametrically opposed in belief system. As a result, it is difficult for the audience to figure out which of the two throughlines them is being developed by any given event between them.

What’s worse, as an author it is easy to get caught up in the momentum of the drama between them so that one skips steps in the development of one throughline because the other “carries” it. Well it may carry the vigor, but it doesn’t hold water. Both throughlines must each be fully developed or you end up with a melodrama or worse, plot holes you could drive a truck through.

The solution is either to assign the Main Character and Protagonist functions to one character and split the Antagonist/Obstacle Character functions into two separate characters, or vice versa.

And this brings us to the Dramatic Triangle and how it is used to create a sound Love Interest relationship.

First, let’s assume we assign the Main Character and Protagonist jobs to the same player to create an archetypal hero. Now, this hero (we’ll call him Joe) is a race car driver who is vying with the Antagonist for the title of best overall driver of the year. Each race is a new contest between them with their balance so close that it all comes down to the last race of the season.

But there is something troubling Joe’s heart – his relationship with Sally. Sally is very supportive of Joe (a Sidekick, in fact) but Joe feels that if he really loves Sally, he should quit racing to avoid the potential of an accident that would leave him dead or crippled and ruin her life. Why does he feel like this? Because his own dad was a racer, whose untimely death on the track left his mother devastated, and ultimately committed to an asylum. (Hey, I never said this example would be creative!)

In any event, Sally doesn’t feel that way at all. She would rather see Joe go out in a blaze of glory having done his best than to spend her life with a limp shell. She tries to tell him, but he just won’t be convinced. He starts to play it safer and safer as his worries grow (because the closer he gets to the final race, the more it resembles the chain of events that happened to his dad.) Finally, he has lost his edge and his lead and it all comes down to that final event.

Now, realizing that she would never be able to live with Joe if she felt that he lost the title because of her, Sally tells him at the final pit stop that if he doesn’t win the race, she is leaving him. Joe must now decide whether he should stick with his approach born from fear of hurting another, or let Sally be her own judge of what is right for her and put the pedal to the metal.

What does he do? Up to you the author. He wins the race and Sally’s heart. He hasn’t got the courage and loses both race and girl. He loses the race, but Sally realizes how deep his love must be and decides to stay with him. He wins the race, but there is such a dangerous near-fatal crash that Sally realizes Joe was right and leaves him anyway because she discovers she really can’t take it after all.

Or, you could have Sally want him to quit and Joe refuse, resulting in four other endings with a more cliché flavor.

Why this long example, to show how the conflict of the logistics of the plot occur between Joe and the Antagonist, but the emotions of the personal relationship occur between Joe and the Sidekick, Sally.

If you charted it out, there are two throughlines. Both hinge on Joe, and then they split farther and farther apart to connect to the Antagonist on one and to the Obstacle Character, Sally on the other. In this way, the events that happen in the growth of each relationship are much easier to see for the audience and much easier to complete for the author, yet they both converge on the “hero” to give him the greatest possible dramatic strength.

Now, you could hinge them both on the Antagonist, as in a James Bond film, and slip the Protagonist from the Obstacle Character. Look at “Tomorrow Never Dies.” The Protagonist is the mad newspaper mogul. The Obstacle Character is the beautiful Chinese agent (whose function is muddled dramatically by Bond’s relationship with the mogul’s wife). Bond is Antagonist AND Main Character, but the dramatic triangle is still functional.

Silence of the Lambs: Starling is the Main Character / Antagonist, Jamie Gumm (Buffalo Bill) is the Protagonist (after all, she didn’t go looking for a crime and THEN he committed one!) Hannibal is the Obstacle Character and perhaps a Love Interest of a sort (as described by the director on the Criterion Edition DVD.)

For a different approach, consider Witness: John Book is the Obstacle Character / Antagonist, the crooked Chief of Police is the Protagonist. Rachel, the Amish Girl is the Love Interest and Main Character. Or is John Book (Harrison Ford) the Love Interest to Rachel? It’s hard to tell because John is such an active Objective Character that he carries more momentum than Rachel, even though we are positioned in her shoes. The important point is that even if the Protagonist is made to be the Obstacle Character and the Antagonist and Main Character are split into two different people, the dramatic triangle still exists!

