Dramatica: A New Theory Of Story
Storytelling and Character Dynamics
There are eight questions about a story that are so crucial and powerful that we refer to them as the essential questions. Determining the answers to these can instantly clarify an embryonic story idea into a full fledged story concept. Four of the questions refer to the Main Character and four refer to the overall Plot. Taken together, they crystallize how a story feels when it is over, and how it feels getting there.
Both structure and dynamics can be seen at work in characters. Structural relationships are seen most easily in the Objective Characters who serve to illustrate fixed dramatic relationships that define the potentials at work in a story from an objective point of view. Dynamic relationships are seen more easily in the Subjective Characters who serve to illustrate growth in themselves and their relationships over the course of a story.
The Subjective Characters are best described by the forces that drive them, rather than by the characteristics they contain. These forces are most clearly seen (and therefore best determined) in reference to the Main Character. There are four Dynamics that determine the nature of the Main Character’s problem-solving efforts. The four Character Dynamics specify the shape of the Main Character’s growth. Let’s explore each of the four essential character dynamics and their impact on the story as a whole.
Character Dynamic ExamplesMain Character Resolve:
Steadfast Characters: Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; Jake Gittes in Chinatown; Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs; Chance Gardener in Being There; Job in the
Main Character Direction:
Stop Characters; Hamlet in Hamlet; Frank Galvin in The Verdict; Wilber in Charlotte’s Web; Jake Gittes in Chinatown; Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs; Chance Gardener in Being There; Job in the Bible; Michael Corleone in The Godfather;
Main Character Approach:
Be-er Characters: Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; Rick in Casablanca; Scrooge in A Christmas Carol; Hamlet in Hamlet; Chance Gardener in Being There; Job in the Bible; Nora in A Doll’s House;
Main Character Mental Sex:
Female Mental Sex Characters: Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie; Nora in A Doll’s House;
Male Mental Sex Characters: Frank Galvin in The Verdict; Wilber in Charlotte’s Web; Jake Gittes in Chinatown; Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs; Michael Corleone in The Godfather; Rick in Casablanca; Scrooge in A Christmas Carol; Hamlet in Hamlet; Chance Gardener in Being There; Job in the Bible.
Resolve: Change or Steadfast?
The first Essential Character Dynamic determines if the Main Character will be a changed person at the end of a story. From an author’s perspective, selecting Change or Steadfast sets up the kind of argument that will be made about the effort to solve the story’s problem.
There are two principal approaches through which an author can illustrate the best way to solve the Problem explored in a story: One is to show the proper way of going about solving the Problem, the other is to show the wrong way to solve the Problem.
- To illustrate the proper way, your Main Character must hold on to his Resolve and remain Steadfast if he is to succeed, because he truly is on the right path.
- To illustrate the improper way of dealing with a Problem, your Main Character must change to succeed, for he is going about it the wrong way.
Of course, Success is not the only Outcome that can befall a Main Character. Another way to illustrate that an approach for dealing with a Problem is proper would be to have the Main Character Change his way of going about it and fail. Similarly, the improper way can be illustrated by a Main Character that remains Steadfast and fails.
So, choosing Change or Steadfast really has nothing directly to do with being correct or incorrect; it just describes whether the Main Character’s ultimate Resolve is to stay the course or try a different tack.
Just because a Main Character should remain Steadfast does not mean he doesn’t consider changing. In fact, that is a temptation with which he is constantly faced: to give up or alter his approach in the face of ever-increasing opposition.
Even if, in spite of difficulties and suffering, the Main Character remains steadfast, the audience may still not want him to ultimately succeed. This is because simply being steadfast does not mean one is correct.
If the audience is shown that a character is misguided yet remains steadfast, the audience will hope for his ultimate failure.
Similarly, a Change Main Character does not mean he is changing all the time. In fact, in most cases, the Change Main Character will resist change, all the way to the moment of truth where he must choose once and for all to continue down his original path, or to jump to the new path by accepting change in himself or his outlook.
