Dramatica Theory Book: Chapter 27

Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story

By Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley

Chapter 27

Encoding Objective Characters

Although encoding places the argument of a story in the context of real life, the storyform itself is not real life at all. It is an analogy to the mind’s problem-solving process. We all know what it is like to face problems in our own lives. However, we have no way of knowing what our manner of dealing with problems looks like from the outside; from a more objective viewpoint. Storyforms deal with only one problem, which is seen from two principal directions: the inside and the outside. When we look at the problem from the inside, we can connect with experiences we all have had. The view is familiar and we relate emotionally to situations that touch our personal nerves. In fact, we tend to substitute our own experiences in place of what we observe in the story. This subjective view holds our feelings and gives credibility to the objective view.

Out of Body Experiences

When we take an external view of a story, however, we no longer identify with the Story Mind directly but view it more like we would in an “out of body” experience. It is if we had stepped out of our own heads, then turned around to see what we were thinking. It is from this view that the author makes his rational argument, telling the audience, “If it feels like this from the inside, you’ll want to be doing that.”

Even this simple message carries value for an audience since the audience members can benefit from good advice born of experiences they have not had to suffer personally. In this way, when similar situations occur to them subjectively they can recall the objective dictum from the story giving them at least one plan to try.

Characters as the Author’s Contentions

All the ways of considering each problem are represented by a story’s characters. Because they represent parts of the argument, Objective Characters must be called in the proper order and combination to support each of the author’s contentions. This all sounds very complex and manipulative. It is. But as authors, when we are on a roll we don’t stop to consider each aspect of what we are doing. Rather, it all synthesizes together into the smooth flow of creativity that we “feel” through our writer’s instincts. If the complexity is not there beneath it all, however, there will be noticeable holes in our plot and inconsistent characters.

Dramatica identifies every point of view that is essential to the objective argument. It allows an author to divvy them up amongst his characters, then tracks the progress of the characters through the story. In this way, an author can cut loose with creative fervor until the muse fails. Then he can call on Dramatica to locate the end of the thread so he can begin to weave it again.

Archetypal Characters

Just because characters are Archetypal does not mean they cannot be fresh and interesting. Archetypal Characters have just as many diverse characteristics as Complex Characters. The only difference is how these characteristics are divided among your story’s characters. When an equal number are given to each character and when all the elements making up each character are from a single “family” of elements, Archetypal Characters are created. In this sense, an Archetypal Character set is like an alignment of the planets: each individual orbit is complex, but we choose to observe them when they are all lined up in a clear and simple pattern.

Nonetheless, we must still explore all aspects of each character to make the Story Mind’s argument fully. However, since there is such consistency to the way the elements are distributed, the audience will anticipate the content of each character, allowing an author the luxury of using shortcuts to describe them. In fact, once a character is outlined enough to establish its Archetypal tendency, an author can leave out the rest of the information since the audience will fill it in anyway. In a sense, a character is guilty of being Archetypal until proven otherwise.

A Sample Story Using Archetypes

When an author wishes to concentrate primarily on action or entertainment, it is often best to take advantage of the Archetypal arrangement to fully make the story’s argument with a minimum of exposition. The characters still need to be interesting in order to involve an audience in their story. To illustrate how even Archetypal characters can be intriguing, let’s create story using only Archetypes and dress them up in some attractive storytelling.

Creating a Protagonist

We want to write a simple story using Archetypal Characters. We can create a PROTAGONIST called Jane. Jane wants to… what?… rob a bank?…kill the monster?… stop the terrorists?… resolve her differences with her mother? It really doesn’t matter; her goal can be whatever interests us as authors. So we’ll pick “stop the terrorists” because it interests us. All right, our Protagonist — Jane — wants to stop the terrorists.

Creating an Antagonist

Dramatica says we need an ANTAGONIST. Antagonist by definition is the person who tries to prevent achievement of the goal. So, who might be diametrically against the completion of the task Jane wants to accomplish? The Religious Leader whose dogma is the source of inspiration that spawns the acts of terror?… The multinational business cartel that stands to make billions if the terrorists succeed in their scheme?… Her former lover who leads the elite band of criminals? We like THAT one! Okay, we have our Protagonist (Jane) who wants to stop the terrorists who are led by her former lover (Johann).