The dramatic triangle is one of the best structural ways to focus attention on one character even while splitting the headline and heartline to make a more pleasing and complete story. It can be used for “buddy” pictures and even used when the heartline isn’t between lovers or even likers but between two people who would like to see each other’s emotions destroyed by slyly manipulating the other to change his or her beliefs. Think of all those “cheat the devil” stories in which the Main Character/Protagonist is after something and the devil tries to convince the Main Character to sell his soul to get it. Yep, the dramatic triangle at work again!

So, in considering whether or not to have a Love Interest in your story, simply consider whether that would make your storytelling cliché or not. Either way, consider the dramatic triangle as a means of putting heart into an otherwise logistically mechanical plot.

Melanie Anne Phillips

The Dramatic Triangle

By Melanie Anne Phillips

There are two story lines in every complete story, and you can either run them in parallel or you can hinge them together to form a dramatic triangle.

The first story line is the overall story that follows the effort of the protagonist to achieve a goal in which all the characters are involved.

The second story line is the personal story that follows the struggles of the main character to deal with a personal issue.

When you keep these two story lines separate and parallel, each advances on their own, and yet they still reflect each other.

For example, in the classic book (and the movie adaptation) of To Kill a Mockingbird, the overall story is about Atticus (the lawyer trying to get a black man a fair trial in the 1930s South) who is the protagonist.

But in the personal story we see things through the eyes of Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, who is personally dealing with her fear of the local boogeyman, “Boo” Radley – a mentally challenged member of a family down the street who is never seen and only known by rumor.

In the end, we learn about prejudice externally through what Atticus does, and we learn about prejudice personally through Scout’s prejudgment about Boo, until she is forced to change her mind about him when she comes to know him for who he really is – a caring protector who has actually saved her from others who would do her harm.

If Atticus were the main character, we would simply stand in the shoes of the fellow battling prejudice and feel righteous.  But by standing in Scout’s shoes, we buy into her belief in the rumors about Boo, and learn how easy it is to be prejudiced whenever we base our opinions on what we hear, not what we see for ourselves.

In this example in which Atticus is the protagonist, the antagonist is the father of the white girl the black man is accused of raping, who wants the defendant lynched without a trial.

In the personal line, Scout is the main character and Boo himself is the influence character who has been leaving gifts for scout and protecting her all along the way, providing all the clues necessary for her to ultimately re-evaluate him.

Just as the antagonist fights against the protagonist, the influence character pressures the main character to change his or her beliefs.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, keeping both story lines separate has some advantages.  For one thing, since the audience identifies with the Main Character, we aren’t standing in Atticus’ shoes feeling all self-righteous about fighting against prejudice.  Rather, we stand in Scout’s shoes and learn how easy it is to become prejudice whenever we rely on rumor and other people’s opinions, rather than learning the truth for ourselves.

But, keeping the two story lines separate is a very complex form of structure and isn’t really need for most stories.  It requires four special characters: protagonist vs. antagonist and main character vs. influence character.

A simpler alternative is to have both storylines occur between just two characters: a hero and a villain.  A hero is a protagonist who is also the main character, and a villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character.

So, a hero is not only the person trying to achieve the goal, but is also the audience position in the story and the one who is grappling with challenges to their belief system.  And, a villain is not only the person trying to prevent the goal from being achieved, but is also the person challenging the main character’s belief system.

While this sounds very efficient in concept, it is also very dangerous.  Each of these story lines needs to be fully explored with no gaps or holes if the reader or audience is to buy into it.  But, as an author, it is very easy to get so wrapped up in the action or the passion of one of the stories that you skip over parts of the other one in your eagerness to push ahead with the exciting one of the moment.

As a result, there can be significant gaps in each of the two – gaps that undermine the believability of the overall story and make the personal story seem unrealistic and contrived.

The more this happens, the more the complete story begins to feel like a melodrama, where characters jump from one frame of mind to another without motivation, and where events happen after other events without any understanding of why.

Fortunately, there is a better way to arrange the two story lines so each is clearly seen and fully developed, and yet they are tied together in a manner that strengthens the story as a whole.  That method is the Dramatic Triangle.

A Dramatica Triangle hinges both story lines together around one character and anchors the other two ends on two different characters.  The most common way to do this is to create a hero who is both protagonist and main character, with a separate antagonist and a separate influence character.

In this arrangement, the hero fights against the antagonist in the overall story, and has to defend his belief system against the influence character in the personal story.

