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How To Tell If Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming Or Surmountable Odds

Understanding the science behind narrative opens up the channels of communication between Author and Audience.

Why do some Main Characters find the conflict they face manageable while others balk under the pressure of insurmountable odds? More than a random reality at the mercy of the Author’s Muse, the feeling of dramatic tension within a narrative is traceable and discernible. The direction of development within the Main Character and the overall emotional state of the story itself gives writers a clue as to the nature of that tension.

Always Four

The Dramatica theory of story always works in fours. The entire model is based on the quad—the result of the way our minds organize and process information. We see Mass, Energy, Space, and Time because we think Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire. In fact ,the latter four correlate with the first four: Knowledge is the Mass of the Mind just as Thought is the Energy of the Mind.

Ability and Desire are the Space and Time of the Mind, but those are more difficult to explain, and not something we are going to cover in this week’s article.

Last week we began a discussion on Dramatica’s Audience Apprecations. As mentioned, most of Dramatica focuses on observable objective story points seen from the point-of-view of the Author. The Audience Appreciations offer the Author an opportunity to predict how an Audience will perceive their story based on the makeup of their narrative.

That article, Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story, focused on Reach. By combining the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style with the Story Limit, an Author can predict the size of their Audience. And amazing as that sounds, that is only one Audience Appreciation.

One down, three to go.

This week we will be taking a look at Essence.

Passing Judgment on the Main Character’s Approach

The Essence of a story is described as the primary dramatic feel of a story:

A story can be appreciated as the interaction of dynamics that converge at the climax. From this point of view, the feel of the dramatic tension can be defined. Dramatic tension is created between the direction the Main Character is growing compared to the author’s value judgment of that growth.

Dramatica predicts how the Audience will feel by defining the dramatic tension between two story points: the Main Character Growth and the Story Judgment. Balancing these two touch-points of narrative against each other, the Author gains a greater understanding of the interaction of the dynamics of their story. It defines what their story means to the Audience.

The Main Character Growth

Main Characters “arc” by either growing into something or by growing out of something. While it may seem like six of one, half a dozen of the other, the Main Character Growth defines the direction of personal development for the central character. By setting the location of the story world’s larger problem in opposition to the Main Character’s personal problems, the story identifies a path of growth for working through the unravelling of the justification process.

If the Main Character grows into something, then their Growth reflects a Start direction. If the Main Character grows out of something, then their Growth showcases a Stop direction.

Look to Kirk (Chris Pine) in 2009’s Star Trek or Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream—Kirk grows into his leadership role by holding out for the naysayers and the villains to Stop coming down on him. Likewise with Sidney—though slightly tweaked—she grows by getting rid of her own typically teenaged obsession with self.

On the flip side, check out Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in Bourne’s first flick The Bourne Identity or Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) in the magnificent film The Lives of Others. Jason grows into his new life by holding out for those set against him to Start revealing who they really are. Wiesler grows by gaining a sense of compassion for those he spies on.

The direction of growth the Main Character develops is only half of the equation when it comes to determining the feeling of tension in a story.

The Story Judgment

The Author also passes judgment on the story’s efforts to resolve the central problem by declaring the process a Good thing or a Bad thing within the Story Judgment. Typically, this result shows up in the maintanence or reduction of the Main Character’s personal angst. If the Main Character works through their issues, that is seen as Good thing. If instead their angst persists or even grows larger, than that is seen as a Bad thing.

Think of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) in Brokeback Mountain or Mr. McAlister (Matthew Broderick) in Election—they end their narratives saddled with the weight of their own personal angst. Contrast this with Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) in Kramer vs. Kramer or Joy (Amy Poehler) in Inside Out—they complete their stories relieved of stress and anxiety.

The Story Judgment can also be seen as the relative emotional appraisal of the story’s characters at the end of the narrative. Were the efforts to resolve the inequity at large seen as mostly Good, or mostly Bad? Regardless of scope, the key is communicating the Author’s intent to the Audience—how should they interpret the emotional judgment of the story’s efforts to resolve conflict?