Creating a Skeptic

Two simple Characters down, six to go. Dramatica now tells us we need a SKEPTIC. Who might oppose the effort and disbelieve in the ultimate success of good Jane? A rival special agent who doesn’t want to be left in the dust by her glowing success?… Her current love interest on the force who feels Jane is in over her head?… Her father, the Senator, who wants his daughter to follow him into politics? Good enough for us. So we have Jane who wants to stop the terrorists, pitted against her former lover Johann who heads the criminal band, and opposed by her father, the Senator.

Creating a Sidekick

To balance the Skeptic, we’re going to need a SIDEKICK. We could bring back her current lover but this time have him knowing how much ridding the world of scum-sucking pigs appeals to Jane so he remains steadfastly behind her. Or we might employ her Supervisor and mentor on the force who knows the depth of Jane’s talent, wants to inspire other young idealists to take action against threats to democracy, or prove his theories and vindicate his name in the undercover world… We’ll use the Supervisor. So here’s Jane who wants to stop the terrorists, pitted against her former lover Johann, the head of the band who wants to stop her, opposed by her father, the Senator, and supported by her Supervisor.

Creating a Contagonist

Let’s bring in a CONTAGONIST: the Seasoned Cop who says, “You have to play by the rules” and thwarts Jane’s efforts to forge a better modus operandi?… Or, the Ex-Con with a heart of gold who studies the classics and counsels her to base her approach on proven scenarios?… Or, her friend Sheila, a computer whiz who has a bogus response plan based on averaging every scenario every attempted? Computer whiz it is. So Jane wants to stop the terrorists, is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, opposed by her father, the Senator, supported by her Supervisor, and tempted by her friend Sheila, the computer whiz.

Creating a Guardian

Keeping in mind the concept of Dynamic Pairs, we are going to want to balance the Computer Whiz with a GUARDIAN. The Master of the Oriental martial arts who urges her to “go with the flow” (“Use The Force, Jane!”)?… The Ex-Con again who urges, “Get back to basics”?… or perhaps the Seasoned Cop who paves the way through the undercover jungle?…. We like the Seasoned Cop. Note how we could have used him as Contagonist, but elected to use him as Guardian instead. It’s totally up to us as authors which characteristics go into which players. Jane wants to stop the terrorists, is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, is opposed by her father, the Senator, supported by her Supervisor, tempted by her friend Sheila the computer whiz, and protected by the Seasoned Cop.

Creating Reason and Emotion Characters

Since we really like some of our earlier concepts for Characters, let’s use the Ex-Con as REASON, stressing the need to use classic scenarios. We’ll balance her with the Master of the Oriental martial arts, who maintains Jane’s need to break with the Western approach by letting loose and following her feelings.

Well, that seems to cover all eight Archetypal Characters: Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic, Sidekick, Contagonist, Guardian, Reason and Emotion. Finally, we have Jane who wants to stop the terrorists and is pitted against the head of the band (her former lover Johann) who wants to stop her, is opposed by her Father, the Senator, is supported by her Supervisor, tempted by her friend Sheila the computer whiz, protected by the Seasoned Cop, urged by the Ex-Con to copy the classics, and counseled by the Master of Oriental martial arts to let loose and follow her feelings.

The Same Old Story?

This is beginning to sound like a lot of many stories we’ve seen before. Why have we seen this so many times? Because it is simple and it works. Of course, we have limited ourselves in this example to the Archetypal Characters, not even taking advantage of the Complex Characters we could also create.

When you keep in mind the Dramatica rules for mixing and matching characteristics to create Complex Characters, you have an astronomical number of possible people (or non-people) who might occupy your story. Because of the structure of inter-relationships Dramatica provides, they will all fit together to the greatest potential and nothing will be duplicated or missed. As a result, the Story Mind will be fully functional; the argument fully made.

Complex Characters

It is not the content that makes characters complex, but the arrangement of that content. We all know people who have one-track minds or are so aligned as to be completely predictable (and often, therefore, boring!) People who are more diverse contain conflicting or dissimilar traits and are much more interesting to be around. So it is with characters.

Imagine building characters to be like playing Scrabble. There are a given number of letter tiles, no more, no less. The object is to create words until all the tiles have been employed. The game won’t feel “complete” if any tiles are left over. Now imagine a set of words that are all the same length and use up all the letters so none are remaining. Suppose there is only one combination of letters that will accomplish this. If we build characters that way, we get the one and only Archetypal set. There’s nothing wrong with playing the game that way, but after a few zillion times, seeing the same limited set of words over and over again wears pretty thin. It is much more interesting to create a wide vocabulary of all kinds and sizes of words.

Archetypes Have Their Place, But….