A common example would be a hero who has a love interest, who is his influence character.  She loves him because of his moral outlook.  But, the hero is fighting against the antagonist who, seeing the love interest as a weakness of the hero, kidnaps her.

Now, the hero is torn between two things.  To free his love interest, he must adopt the immoral tactics of the antagonist.  If he does, he will save her, but lose her love.  Tough choice, and the stuff great stories are made of!

A variation of this is for the protagonist to also be the influence character, rather than the main character.  Then, he would be fighting against the antagonist in the overall story, but he would also be trying to change the beliefs of the main character, who is the third corner of the triangle.

In this arrangement, we would not be seeing things through the eyes of the protagonist, but through the eyes of the main character.  We stand in the shoes of the main character and watch the protagonist/influence character, but be personally challenged to change our beliefs by him.

This arrangement was used in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford as a police detective and Kelly McGillis as Rachel, a young Amish mother with a son who has witnessed a murder when they were traveling.

Ford is the protagonist trying to protect the child, and the murderer is the antagonist trying to kill the child.  We see the story through Rachel’s eyes, making her the main character, and Ford is the influence character as he is trying to convince Rachel to leave her Amish community and go with him into the larger world.

This still satisfies the needs of having the two story lines, but provides an unusual reader/audience position in the story at large.

But there are other ways to hinge the two stories together as well.  In one version, the antagonist might be the main character, so we see things through the eyes of the character trying to prevent the goal from being achieved.

In another, the antagonist might be the influence character so he battles against the protagonist in one storyline and tries to change the beliefs of the main character in the other.

Which form of the Dramatic Triangle you choose is up to you as the author and the kind of experience you wish to design for your readers or audience.  But any of the variations is less prone to melodrama than having both story lines between just two characters and is less complicated and easer to fashion than keeping both storylines separate between two pairs of different characters.

Learn more about story structure with Dramatica

If you don’t have this, YOUR STORY WILL FAIL

If you don’t have this, YOUR STORY WILL FAIL

This video really illustrates the philosophical conflict between the Main Character and the Influence Character, which is the heart of your story’s message.

Once you have viewed the video, note that one says “we’re just alike” and the other says, “we’re nothing alike.” How can they be so blind to the other character’s point of view? Because it is like one saying, “we’re alike because we are both fruit” and the other saying, “we’re nothing alike because you are an apple and I am an orange.”

You see, they are BOTH right, depending on the context. So the real philosophical argument is actually over which of the two contexts is the most truthful or the best way of looking at their relationship and by extension of looking at life. THAT is the theme of the whole story, and the message is which way you, the author, “proves” is best.

External and Internal Dependencies

As co-creator of the Dramatica theory, I often take some of the concepts so for granted that I forget to consider wider application of them.

For example, in my classes I often speak of the three kinds of character relationships: Dynamic, Companion, and Dependent.  Dynamic relationships are directly conflicting, Companion relationships have a tangential effect, and Dependent relationships are complementary.

And each kind of relationship has a positive and negative version.  For example, a positive Dynamic relationship is when two opposing view duke it out and through that conflict spark a new idea – a synthesis that would never have occurred without hammer to metal.  In a negative dynamic relationship two opposing character will simply beat each other into the ground.

In a negative Companion relationship, two characters have a detrimental indirect impact on one other, just as a byproduct of each doing what each is doing.  For example, a fellow building a toy for his son’s birthday in the garage unknowingly kicks up wood dust that causes his neighbor to suffer an asthma attack.  A positive Companion relationship might be that same fellow’s other neighbor who discovers the wood dust keeps pesky birds away from his garden.

A positive Dependent relationship is when characters feel that “I’m okay, you’re okay but together we’re terrific!”  The negative Dependent relationship is saying, “I’m nothing without my other half.”  And so the phrase, “You complete me” might be either positive or negative, depending….

But, I’ve said all this before.  What inspired me to write this article was, as I said above, that sometimes my familiarity with a concept gets in the way of my perceiving its implications.

In this case, what I’ve never considered before was that if characters in a Story Mind represent our thoughts – different attributes of our psyche, such as reason, emotion, confidence and doubt, then relationships among characters must be illustrating the kinds of relationships we have among our own thoughts.  If this analogy of the Story Mind holds true (and it should), then we must have thoughts within ourselves which share Dynamic, Companion and Dependent relationships.

