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Understanding the Personal Goal of Your Main Character

The Dramatica theory of story makes it easy for Authors to determine what is of utmost concern to their Main Characters--if you understand what Dramatica is asking.

Beyond their concerns in the larger Overall Story of a narrative, every Main Character finds themselves focused on a concern personal and intimate to themselves. With so much attention focused on this area, this concern often comes across to the Audience as a goal for the Main Character. Whether conscious of it from the beginning or something they synthesize towards the end, the Main Character exists in the narrative to achieve that concern.

Zeroing in on this concern and what it means for the main character becomes a high priority for the working writer. The Dramatica theory of story, and the application that supports it, provides the tools necessary to make this determination possible.

Unfortunately, writing with Dramatica is confusing at times. The application will ask you if your Overall Story Throughline is in a Situation or an Activity and your only answer is yes! And then it will ask you if your story is driven by Actions or Decisions and all of a sudden you can’t decide if your character is acting a certain way or if she decided to act that way. Back and forth you go from the application to the discussion boards to here and back to the application and then back and forth over and over in your own mind.

And therein lies the problem.

We are context-shifting machines. That’s how we survive. If we can’t problem-solve a nuisance we justify it away, hiding it from ourselves so we can move on with our lives. If we can’t solve a problem from one perspective we will take another. It is a strength in our day-to-day lives, but a liability when it comes to writing.

Shifting context on the reader without altering the structure of a narrative only confuses and confounds them. If you are going to make an argument, then please do so concretely is all an Audience asks of an Author. Keep your story consistent and they sit riveted through the whole thing.

That is all Dramatica is asking of you when it asks these questions. The application is asking you to set the context for a particular story point so it knows what kind of a story you are telling. By locking you into your own decisions, Dramatica acts as a virtual writing partner that keeps you honest to your own storytelling.

You can’t choose between Situation or Activity because you can easily make that shift in your own head. Both answers seem right. You can’t decide between Decisions or Actions because to you a decision looks like an action that looks like a decision. Turns out our minds are not great tools for keeping the structure of a story consistent. Dramatica is.

Thankfully there are ways to trick your mind into coming up with consistent and confident answers to these questions.

Litmus Test for Domains

If you are having trouble making the decision whether or not a Throughline falls into a Situation or Activity, simply ask yourself:

If the situation they were stuck in suddenly became unstuck, would there still be a problem?

If the answer is NO, then the Domain might be in a Situation. We say might because it is always good to have a handful of examples to back up your argument. The answer of no indicates a good possibility that we are on the right track, but it is always nice to have more proof. If the answer is YES, then the Domain is definitely not in a Situation.

Likewise you can ask:

If they stopped doing the activities they were doing, would there still be a problem?

If the answer is NO, then the Domain might be in Activity. If the answer is YES, then the Domain is definitely not in Activity.

The trick here—as with all these litmus tests—is to rule out all the things are not sources of conflict to help you focus on what is creating the conflict.

Take for instance Braveheart. England moves in and starts sleeping with the wives of the Sons of Scotland on the night of their betrothal. Dirty bastards! If you were sitting down with Dramatica to write that story, the application would ask if the Overall Story Throughline of that story fell in a Situation or an Activity.

At first you might think Activity as it is what the English are doing that seems to be the biggest problem. But if those rascals stopped doing what they were doing, would there still be a problem? Certainly. England is all up in Scotland’s business, causing all kinds of problems for them—not simply sleeping with their women. It is the English presence within their country that riles the Scots up and motivate the conflict. So what if England were to leave Scotland, would there still be a problem?

No.

That is how you can confidently determine that the Overall Story Throughline for Braveheart is in Situation. If you remove something from the story and there is still a problem, then it was never a problem to begin with.

Litmus Test for Story Driver

For the Story Driver—that element of story that determines what the major plot points of a narrative are—the test is similar:

If X hadn’t happened, is it likely that Y would have occurred?

With X being an Action or Decision and Y being the other side of the coin (e.g. If X is a Decision, then Y would be an Action).

If the answer is NO, then X might be a Story Driver. If the answer is YES, then X is definitely not a Story Driver.

Here we are looking less for the source of conflict within a Throughline and more for the cause behind the effects. The principle of negation of instance remains the same. If you can remove it and the story still thrums along, you don’t have a driver.

Story points are essential elements to the life force that propels a narrative forward. If an element of story can be removed without a significant impact on the meaning of a story (like backstory) then it is non-essential and deficient for the purposes of forming a story.

