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12 minutes

The Main Character Playground

Many writers rail against story theory. How can a construct of chains possibly compete with the intuition of the artist? Story gurus and theoreticians can pontificate all they want, but their uncertified claims lie dormant. The proof, it would seem, lies in a writing exercise designed to elicit the strengths of both the inspiration of the artist and the wisdom of the structuralist.

Blind spots exist in every writer. They motivate us to put pen to paper and thoughts into action. Unfortunately they also stick out like a sore thumb when it comes to our stories. A complete narrative demands the absence of blind spots. Failure to do so results in “story holes” the size of asteroids.

A Shining Light

The Dramatica theory of story sheds light on the blind spots within us. By providing a comprehensive objective view of our narrative, Dramatica supports us by filling in the holes. Have a great idea for a story but no idea who the Main Character is or what kind of issues he or she should have?.Dramatica has you covered. Have a great Main Character but no idea what to do with or how to develop a poignant relationship between him or her and another character? Again, Dramatica screens you from the emptiness of writers block.

Unfortunately much of what the theory provides looks something like this:

  • Domain: Situation
  • Concern: Progress
  • Issue: Threat
  • Problem: Expectation
  • Solution: Determination
  • Symptom: Theory
  • Response: Hunch
  • Benchmark: Present
  • Signpost 1: Past
  • Signpost 2: Progress
  • Signpost 3: Future
  • Signpost 4: Present

An unintellegible clinical assertion of something that is supposed to be beautiful and inspired and artful.

As a writer, I might have an idea of how to write a character dealing with Threat and Expectation, but looking at Hunch and Determination I’ll probably take a sidetrip to the Dramatica Dictionary and remind myself of what they mean. By the time I’ve wrapped my head around Dramatica’s precise terminology, I will have lost all interest in writing and instead want to find out what makes Dramatica work or read articles online about the theory (this last one is not so bad if you come here). Regardless the next step taken, I’ve lost all drive to continue writing and my story still sits unfinished.

Thankfully there now exists a way to get your creative mojo kicking with the latest version of Dramatica. Need help figuring out the perfect Main Character for your story? Someone who fits seamlessly within all the other themes and plot po ints you have going on? Or maybe you have parts of the Main Characters Throughline down, but some of the appreciations sit there and mock your inability to illustrate them succinctly. Dramatica can help, and it all starts with an exercise I call The Main Character Playground.

Room to Stretch

The key to this exercise lies in the generation of multiple revisions of the same story. By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better more original storytelling. It seems contradictory to say that by creating stories we don’t care about we actually find ones we really do, but it’s true. Let me show you!

First thing you want to do is grab yourself the latest version of Dramatica. Now called Dramatica Story Expert, this most recent iteration comes with a feature essential for this exercise—Gists. One of the theory’s co-creators Melanie Anne Phillips explains:

[Gists] are subject matter versions of the story points. For example, rather than reading as “obtaining” a goal might read as “stealing the crown jewels.” There are thousands of gists for you to use as story ideas, and you can create your own as well. Plus, you can even access them in the “Spin the model” feature which picks an arbitrary storyform structure, then populates it with randomly chosen subject matter to help you come up with story ideas!

Instead of Determination you get Working Out a Settlement for Something. Instead of Hubch you get Having a Sense of Foreboding. Melanie’s last point clues is in on the approach we will use to encourage brainstorming.

Step One - Nail Down Your Storyform

Hard to generate multiple version of the same story if you haven’t yet figured out what story you want to tell. The current version of Dramatica offers over 32,000 unique individual stories, or storyforms.1 Countless resources exist elsewhere to help you find the unique structure for your story (including my own Dramatica Mentoring service), but if you really have no idea what kind of story you want to tell or want to follow along, head on over to the “Project > Pick Random Storyform” and Dramatica will randomly generate a storyform for you.

Step Two - Generate Random Storyforms with Gists

Now for the fun part. If you’re not there already, open up “Project > Spin-the-Model”. Whether you have decided to create a random storyform or are going to use one of your own, make sure you select “Keep Existing Storyforming Choices” before proceeding. We want to make sure we’re working with the same thematics. This isn’t the real world where everyone throws in their opinions regardless of thematic consistency!

Next make sure “Assign Random Gists” is checked and select “Replace Existing Gists” below that. Pick a number between 1 and 20, then click the “Spin” button that many times. Eventually you’ll land on a version of your story with your original thematic choices intact but the actual storytelling random and unique. For example, using the storyform choices outlined above, a random selection of generated storyforms with Gists could be:

  • Domain: Being a Winner
  • Concern: Having a Particular Group’s Condition Grow Progressively Worse
  • Issue: Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security
  • Problem: Having High Expectations
  • Solution: Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence
  • Symptom: Writing a Thesis about Someone
  • Response: Suspecting Someone is Not True
  • Benchmark: Being at Hand for Something
  • Signpost 1: Studying Early Historic Cultures
  • Signpost 2: Improving One’s Situation
  • Signpost 3: Having a Future
  • Signpost 4: Coping with the Current State of Affairs

A little more writer-friendly wouldn’t you say?

You’ll notice that I skipped the Unique Ability and the Critical Flaw. These two story points tie the Main Character Throughline to the Overall Story. Without the context of the Overall Story (i.e., we don’t know what it is) we can’t properly illustrate these appreciations and thus, will leave them out of this exercise. If you ended up using this exercise to further develop your Overall Story (or if you had done the Overall Story first) then you could come back and flesh them out for your Main Character. For now, we will concentrate on the Main Character Throughline exclusively.