And so, I began to question myself as to where I may have seen such internal relationships within my own mind.  I began with the Dependent relationship as that was the kind I happened to be examining in characters when this concept struck me.

What would be a Dependent relationship between two different thoughts of mine, I wondered?  And then I realized these relationships weren’t between thoughts, but between feelings.  The example I found within myself were actually several and initially all of the negative variety as illustrated thus: “If I can only finish this book I’ll be satisfied with my work as an author.”  Paraphrased, this means, “I won’t be satisfied until I finish this book,” or, “I’m incomplete without this accomplishment,” or “This book will complete me,” which is really a negative feeling re-phrased to sound positive so it is more palatable to myself.

Easily, I had many things for which I longed.  If I looked at them positively such as “Life is good, but that other potential situation would be even better,” then it was a positive Dependent experience.  But, if it was “I can’t be truly happy until X happens, is achieved or obtained,” then it was a negative Dependent experience.

Suddenly I found myself examining all kinds of relationships among my feelings – such things as “being of two minds,” in which my sense of self (the Main Character in my head) has it out with how things might be if I had a change of heart (the Influence Character in my head) over issue X.  And in so doing I realized that from the Main Character’s view is is not “who will I be” or “how will I be” if I change, but it rather seems more like “what will it be” or “how will it be” (my life situation) if I stick with my desires or abandon them from some replacement plan?

Sure we all have mental images of ourselves, which we spend inordinate quantities of time lovingly maintaining as if our selves were our prized automobile which we proudly display as we motor along through life (our personas, in actuality – our means of locomotion through the social highways of our culture, local and distant, within reach and   in the stars.  But though we may consider our image and make choices to change or not depending on how it will be affected, we also, emotionally consider how that our world feels might change, if we get or don’t get, embrace or abandon, commit or hedge in regard to those things for which we would find a positive enhancement to our lives or that the ongoing absence of those things leaves our lives negative until that lack is remedied.

And, naturally, my thoughts then drifted to the relationships among groups, each a different story mind, and saw that these same emotional, passionate, motivational relationships existed among them as well.

Snapping back to narrative theory again, I was now confident that these three kinds of relationships between characters had unveiled to me a new understanding – that while each character may represent a structural element in a quad that leads it into one of the three kinds of relationships with another character who represents another element in that quad, and while these relationships might be positive or negative from a structural view, for the characters themselves they are felt, not thought, and they are lived in an ongoing passionate experience, not simply attributes that possess.

As a final thought before my interest in this topic waned, I reminded myself that most characters have several elements they represent, all in different quads.  And therefore, they not only have Dynamic, Companion, and Dependent relationships with different characters in each quad, but may, in fact, have different kinds of relationships with the same character in different quads, and any of these may be positive or negative in any combination.

And so, the variety of character relationships already known (in our theory) to be complex structurally, has now also expanded to reveal the emotional complexity of how characters may feel about their many kinds of relationships, even between two human beings.  And, by extension, how social groups manifest complex emotional relationship in their feelings about each other, and how, but intension, we can come to better understand the relationships among our own feelings, each of us within ourselves.

Naturally, of course, this ebb and flow of passions is part of the Dynamic Model of Narrative upon which I am current working with full attention.  And ultimately, I hope to describe these pressures as undulating standing waves, eventually refined into a nice math model and an equation or two.  But, that is for another essay.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

Characters and Contextual Retribution

The minds of characters work very much like our own.

People think both in terms of time and of space.  Our time sense gives us the ability to predict what is likely to happen next.  Our space sense gives us the ability to determine what else (unseen) may be connected to what we do see.

For example, “one bad apple spoils the bunch” describes a time-based (temporal) causal relationship: given that there are a bunch of apples with one bad one in the bunch, it will inevitably lead to the spoiling of them all.  Of course, this is meant as an analogy to the effect on a group of people if one person of questionable character remains in their midst.

The space-based (spatial) equivalent is “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”  This phrase does not predict what will be, but describes a here and now connection.  In other words, if you see all the symptoms or indicators that something exists, then it exists, even if you don’t see it.  The concept of circumstantial evidence is based on this concept as well.

