Different Themes in Different Throughlines

The Main Character theme follows many of the same guidelines as the Objective Story theme. In fact, the basic approaches of illustrating the conflict by indirect means, calling on the other two Variations in the thematic quad and having the balance between Range and counterpoint shift back and forth are good rules of thumb for all four throughlines. The principal difference in theme encoding from one throughline to another is where the conflict is directed.

For the Main Character Throughline, only the Main Character will be aware of the thematic conflict in that Domain. It might still be illustrated by contrasts between incidental characters or in non-essential actions or events, but no one will notice but the Main Character. For example, our Main Character in a motion picture might be sitting in a diner and look out the window to see a hungry man sifting through a trash can for some food. The focus shifts (as the Main Character ostensibly shifts his attention) to bring to clarity another man sitting in front of the window getting up to leave from his plate of half-eaten food. No one else is in a position to see this except our Main Character (and through him, the audience).

The above example would be a VERY subtle beginning of an argument about Morality vs. Self-Interest. In and of itself, there is not enough to say which is the Range and which is the counterpoint. Also, this example merely sets up that there are haves and have-nots, but does not yet place a value judgment, for we do not even know which of the two men is representing Morality and which Self-interest.

An interesting turn would be to have a Maitre’d notice our Main Character looking at the hungry man through the window and run over to say, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, I’ll have my waiter tell him to leave.” Our Main Character says, “No, wait…” He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his last hundred francs and, giving it to the Maitre’d says, “Bring him some food instead.”

Still watching from the window, our Main Character sees the waiter taking a plate of food to the hungry man. As soon as he arrives, the hungry man beats the waiter over the head, takes his wallet, and runs off. The food has fallen into the garbage. Now, what have we said through our encoding about the relative value of Morality vs. Self-Interest as experienced by the Main Character? Also, which one is the Range?

In our Main Character example, we did not feel like we were judging the Main Character himself because of the results of his actions. Rather, we were making a judgment about the relative value of Morality and Self-Interest. In contrast, the Obstacle Character theme encoding is designed to place a value judgment on the Obstacle Character himself.

Obstacle Characters are looked at, not from. As such, we want to evaluate the appropriateness of their actions. Part of this is accomplished by showing whether the Obstacle Character’s influence on the balance between Range and counterpoint results in positive or negative changes.

Suppose we keep everything from our Main Character example in the diner the same, except we substitute the Obstacle Character instead. All the events would transpire in the same order, but our point of view as an audience would have to shift. The question for the audience would no longer be, “How am I going to respond in this situation?” but would become, “How is he going to respond in this situation?”

The point of view shot through the window might no longer be appropriate. Instead, we might shoot from over the shoulder of the Obstacle Character. Further, we would want to make sure the audience does not get too drawn in toward the Obstacle point of view. So, we might have another customer observing the whole thing. Or, we might simply choose camera positions outside the diner to show what happens, rather than staying in the whole time looking out as we did with the Main Character.

Novels, stage plays, and all different media and formats present their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and conventions in how one can appropriately encode for a given throughline. Knowing which ones to use and inventing new ones that have never before been used comprises a large part of the craft and art of storytelling.

Finally, let us briefly address thematic encoding for the Subjective Story Throughline. Theme in the Subjective Story Throughline describes the meaning of the relationship between the Main and Obstacle Characters. There are two distinct ways to evaluate everything that goes on in the relationship and these two ways don’t lead to the same conclusions. The thematic Range and counterpoint reflect these two different means of evaluation.

In most relationships, everyone involved seems to have an opinion about what’s best to do. That’s the way it always is in a story. As the Obstacle Character Throughline and the Main Character Throughline have an impact on each other, so do the Objective and Subjective Stories. Therefore, both Objective and Subjective Characters will have opinions to express about how the relationship between the Main and Obstacle Characters is going. Remember, it’s this relationship that makes the Subjective Story.

The variety of places to find opinions about the Subjective Story relationship means the Range and Counterpoint in the Subjective Story need not come exclusively from the Main and Obstacle Characters. They could be brought up and argued without the presence of either the Main Character or Obstacle Character.

Of course, these two characters will be involved at some point as well. When they’re together, they’re likely to be arguing the two sides of the Subjective Story’s Thematic issue and providing the Thematic Conflict. When they do, however, it is a good idea to avoid just giving one character the Range and the other character the Counterpoint. That would lead to a simple face off over the issues without really exploring them. Instead, have them swap arguments, each using the Range, then the Counterpoint as their weapon. Neither of them is solely a villain or a good guy from this personal point of view.

Giving your Objective Characters conversations about this relationship is a good way to express Range vs. Counterpoint without involving the Main or Obstacle Characters. This will help avoid unintentionally biasing the audience against either of them.

The real issue is, which is the best way to look at the relationship?

We all know stories involving newlyweds where the father of the bride argues that his daughter’s fiancee is not good enough for her since the boy has no job nor means to provide for her. In these stories, the mother will often counter the father’s argument by saying the two kids really love each other, so what could be better?

In that example, father and mother may be Objective Characters arguing about the best way to look at the Subjective Story between the Main and Obstacle Characters (the daughter and son-in-law). In the end, one way of seeing the kids’ romance will prove to be the better way of evaluating the relationship.

The thematic resolution may be that the Subjective Story relationship appears terrible from one standard of evaluation and only poor from the other, in which case these people haven’t got much of a relationship. Or, a relationship may appear mundanely workable from one standard and thrilling from the other. Or, one may see it as highly negative and the other sees it as highly positive. These are all potential conflicting points of view about a relationship and these discrepancies give the Subjective Story theme its depth.

The important job of the writer is to balance the argument so there is a real question as to which way of seeing the relationship is using the best standard of evaluation. Then the audience is not just being sold a biased bill of goods, but is being presented a much more realistic tableau.

From the Dramatica Theory Book