Litmus Test for Concerns

The litmus tests for Domains and Story Drivers are not new. The Domain test appeared first in our analysis of the Throughlines of Collateral and the Story Driver test first appeared as a Dramatica tip of the month and later in an article here entitled The True Nature of the Inciting Incident. This litmus test for the Concern of a Throughline is brand new.

As mentioned in the blogpost of our analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer, this test of the Concern is a true revelation. It also implies that this kind of test works throughout the entire Dramatica model. Take any story point you are confused or walking the fence over and apply a litmus test of negation. You are bound to easily see the correct answer.

If you listen to our analysis of Kramer vs. Kramer or watch the video on YouTube, you will hear us discuss a story point known as the Concern. The reason we ask this question in Dramatica is that it helps us narrow down the possible storyforms. In every completely story, the Main Character will have one general Concern that shows up throughout the entire narrative. This Concern acts as a sort of Goal for their Personal Throughline and helps pinpoint the location of conflict within their storyline.

In the analysis I argue for Ted’s Main Character Concern to be in How Things are Changing over the Future. In my estimation, Ted was more concerned with losing his wife and his job and how everything was shifting more than he was concerned about how things would be for him down the road. Part of this appraisal stems from my personal preference for stories beyond the “normal”, but a good portion of it comes from plain misunderstanding. Thankfully, Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley was there to inspire a shift in my own thinking.

At one point Chris mentions that Ted needs to “let that Concern of the Future go” before he can grow.1 Whether Chris was speaking in regards to the Main Character Growth or about the Concern in general, his words struck me as concrete reasoning for why I was wrong.

If How Things Are Changing were a legitimate Concern for Ted as I had said, that would mean things will continue to be a problem for Ted until he lets that Concern of How Things are Changing go. This is clearly not true for him. In fact, Ted basically embraces the changing nature of things and lives within that moment there at the end of the story. Progress could still be somewhat of a Concern for him.

What he is not concerned with anymore is the Future.

And that is the new litmus test for Concerns:

If you remove the structural item as a point of Concern for the Throughline, would the Throughline still have a problem?

If the answer is NO, then that structural item might be the their Concern. If yes, then it definitely is NOT the Concern.

Remember, the Concern of a Throughline is simply another way to describe the problems within that story. It offers a different magnification on what is really wrong within that Throughline. The Concern functions like a Problem, just a really big Problem.

With that in mind, it was clear enough for me to see that Ted’s true Concern was the Future. The source of trouble in his personal Throughline and the area where he would ultimately find resolution by letting that trouble go lie firmly in what will be. Anything else was wrong.

Testing the Test

For this new litmus test to work, it needs to be used against other films. One example does not a litmus test make.

Looking at Inside Out, If Joy were to let go her concerns of how great things used to be with her and Riley would there still be a problem within her? No way. Thisindicates that the Past could be a Concern for her Throughline (it is). What if Joy let go of how things were going to be, how they were in the present, or how things were changing in regards to her status as head emotion? Maybe that last one. But again, like Ted Joy is OK with how things are changing in the end…that really was never a problem for her. It never was the actual source of conflict in her personal Throughline.

What about “Donnie” Johnson Creed in Creed? What if he let go of his concern of how things were changing for him—how he wasn’t moving up the ladder quickly enough and facing the kind of opponents he needed to face to be the best? Now that sounds like How Things are Changing might be his concern. If Johsnon let all those worries go, he wouldn’t have had so many problems. Let go of the past about his dad, or his future, or how things were now and he still would have that chip on his shoulder. His past really weighs him down, but letting it go would not have resolved his issues. That is how we know that his Concern is not of the Past, but rather of a lack of Progress.

Easier to Deal With

Dramatica runs counter to what most writers are looking for when it comes to helping them write stories. They want meaning and they want to be told that everything they imagine is meaningful. Unfortunately, our minds are terrible at organizing the elements needed to write a story. They are great for coming up with bits and pieces—it is the putting them together in a coherent and effective manner that reveals our weaknesses.

Having a litmus test to trick our minds into dealing with Dramatica is a good thing. Our ability to shift contexts and see things from multiple angles at once clouds our attempts to define story points that eventually need to be defined.

After 20 years, it sure is nice to be surprised by some new revelation in regards to the Dramatica theory of story. I hope that—in sharing this discovery—you find an easy way to quickly and confidently determine the individual story points for your own narrative. Defining them clearly for yourself will make it easier for your Audience to understand that meaning you want to share with them.


  1. at the 48:50 timestamp. ↩︎

Concepts covered: Domain, Four Throughlines, Story Driver & Concern.

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