Regardless of the benefits to be had by remaining steadfast, the audience will want the Change Main Character ultimately to succeed if he is on the wrong path and changes. However, if he does not change, the audience will want him to lose all the benefits he thought he had gained.
Your selection of Change or Steadfast has wide-ranging effects on the dynamics of your story. Such things as the relationship between the Objective and Subjective Story Throughlines and the order of exploration of your thematic points is adjusted in the Dramatica model to create and support the ultimate decision of your Main Character to either change or remain steadfast.
Direction: Stop or Start?
The second essential question determine the direction of the Main Character’s growth.
Whether or not a Main Character eventually Changes his nature or remains Steadfast, he will still grow over the course of the story, as he develops new skills and understanding. This growth has a direction.
Either he will grow into something (Start) or grow out of something (Stop).
A Change Main Character grows either by adding a characteristic he lacks (Start) or by dropping a characteristic he already has (Stop). Either way, his make up is changed in nature. As an example we can look to Ebeneezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Does Scrooge need to Change because he is miserly or because he lacks generosity? Scrooge’s Problems do not stem from his active greed, but from his passive lack of compassion. It is not that he is on the attack, but that he does not actively seek to help others. This reflects a need to Start, rather than Stop. This difference is important in order to place the focus of conflict so that it supports the overall argument of the story.
In contrast, Steadfast Main Characters will not add nor delete a characteristic, but will grow either by holding on against something bad, waiting for it to Stop, or by holding out until something good can Start.
For a Steadfast Character, growth is not a matter of Change, but a matter of degree. Change is still of concern to him but in his environment, not in himself. Conversely, a Change Character actually alters his being, under the influence of situational considerations. This helps clarify why it is often falsely thought that a Main Character MUST Change, and also why Steadfast characters are thought not to grow.
To properly develop growth in a Main Character one must determine whether he is Change or Steadfast and also at the direction of the growth.
A good way to get a feel for this dynamic in Change Characters is to picture the Stop character as having a chip on his shoulder and the Start character as having a hole in his heart. If the actions or decisions taken by the character are what make the problem worse, then he needs to Stop. If the problem worsens because the character fails to take certain obvious actions or decisions, then he needs to Start.
Of course, to the character, neither of these perspectives on the problem is obvious, as he must grow and learn to see it. The audience can empathize with the character’s failure to see himself as the source of the problem even while recognizing that he should or should not change because the audience is shown another view the character does not get: the objective view. It is here that Start and Stop register with the audience as being obvious.
Essentially, if you want to tell a story about someone who learns he has actually been making the problem worse, choose Stop. If you want to tell a story about someone who has allowed a problem to become worse, choose Start.
A Steadfast Main Character’s Resolve needs to grow regardless of Start or Stop. If he is a Start Character, he will be tempted by indications that the desired outcome is not going to happen or is unattainable. If he is a Stop Character, he will find himself pressured to give in.
Remember that Direction of growth in a Steadfast Character is largely seen in his environment. His personal growth is seen as a matter of degree.
Approach: Do-er or Be-er?
The third essential question determines the Main Character’s preferential approach to problem-solving.
By temperament, Main Characters (like each of us) have a preferential method of approaching Problems. Some would rather adapt their environment to themselves through action, others would rather adapt their environment to themselves through strength of character, charisma, and influence.
There is nothing intrinsically right or wrong with either Approach, yet it does affect how one will respond to Problems.
Choosing “Do-er” or “Be-er” does not prevent a Main Character from using either Approach, but merely defines the way they are likely to first Approach a Problem. The Main Character will only use the other method if their preferred method fails. Having a preference does not mean being less able in the other area.
Do-er and Be-er should not be confused with active and passive. If a Do-er is seen as active physically, a Be-er should be seen as active mentally. While the Do-er jumps in and tackles the problem by physical maneuverings, the Be-er jumps in and tackles the problem with mental deliberations.
The point is not which one is more motivated to hold his ground but how he tries to hold it.