In fact, we base many of our social conventions on macroscopic projections of inherent human qualities amplified to the large-scale.  Not surprising since when we gather in groups, we self-organize into external dynamic replicas of the very same thought processes that go on in our own minds so that the group itself takes on a personality and develops a psychology, and members of the group come to specialize in (or represent) all the different principal kinds of thought processes we use within our own minds.  So, in a group there will be an individual who represents the voice of reason while another expresses passion and a third speaks a the conscience of the group.  In my continuing development of the Dramatica theory I named this phenomenon “Fractal Psychology.”

Now because we, as individuals think in both time and space, and because we organize our experience both temporally and spatially (i.e. “if this, then than” for time and “when this, also that” for space), we are constantly evaluating, both consciously and subconsciously, all that we encounter so that we might identify any instances of either of these two forms of causality in our experience base.  In this manner we are able to protect ourselves in the here and now from that we cannot see and in the future from that which has not yet happened.  Simple survival programming.

Normally, this works pretty well.  And though we sometimes make mistakes by misinterpreting or by not being aware of the larger context, overall odds are that temporal and spatial anticipation is more beneficial than it is harmful.  But, when we interact with others, this seemingly positive survival system can really mess up our relationships.

Here’s a typical scenario:

A conversation between two friends or family members is going along quite normally, perhaps even quite pleasantly.  One says something quite innocuous and the other responds with thinly veiled sarcasm or even a blatant barb.  The first person, feeling unduly attacked, responds with a flash of anger and before either party sees it coming, they are a heated argument or perhaps even a full-blown fight.  We’ve all see this and probably experienced it.  But where does it come from? Why does it happen?

This kind of conflict often stems from a disconnect between time and space.  in a nutshell, one party to the conversation is thinking about the interchange in a temporal way and the other is noting it spatially.  What does that mean?  Simply that while the flow of the conversation by one party may be harmless, a particular item of subject matter may be very close to a land mind buried in the other party’s psyche.  In other words, the flow of one person’s time has intruded upon the other person’s space.

As an example, suppose a pleasant conversation is about getting ready for some guest who are about to arrive.  Dinner is discussed, and bringing out the board games and a selection of movies.  Then, the conversation naturally, temporally, progresses to the kitchen counters which need to be cleaned.  The first person is simply going through all the things that need to be done.  But, the second person has a spatial connection to the dirty dishes because a week ago, the first person had, with some irritation,  requested that the second person stop putting the dishes into the sink without rinsing them.

There was no argument at that time.  The second person grumbled and made some retort that it was no worse than the first person leaving their towels on the floor in the shower all the time.  First person just shrugged it off an moved on but the second person stewed awhile about the dishes comment, feeling put upon and unfairly held to task.

Now, a week later, the second person still has a spatial sensitivity – a topical sensitivity not only to the subject of dirty dishes, but by extension to any chores that pertain to the kitchen area, thereby including the cleaning of counters.  While a mention of dirty dishes again would have elicited a harsh response, this tangential topical reference brought only a verbal barb in reply.  But, since that snappy response seemed unwarranted to the temporally thinking first person, they now felt unduly attacked by the second person and respond in kind.

To the first person who was thinking temporally, they now switch to spatial thinking so that their comment seems to them to be a fair and balanced response to unjustified irritation and levels the score.  But, to the second person who was thinking spatially about the topic, they now switch to temporal thinking and see a trend defining itself in which the first person will not let them balance the remaining emotional distress they had been carried.  Projecting that sequence, the second person now responds with even greater anger.

And so, both parties, switching between time sense and space sense, find themselves becoming angrier as the other person (while really just trying to even the score according to their own needs and assessments) keeps undermining their own attempts to establish an equitable balance within their own hearts.  Each roadblock to satisfaction layers more irritation upon the last, increasing the amount of compensation required to balance the books.

And, since both sides are alternating their consideration of the conversation both temporally (how it is progressing as each seeks the last word to achieve temporal equity) and spatially (what old wounds are being re-opened in the attempt to find spatial equity), like a brush fire the flames move more and more quickly and cover more and more ground, thereby increasing both the pace of the mutual attacks and the extent of the topics begin brought into play.

Usually such interchanges continue either until they burn themselves out or spark a fire storm so great it creates its own weather and destroys the relationship landscape beyond any hope of regrowth.