Archetypal Characters have their place, mind you. If an author’s focus is on Plot or Theme, he may want to create easily identifiable Archetypes as a shorthand to save space and time. As soon as the edges of an Archetypal Character are sketched out, audiences (who have seen these Archetypes time and again) will fill in the rest, pending information to the contrary. In this way, an author can free up time or pages for aspects of the story which may be much more interesting to him.

As a result, Complex Characters are often the first things torn down in an effort to conserve media real estate. This leads to a glut of action-oriented stories populated by stick-figure people. Whenever there is a glut in one place, you will find a deficiency somewhere else. The imbalance between glut and deficiency creates demand. Box office is directly proportional to demand. No more need be said.

Four Dimensional Characters

All characters, Archetypal or Complex, have four levels or Dimensions in which they may contain characteristics. These are:

1. Motivations
2. Methodologies
3. Means of Evaluation
4. Purposes

Archetypal Characters contain one characteristic in each of these areas that describes how they deal with external problems. They also contain one each that describes how they deal with internal problems. Altogether they possess eight characteristics.

Swap Meet

The easiest way to create Complex Characters is to simply swap a few Elements between one Archetypal Character and another at the same level. This results in evenly-balanced characters who aren’t nearly as predictable as Archetypes. When the points of view are mixed so that the focus of a scene or act changes from Methodologies to Motivations, for example, the manner in which a character responds might also shift dramatically.

Even more Complex Characters can be built by giving more characteristics to some and fewer to others. For example, one character might have two Motivations, three Methodologies and so on. Another character might only have Purposes but no Motivations or any of the others. Those characters having the most characteristics will be called upon more frequently to appear, thereby strengthening their presence with an audience.

A Character Cannot Serve Two Masters

An author can create characters for any purpose, to be played like cards at particular points in the hand. The only “rules” of character construction caution against any character containing more than one Element of a dynamic pair. In addition, it is best to avoid assigning a character more than one Element from the same quad as the character would then represent conflicting points of view on the same issue.

At first, this might seem desirable as it would create internal conflict. But in the case of Objective Characters, they are seen from the outside. We cannot perceive their internal deliberations. Any internal conflict simple weakens their objective function.

Objective Throughline Characteristics

Elements are the most refined resolution of the problem in a story. Beneath each Variation are four Elements that make up the parts of that Variation and are also defined by its umbrella. One of the four elements under the Range is the Problem of the story in its most essential form. Another of the four will prove to be the Solution. A third element is the Focus of the story, where the Problem appears to principally manifest itself. The final element represents the Direction that is taken in response to the Focus.

Each of these elements has a specific and recognizable function even in traditional story theory. For example, we know that characters often work not toward the real solution but to a perceived solution. And characters frequently grapple with a problem that is ultimately recognized as only a symptom of the real problem.

The “Crucial” Element

As indicated elsewhere, stories are really about inequities and their resolutions. When the four principal elements are considered in this light, the Problem element appears more like the essence of the inequity. The Solution becomes the essence of what is needed to restore balance. Depending upon the dynamics of the story, one of the four elements is “lifted up” as the prominent point of view. It becomes the Crucial Element upon which all other lesser inequities in the story center. It is Crucial because if it comes into balance all the remaining inequities of the story are forced to balance themselves as well. If not balanced, none of the others can be resolved.

Objective Elements and the Subjective Characters

Elements serve to show what the inequity looks like from all possible points of view and thereby hone in on the source: the one bad apple in the basket. All 64 Elements in this level must be represented in character form in order to fully explore the story’s inequity. Of all these, two special characters bear special attention: the Main and Obstacle.

The Main and Obstacle characters do double-duty by carrying the Subjective Storyline and also playing an Objective role by being assigned to two different players that contain an Objective function. The player containing the Main Character always contains the Crucial Element in its Objective role. However, that element does not always have to be the Solution. It might be the Problem, Focus, or Direction Element, depending upon the dynamics. It is this duality that makes those two players the linchpins of the story: the hinge upon which the Objective AND Subjective Problems and storylines converge.

The player containing the Obstacle Character also contains the Element diagonal to the crucial element: the other half of the dynamic pair. In this way as a Main Character or Obstacle Character comes to eventually change or remain steadfast, the subjective problem influences how that player will respond in regard to the Objective Element it also contains. Like magnets with North and South poles, what happens on the Subjective side will influence the Objective stand, and when pressures force a change in the Objective stand, it will influence the Subjective point of view. It is no surprise that this relationship between Objective and Subjective dynamics in characters has seemed so indefinably obscure for so long.

Leave a Reply