A Do-er would build a business by the sweat of his brow.
A Be-er would build a business by attention to the needs of his clients.
Obviously both Approaches are important, but Main Characters, just like the real people they represent, will have a preference.
A martial artist might choose to avoid conflict first as a Be-er character, yet be quite capable of beating the tar out of an opponent if avoiding conflict proved impossible.
Similarly, a school teacher might stress exercises and homework as a Do-er character, yet open his heart to a student who needs moral support.
When creating your Main Character, you may want someone who acts first and asks questions later, or you may prefer someone who avoids conflict if possible, then lays waste the opponent if they won’t compromise.
A Do-er deals in competition, a Be-er in collaboration.
The Main Character’s effect on the story is both one of rearranging the dramatic potentials of the story, and also one of reordering the sequence of dramatic events.
Mental Sex: Male or Female?
The fourth Essential Character Question determines a Main Character’s problem-solving techniques to be linear or holistic.
Much of what we do as individuals is learned behavior. Yet, the basic operating system of the mind is cast biologically before birth as being more sensitive to space or time. We all have a sense of how things are arranged (space) and how things are going (time), but which one filters our thinking determines our Mental Sex as being Male or Female, respectively.
Male Mental Sex describes spatial thinkers who tend to use linear Problem solving as their method of choice. They set a specific Goal, determine the steps necessary to achieve that Goal, then embark on the effort to accomplish those steps.
Female Mental Sex describes temporal thinkers who tend to use holistic Problem solving as their method of choice. They get a sense of the way they want things to be, determine how things need to be balanced to bring about those changes, then make adjustments to create that balance.
While life experience, conditioning, and personal choice can go a long way toward counter-balancing those sensitivities, underneath all our experience and training the tendency to see things primarily in terms of space or time still remains. In dealing with the psychology of Main Characters, it is essential to understand the foundation upon which their experience rests.
How can we illustrate the Mental Sex of our Main Character? The following point by point comparison provides some clues:
In stories, more often than not, physical gender matches Mental Sex. From time to time, however, gender and Mental Sex are cross-matched to create unusual and interesting characters. For example, Ripley in Alien and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs are Male Mental Sex characters. Tom Wingo in The Prince of Tides and Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October are Female Mental Sex. In most episodes of The X Files, Scully (the female F.B.I. agent) is Male Mental Sex and Mulder (the male F.B.I. agent) is Female Mental Sex, which is part of the series’ unusual feel. Note that Mental Sex has nothing to do with a character’s sexual preferences or tendency toward being masculine or feminine in mannerism–it simply deals with the character’s problem-solving techniques.
Sometimes stereotypes are propagated by what an audience expects to see, which filters the message and dilutes the truth. By placing a female psyche in a physically male character or a male psyche in a physically female character, preconceptions no longer prevent the message from being heard. On the downside, some audience members may have trouble relating to a Main Character whose problem-solving techniques do not match the physical expectations.
Wrapping Up Character Dynamics
We have presented four simple questions, yet each carries such weight in regard to the way an audience will be struck by a story that knowing the answers provides a strong sense of guidelines for an author in the construction of his message. The one seeming drawback is that each of the questions appears binary in nature, which can easily lead to concerns that this kind of approach will generate an overly structured or formulaic story. One should keep in mind that this is just the first stage of communication, storyforming, which is intended to create a solid structure upon which the other three stages can be built.
As we proceed through this process, we shall learn how the remaining three stages bring shading, tonality, and more of a gray-scale feel to each of these questions. For example, the question of Resolve leads to other questions in each of the other stages that determine such things as how strongly the Main Character has embraced change or how weakly he now clings to his steadfastness, how big was the scope of the change or how small the attitudes that didn’t budge, how much does change or steadfast really matter to the state of things in the story: will it alter everything or just a few things in the big pond. In the end, the Character Dynamics firmly yet gently mold the point of view from which the audience will receive its most personal experiences in the story.