This is contextual retribution.  It is the attempt to seek equity that is justifiable in one of either space or time, but seems inappropriately out of context in the other.  Such conflicts lead to broken relationships, alienated family members, feuds, wars, and even ethnic cleansing.  It is human nature.  But it is also human nature to have a choice.  Each individual may choose to accept that there is more than one valid perspective, more than one valid context in which the world and all that happens in it can be interpreted.  Space and time, logic and emotion, male and female, your experience and the other guy’s – each is valid in his or her own context – as valid as your is invalid from their experience base.  If we can train ourselves to recognize the occurrence of contextual retribution when it happen, either in the other party or, even more important, in ourselves, we can interrupt the temporal and spatial escalation of hostilities, allow the dust to settle, and then find a common solution that will bring equity to all parties at once, thereby avoiding the downward spiral of one-up-man-ship.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica

Learn more about Narrative Psychology


Rising Tension in Character Relationships

Character relationships should come under strain over the course of your novel or screenplay so that tension in the relationship rises. To accomplish this, you need to create dramatic moments in which outside pressures put each relationship in an increasing vice-grip.

Conversely, overemphasizing tension might be detrimental, especially in particular genres. For example, in light comedy, action stories, and so on, relationship issues are not likely to be all that crucial or central. Nonetheless, relationship stress should still rise, just not to the same depth and degree. In short, keep an eye toward the overall mood you want for your story, and within that scope, bring tension to its maximum by the end of the third act.

Tension does not have to rise smoothly, but can lurch forward in fits and starts. ! The key is to mimic real life and the naturally uneven nature of the stress in our lives. Tension can rise slowly, then drop quickly in a momentary release, only to begin to rise again. Or, it can snap into place precipitously, only to gradually fade away. In fact, a single relationship might employ both of these techniques.

No matter how you get there, you will want to eventually arrive at a set of dramatic circumstances that brings each relationship to the maximum stress level. That is the point at which the relationship will stand or snap – the character climax of your story.

Characters’ Changing Emotional Relationships

Perhaps the most complex relationships among characters are the emotional ones because they can grow to any degree in any direction AND because both characters don’t have to feel the same way about each other!

For example, how many stories are written about “unrequited love” where one character is infatuated with the other, but the other is repulsed by them, yet in the end both may love each other, both hate each other, or they may have swapped positions, emotionally.

Another example is the younger brother who tags along with the older brother. To the younger, the older brother is his hero. To the older, the younger brother is a pest. Now, suppose the younger brother is attacked by a bully. The older brother may come to the rescue and defend his tag-along. But the moment the threat is gone and the younger brother looks up at his protector with glowing eyes, the older brother say, “Okay, get out of here and leave me alone.” Emotional relationships change with the slightest breeze and change back with the least provocation.

Consider the emotional relationships among the characters in your novel or screenplay. Now, consider your plot and also changes in situational relationships, such as who is second in command or married to whom. Go over the emotional journey of each of your characters as individuals. Then, imagine how each emotional relationships might shift, change, and grow for each of the characters due to changes in their situational relationships with others.

It is a fair amount of work, but you will find that this development more than any other will enrich your characters and the passionate experience of your story.

Character Relationships Baselines

Relationships begin with a “baseline” and then evolve. You will need to establish how your characters feel about one another at the beginning of your story. Later, in as things unfold, you’ll describe the growth of these emotional relationships over the course of the story.

Both characters need not be present to establish a relationship between them. You might your readers a look at one character’s room where he keeps a score of framed pictures of the second character, his female co-worker, in a little shrine. Then, you describe the second character’s room where there is but a single picture of the first character which has been made into a dart board. It is obviously well-used due to the great quantity of dart holes. There are three darts in it as another slams in to join it, thrown by the second character.

One character might write a story about the other for a newspaper or a school report. A photo album might show two people in a series of pictures over the years. In Citizen Kane, the relationship between Kane and his wife is established by a series of vignettes over the years in which the size of their dinner table grows, moving them farther and farther away from each other.

Of course, in real life most emotional relationships are not a single melody but a rich and complex symphony. You may want to develop a different specific means of revealing each aspect of a complex emotional relationship, or you might prefer to have a single illustration that reveals the complexity all at once.

The Love Interest

 A Writer Asks…
Is the Emotion Archetype most often the Love Interest and also the Obstacle Character in a story?

My Reply…

That is perhaps the current convention in action pictures, but has not been the case in the past. In 40s films, for example, the Obstacle/Love interest is often the Guardian, or even the Reason archetype.Perhaps the one thing that IS rather consistent is that the Love Interest (if there is one) is often the Obstacle, regardless of the objective role, archetypal or complex. Still, in Star Wars, Obi is the obstacle, but Leia is something of the Love Interest.