The Essence of Dramatic Tension

The problem with the story point of Essence is the semantic values Chris and Melanie chose to define it: Positive Feel or Negative Feel. Start/Good and Stop/Bad stories specify a story with a Positive Feel; Stop/Good and Start/Bad characterize stories with a Negative Feel.

That means Star Wars and Notting Hill feel Negative and The Omen and Romeo and Juliet feel Positive.

What?!

I’m not so sure Romeo and Juliet can be defined as positive. Under Dramatica’s definition even Hamlet would be categorized as a positive story. That’s insane.

When I first discovered Dramatica twenty years ago, this seemed like the craziest story point. It didn’t feel right and at the time, I chalked it up to an area of the theory that was inaccurate. Every story paradigm I had encountered up to that moment had some caveat, something that wasn’t quite right. My guess was that Essence fell into the same category.1

The definition of Positive Feel didn’t help either:

When a Main Character’s approach is deemed proper, the audience hopes for him to remain steadfast in that approach and to succeed. Regardless of whether he actually succeeds or fails, if he remains steadfast he wins a moral victory and the audience feels the story is positive. When the approach is deemed improper, the audience hopes for him to change. Whether or not the Main Character succeeds, if he changes from an improper approach to a proper one he also win a moral victory and the story feels Positive.

This sounds like Essence should be a combination of Main Character Resolve and Story Judgment, not Main Character Growth.

What exactly were Chris and Melanie hinting at? You can’t really mistake a story with a Positive Feel when compared to a Negative Feel. Even the definition for Negative Feel mentions “uppers” and “downers.” Reading that, one would even go so far as to assume that there would be far more “uppers” than “downers”.

A Surprise Discovery

This is, of course, what I intended to find when I started writing this article. Thinking I would gain the same insightful results I did from last week’s article, I figured data existed confirming the notion that Positive Feeling stories far outweighed the Negative Feels. Having spent the entire day crafting a beautifully worded 2,500+ word article, I assumed I would emerge with yet another amazing article proving Dramatica’s ability to predict emotion…

…turns out I was dead wrong. The two types of stories split 50/50 pretty much down the middle. 160 to 152—with the Negative Feeling stories outrunning the Positive ones. No real insight. Nothing really interesting to add to the conversation.

A thought occurred—could it be that Chris and Melanie made a mistake in naming the semantic values for Essence?

Misleading Terminology

The definition for Essence only adds to the confusion:

When a Main Character Stops doing something Bad, that is positive. When a Main Character Starts doing something Good, that also is positive. However, when a Main Character Starts doing something Bad or Stops doing something Good, these are negative

So Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is stopping something good and that feels negative. But Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) from Memento is stopping something bad and that is somehow positive.

Ok…

Turns out the answer was buried within the definition of Essence and made even clearer in the QnA article on Is ‘Negative Feeling’ merely descriptive or is it instrumental?:

A positive story is one where the characters are doggedly pursuing a solution to their troubles—they seem to be in control. A negative story is one in which the problem is dogging the characters as they attempt to escape its effects—they seem to be at the mercy of the problem.

Ohhhhhh, now that makes sense.

Yes Leonard feels like he is doggedly pursuing a solution and yes, Star Wars feels as if the problems dog the characters as they attempt to escape its effects. That totally feels right.

Which means Positive Feel and Negative Feel characterize insufficient semantic values for the task at hand.

If Essence really is about the feeling of dramatic tension in the story then that tension doesn’t feel positive or negative—

It feels Overwhelming or Surmountable.

Beset By Overwhelming Odds

Growth describes the transitory state of the Main Characters development throughout the story. Remember that the storyform has time built into it. Though it may look like a single set of story points defining the state of things, it simultaneously delineates the passage of time through the mental processes of a single human mind solving a problem.

The essence of that transition can be seen in the juxtaposition of the Main Character Growth and the Story Judgment. That feeling of Good doesn’t simply exist at the end of a story—it permeates the entirety of the storymind itself—right along with the Growth. It explains the emotional state of the mind processing through this particular instance of problem-solving.

And that emotional state can be described as either Overwhelming or Surmountable.

