Parsing meaning from story requires an eagle-eye for detail and a refusal to participate in generalities. Along with this greater focus on accuracy, however, comes the responsibility of making allowances for deeply held beliefs over how and why a story operates.
No greater does this responsibility make itself known than in the argument over whether or not certain characters change within a story. Dramatica, the first iteration of Narrative Science, seems to only call for one major character to change. How can that be when one considers stories like Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice where it seems both principal characters change?
Counter-intuitive as this must seem in light of these examples, an effective story demands it.
A Rule That Supports Meaning
As covered in the previous article A Reason for Rules, an effective story proves the Author’s argument by featuring two principal characters with conflicting perspectives on how best to solve the story’s central problem. One gives way to the other resulting in a rational and emotional outcome. If the one that “wins” ends up bringing everyone to triumph, then the Author has successfully argued for the efficacy of that winning perspective. If instead the winning approach leads to tragedy, then the Author has argued that that perspective was most inappropriate.
Authors use the perspectives of the two central characters to prove their take on the world.
A Change of Resolve, Not a Change of Growth
Dramatica’s first story point deals specifically with the perspective of one of these principal characters—the Main Character. Referring to this bit of story structure as the Main Character’s Resolve, it simply asks whether the Main Character Changes or Remains Steadfast in their resolve. In other words, has the Main Character stayed consistent within their worldview (Steadfast) or have they “flipped”, and completely adopted a whole new way of seeing things (Change)?
As an aside—and another “rule” of story structure—whatever the Main Character’s final Resolve happens to be, the other principal character in the story, the Influence Character, will seemingly share the opposite resolve. More on this in just a bit.
Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Rick in Casablanca and Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph all clearly adopt a brand new way of seeing things. They shed the old for the new.
But Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) from The Fugitive, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) from Field of Dreams, and Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) from Eastern Promises clearly don’t behave in this manner. Instead of growing by transferring their point-of-view to another track, they stand their ground and grow by remaining true to what they hold most dear.
These Main Characters grow, but they don’t change their mindset. Change as Dramatica sees it speaks of adopting a brand new point-of-view—one that requires eschewing all remnants of the past. Still, even with this explanation firmly in mind many struggle with the idea that of some Main Characters not changing.
A Problem of Semantics
Unfortunately Dramatica runs into this issue quite often. Greater accuracy and insight into how story structure actually works often requires a redefining of some terms previously taken for granted. The concept of Protagonist works in a general sense, but when delineating the objective perspective of the Overall Story from the personal first-person perspective of the Main Character, the common general approach muddles the Author’s argument (For more on this, please see Redefining Protagonist and Main Character). When answering Dramatica’s structural questions or trying to determine a certain aspect of your story’s structure, you have to know what it is you are actually looking at.
But perhaps this use of the word “Change” and applying it to only one of the principal characters becomes too much. It may be the most accurate way to describe the process of a fully-functioning story, but it might also be creating confusion where there shouldn’t be. Like many of the terms found in earlier versions of Dramatica such as Preconscious and Obstacle Character (now Impulsive Responses and Influence Character respectively), a slight modification might be in order.
Suggestions for Clarification
Instead of asking whether or not a character has changed or remained steadfast, perhaps we should be asking if their initial perspective has stayed consistent throughout the end of the story or has it been transferred or rejected, or even better—has it “flipped”? Instead of Main Character Resolve: Change or Steadfast, perhaps Main Character Perspective: Consistent or Flipped. In this way we drop the rather-charged word of “change” from the equation and make it easier for Authors and analysts to define where and when a story needs fixing.
More importantly though, we should drop the idea that the converse is true (if the Main Character stays consistent the Influence Character will flip). Why? Because stories define Influence Characters by their impact on the Main Character, not by how their perspectives have changed personally for themselves. Structurally speaking we don’t jump into their shoes the same way we do with the Main Character. From the vantage point of the Main Character it’s not important whether or not the Influence Character’s Perspective stays consistent or is rejected, but rather whether or not their influence over the Main Character has stayed consistent or grown irrelevant.
With this in mind the problems concerning the dynamics between the Main and Influence Characters in Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice quickly fade away.
In Toy Story it seems as if Woody changes. How else would one interpret his ability to share the top spot on the bed with another toy? Yet, if one dives deep into the structure of this great film clarity shines through. Woody doesn’t change his point-of-view, he matures into it. “It doesn’t matter how much we’re played with—what matters is that we’re here for Andy when he needs us” describes his initial perspective. That belief grows throughout the film until it becomes so strong he is willing to sacrifice everything to be there for Andy.
If Woody had shed his identity as Andy’s toy and somehow became as delusional as Buzz then yes, he would have been considered a Change character. Change characters disown their original point-of-view.
Malcom from The Sixth Sense and Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice operate this way. They both reject their initial perspectives. Malcom sees things for how they really are and Elizabeth agrees to marry the man she promised she never would. Looking at their respective Influence Characters Cole and Mr. Darcy, we begin to see the importance of indentifying their influence over their respective Main Characters and where that ultimately ends up.
In The Sixth Sense Cole may see things personally in a different light, he may have seemingly “changed” but when it comes to his actual influence over Malcom, it’s still there in the end. He may understand what it is the ghosts want from him and he may be finally facing his fears, but that influence he has over Malcom—that stubborn denial of peer pressure and verbal attacks against his character—that’s still there as well. He puts up with everyone thinking him a “freak” because he sees things others don’t, an attitude that ultimately influences Malcom to open up his own eyes.
In regards to Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, the man in question may have endeavored to prove how much he is willing to change for Elizabeth, but his pride and general demeanor which held influence over her did not become wholly irrelevant. Why else would her father still question her final decision if he did not still sense that sense of pride within Mr. Darcy? His quality of character may have subdued a little by taking a different direction, but it was not rejected outright.
Contrast these instances of consistent influence with those of Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), and Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) from The Fugitive, Field of Dreams, and Eastern Promises. These characters grow in such a way that their influence ultimately becomes inconsequential to their respective Main Characters. Gerard’s “I don’t care” turns into “I care enough to keep the Police from killing you.” Mann’s refusal to open the door to his own apartment turns into a willingness to step into the unknown. Nikolai’s rise to power insures the safety of the baby and ultimately Anna herself.
All of these reflect instances where the actual influence upon the Main Character to question their own way of seeing things essentially vanished. By becoming inconsequential, these characters solidified the stalwart resolve of the counterparts.
Change Clouds the Meaning within a Story’s Structure
To search for change within a story’s structure only befuddles the observer. Change is everywhere. The change from one Act’s Signpost to another, the change within the Story Limit as time runs out or options disappear, and yes, the change within the Main Character as they grow to a point where their resolve comes into question.
Talented writers know change must happen, they know their characters must grow else the story lie dormant and dead. To tell these same writers that only one principal character actually changes while the other remains steadfast runs counter to their instincts and fuels the fire for the inaccuracy of Dramatica and Narrative Science as a whole. Better to quantify and clarify what the storyform actually seeks out rather than stay true to original terminology..
By seeking instead for the consistency or “flipping” of the Main Character’s perspective, writers and analysts close the story structure book on this issue of changing or not changing. In addition, by understanding the true role of the Influence Character within the structure of a story and how it is their influence that should be judged, not their personal resolve, and understanding of how these two perspectives work together to define the meaning of a story, writers and analyst can confidently get back to the work of creating fully functional and purposeful stories.Concepts covered: Main Character Resolve & Influence Character Resolve.