Step Three - Get an Overall Feeling

First thing to do is to scan over the terms and get an overall feeling for who this Main Character is. What kind of a character would have problems with “being a winner” and would struggle against people having “high expectations” of him or her? How about a 16-year old gymnast fresh from her gold-medal performance at the International Olympics? That sounds good for someone who might have issues with “being threatening to someone” and might ponder “having a future”.

Now, we lucked out with this one. Sometimes Dramatica will spit back a collection of Gists that in no way shape or form should be in the same story. That’s a good thing! We want spontaneity, we want contrasting story points, and above all we want originality. Dramatica’s unique story engine will make sure that all these Gists, regardless of subject matter, will thematically function together. So don’t worry if your Playgrounds speak of “Having Alzheimer’s Disease”, “Having a Song Stuck in Your Head” and “Stealing Fire from the Gods”…Dramatica will make sure they operate as a whole.

The key here is to create a character who is nothing like the Main Character you might have in mind for your story. The further away from what you know the better. The more fun you have with it the better. Change the genre, change the gender, the age, the occupation…change it all! Move away from your story in order to get closer to it.

Step Four - Start Illustrating

Now that we have a general idea of who this character is and we have obliterated any preconceptions we had of them, we can start writing about him or her.

For this step, I sort of use the technique described in Armando Saldana Mora’s book “Dramatica for Screenwriters” and included in the latest version of Dramatica—Instant Dramatica. I say sort of because I slightly modify it for this exercise and for the Main Character Throughline.2 For the Main Character Playground I write two or three lines for each of the following (and in this order):

  • Domain and Concern
  • Issue and Counterpoint
  • Problem
  • Symptom and Response
  • Solution
  • Benchmark
  • Signpost 1
  • Signpost 2
  • Signpost 3
  • Signpost 4

If this were the Relationship Throughline I might delay the Solution illustration to the end, especially since I have no indication within the storyform whether or not the Relationship will be resolved. Presumably we know this for the Main Character: if their Resolve is Change then the Solution will come into play. If Steadfast, then their Solution might fluctuate in and out of the story, but ultimately will not displace the Problem.

In addition to considering the Main Character Resolve, it’s also a good idea to factor in the Story Judgment. The Resolve will let us know whether the Problem or Solution wins out, the Judgment will clue us in to how the Main Character feels about it. For our purposes we have a Main Character Resolve of Change and a Story Judgment of Good.

Back to our gymnast and my first take on this Main Character Playground:

Being a Winner and Having a Particular Group’s Condition Grow Progressively Worse: 16 yr. old Malina struggles with her win at the 2002 Olymipcs. Everyone looks up to her as a champion, even her fellow teammates who, week by week, perform less effectively. Malina’s status as America’s “Golden Idol” makes it harder and harder for her to fit in with the team and other girls her own age.

Being Threatening to Someone vs. Security: Malina feels like a monster. Whether it’s on the mat or down at the mall, girls feel threatened by her and gang up on her any chance they can get. It’s an even bigger issue because, as an only child, she always liked the security she felt being part of something bigger than herself. Now her own success threatens that.

Having High Expectations: Malina’s problems stem from her having such high expectations for herself, not only as a gymnast, but as a friend, as a daughter, and as a student. The pressure is unrelenting.

Writing a Thesis about Someone and Suspecting Someone is Not True: This pressure carries over into school where she struggles with writing a thesis paper about another young prodigy, Mozart. Supporting conclusions about his notoriety become so difficult that she suspects her teachers are wrong about him. And if they’re wrong about Mozart, she suspects her teachers and even her coaches are not telling her the truth about her future potential.

Forming Conclusions Based on Circumstantial Evidence: Eventually Malina has a change of heart and decides that her teachers, the coaches, the girls on her team and the girls her age are all forming their conclusions about her based on circumstantial evidence. Just because she won a Gold Medal doesn’t mean she’s a winner at everything. With a great weight lifted, Malina walks the halls of her high school happy and comfortable in her own skin.

Being at Hand for Something: The more Malina has to be at the beck and call of her teammates to support them the more concerned she becomes with how badly they’re doing.

Studying Early Historic Cultures: Malina’s story begins in history class when a discussion of the Worl’ds Greats inevitably leads students to guessing whether or not she will join the history books.

Improving One’s Situation: Malina combats the jealousy by honestly trying to help her teammates improve their performance and their ranking among other teams.

Having a Future: Malina discovers she has a future far beyond simply performing at Olympics—she has the skills and temperance of a great coach.

Coping with the Current State of Affairs: Malina copes with being part of a team of mediocre players—a team she is proud to be a part of.

Ramping Up the Creativity

As you can see this is an amazing leap from that initial Dramatica report. Instead of a few stunted lines about Progress and Expectation and Theory, we now have a fully realized character—a Main Character we can easily fit into our story.

Note how the progression of Signposts simply works. They fees like the development of a character who shifts their world-paradigm and by doing so, resolves her personal issues. Dramatica determined the order of signposts heeded to elicit that kind of ending. The Gists help us move away from Dramatica. Try writing a downer ending using that order of Signposts and you’ll he hard pressed to do it. It won’t feel natural. That’s the power of Dramatica’s story engine.

We haven’t finished yet. Next week, we will cover the steps required to finish off the exercise and develop our creativity beyond where we ever thought possible before.

NEW WORKSHOP! If you found this article compelling, you might be interested in a new Dramatica Writers Workshop starting this September 2014. Designed to help you put Dramatica to work for you, this two-day workshop features the Main Character Playground as one of its exercises.


  1. A Dramatica storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. Different stories can have the same storyform, but have different storytelling (e.g., West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet) (Storyform ↩︎

  2. Other Throughlines have their own unique changes which I’ll describe in next week’s article. ↩︎

Concepts covered: Main Character Throughline & Gists.

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