Take for instance the feeling of Overwhelming in stories marked by a Growth of Stop and Judgment of Good:

Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Stop/Good)

Eastern Promises, Looper, and Rocky? You don’t get more overwhelming then a story about dealing with the Russian mob, a story about assassins from the future returning to the present to kill you, and a story about fighting in a boxing match you have no chance of winning.

And Joe and Ratso don’t exactly find New York a hospitable place in Midnight Cowboy either.

What about a Growth of Start and a Judgment of Bad:

Examples of Overwhelming Stories (Start/Bad)

You probably haven’t seen Eve’s Bayou, but let me tell you—things don’t get more overwhelming than growing up in a Creole-American fractured family in Louisiana.

Or hiding out from crooked cops in Amish Pennsylvania in Witness. Or running from a cyborg killer from the future in The Terminator.2 Or being an unattractive seventh grader in suburban New Jersey in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

These films and 126 more offer Audiences the opportunity to see how to approach the kinds of problems that overwhelm the senses and cloud proper judgment.

Surmountable Obstacles

On the other side, we have those stories that present a set of surmountable obstacles. Instead of overwhelmed by the weight of their issues, the characters in these stories assume control and pursue solutions because the conflict appears disputable and tenuous.

A sample of Start/Good stories:

Examples of Surmountable Stories (Start/Good)

Being John Malkovich, As Good As It Gets, and City Slickers—these are not films that overwhelm their characters with insurmountable odds. Instead, they put the characters in the driver’s seat. While living inside Malkovich’s head, recovering from a hate crime, and herding cattle can be difficult at times—it’s not something either of them can’t handle.3

Disrupting a wedding and introducing yourself into the workplace? No problem for the women behind My Best Friend’s Wedding and Working Girl respectively.

Surmountable tension is manageable tension.

Witness a continuation of this trend with a sample of Stop/Bad stories:

Examples of Surmountable Stories (Stop/Bad)

Grave of the Fireflies—if you haven’t seen it, is one of the saddest movies you will ever see. If any film had the potential of being misinterpreted as a “negative” story, this would be it.

Yet despite everything Setsuko and Seita face, they still manage to overcome it all—and it never once seems like they won’t make it. Same with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Brokeback Mountain. Sure, being gay in a hostile world can be difficult—but it’s not impossible. Neither is prospecting for gold in the remote Sierra Madre mountains.4

And standing up to the Joker in The Dark Knight or mobsters in A History Of Violence? Mortensen might have felt overwhelmed in Eastern Promises, but in History his character Tom Stall has everything under control.5

A Moment of Clarity

There exists a science to narrative. While many feel overwhelmed by the prospect of learning the various touch-points and mental forces behind story, the task remains a surmountable one. Either struggle with dropping preconceptions and misunderstandings and retain your personal angst (Stop/Bad), or grow into a new understanding by adding a better appreciation of story and watch your angst and anxiety slowly dissipate and fade away (Start/Good).

We prefer the latter.

Whether your own personal narrative or a fictional narrative all your own, a greater understanding of the kind of dramatic tension in a story promises a lifetime of carefree and unfettered expression. Most write to communicate an ideal, a better approach to living and breathing and existing in the world. Capture the Essence of dramatic tension in your story and convey your own unique personal message with ease and grace.


  1. If you know anything about Dramatica, the one thing that sets it apart from everything else is the lack of caveats and exceptions. I just didn’t know it at the time… ↩︎

  2. Apparently the future is really overwhelming. And full of time-traveling assassins. ↩︎

  3. As Good As It Gets actually consists of two different storyforms: the Romance story—which is what most think of when they think of Nicholson and his “You make me want to be a better man” line, and the Neighbors story—which features Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) as the gay artist and Main Character recovering from physical abuse. ↩︎

  4. For most of the characters in the story—Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) might have something to say about how everything turned out. ↩︎

  5. Even if Viggo’s character wasn’t the Main Character (and he wasn’t). Story Essence applies to everyone in the story. ↩︎

Concepts covered: Main Character Growth & Story Judgment.

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