That is one reason that thinking about Heroes, Villains, and Love Interests is much too indelicate to describe what is really happening in stories. Though certain combinations may come in and out of Vogue (such as the anti-heroes of the late sixties and early seventies) thinking in conventional terms is contrary to coming up with unique combinations of one’s own that elevate a story as being not quite like anything else.

One final note: In “Aliens” the Archetypal role of Guardian is split between the Michael Biehn part and the Paul Burke part, each getting half of the Guardian characteristics and half of the Contagonist characteristics.. Biehn is Help from the Guardian, but Temptation (“Nuke them from orbit” – which will never make Ripley face her fear) from the Contagonist, whereas Burke is Hinder from the Contagonist but Conscience (“You gotta get back on the horse!” – which is just what she really needs to do) from the Guardian.

In short, there are no right or wrong combinations, just commonly used conventions which on the positive side are immediately recognizable by the audience, yet on the negative side are predictable and pedestrian.

Definitions of Dramatica terms used above


Although designed to create much more rich and complex characters, Dramatica also defines eight archetypes, each of which represents a broad aspect of our own minds when attempting to solve a problem. These archetypes are: Protagonist (the drive toward the achievement of something positive), Antagonist (the drive toward the achievement of something negative), Guardian (our conscience), Contagonist (our temptation ), Reason (our intellect), Emotion (our feelings), Sidekick (our faith), Skeptic (our disbelief).

Subjective Characters: Main and Obstacle.

Dramatica divides characters into two types – those seen in terms of their dramatic functions (Objective Characters) and those providing the audience with a passionate involvement in the story (Subjective Characters). The Objective characters are most broadly identified as the eight archetypes listed above. The Subjective characters are primarily represented by the Main character and the Obstacle character.The Main Character represents the audience position in the story, as if the story were happening to the audience members themselves. The Obstacle character has the most personal effect upon the Main Character, pressuring the Main Character to change his or her world view and see or do things differently. Just as the Protagonist and Antagonist objective archetypes clash over practical matters of achievement, the Main and Obstacle clash over personal matters that define who one really is and what one will become.

Though quite separate in concept, the functions of an Objective Character and the “involvement factor” of a Subjective Character are often combined in the same “player” in a story.

Conflict Can Limit Your Characters

Many books on writing will tell you that a good story requires character conflict. In fact, this is far too limiting. Just as with real people, character can relate in ways other than by coming into conflict which are just as strong dramatically.

Dramatica defines four different kinds of relationships, each of which can be positive or negative in nature:

1. Dynamic

2. Companion

3. Dependent

4. Associative

1. Dynamic relationships are conflictual. Positive Dynamic relationships are like the “loyal opposition” where two sides butt heads, but synthesize a better solution because of the conflict. Negative Dynamic relationships occur when two sides butt heads until each is beaten into the ground.

2. Companion relationships involve the indirect impact one character has on another. Positive Companion relationships occur when there is beneficial “fall-out” or “spill-over” between the two sides. For example, a father might work at a factory where he can bring home scrap balsa wood that his son uses for making models. Negative companion relationships involve negative spill-over such as a room-mate who snores.

3. Dependent relationships describe the joint impact of the two sides. For example, positive Dependent relationships might bring Brain and Braun together so that they are stronger than the sum of their parts. A negative Dependent relationship might have a character saying, “I’m nothing without my other half.”

4. Associative deals with the relationship of the individual to the group. Rather than being consistently positive or negative, the two varieties of this kind of relationship may be either – but in any given relationship one variety will be positive and the other negative. The Component variety sees characters as individuals. The Collective variety sees them as a group.

For example, two brothers might fight between themselves (Component), yet come to each others’ aid when threatened by a bully because they now see themselves as family (Collective).

If you limit yourself to exploring only the conflicting relationships, ¾ of the ways in which people actually relate will not appear in your characters. What’s worse, if you limit yourself to using only negative conflict, 7/8 of real relationships will be missing in your story.

By exploring all four kinds of relationships in both positive and negative modes, your characters will interact in a full, rich, and realistic manner.

Keep in mind: believable characters are not only built by developing each independently, but also by how they relate one to another!