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Unlocking the Empathy of Your Audience

The combination lies in the application of a key Dramatica concept--the Main Character's Approach to solving personal problems.

In last week’s article The Essential Ingredients of Every Complete Story, Dramatica’s core dynamic questions took center stage. Beginning with the twin story points of character arc—the Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth—the theory explains the necessity of seeing character development from two different angles: as a state and as a process. More than an Audience Appreciation of want or need, these two story points underline the benefit of knowing the exact ingredients to add to your story.

With six dynamic questions remaining, the difference between Character Dynamics and Plot Dynamics calls for an explanation.

The problems we run into in life don’t exist solely within us, nor do they exist solely in the external world. Rather, the problems we see (or really, create) manifest as a differential between ourselves and the outside world. In order to model this reality, storytellers both old and new need to define the dynamics of the internal—or Character—and the dynamics of the external—or Plot.

The Main Character Dynamics

Remember Ugga and Orga—the original bloggers from last week’s article?

Main Character Resolve and Main Character Growth laid the foundation for their argument. The Main Character Approach and Problem-Solving Style—the second and final pair of Main Character Dynamics—personalize their argument while establishing a rhythm and order in which to explore it. In this article, we will take a closer look at the first appreciation—the Main Character Approach.

Inherent within the human mind is a bias that handicaps all with subjectivity. In a medium that communicates both objectivity and subjectivity simultaneously, a means to recreate that bias is needed to accurately portray the process of problem-solving. Without the twin dynamics of Approach and Problem-Solving Style, a narrative sets itself adrift with no harbor in sight.

By dialing these story points in and keeping them consistent throughout a story, an Author avoids offering a schizophrenic mind for an Audience to inhabit.

First, An Approach

The Dramatica theory of story defines the Main Character Approach as:

the kind of techniques a character uses to solve problems, which favor either mental or physical effort.

If a Main Character prefers physical effort then they are said to be a Do-er. If mental effort takes center stange then they are marked a Be-er.

Do-ers

Craig (John Cusack) in Being John Malkovich takes action to resolve his status as an out-of-work puppeteer. Erin Brockovich wrecks all kinds of havoc in the external world as she fights to succeed in a man’s world. And Wilson (Terence Stamp), haunted by the death of his daughter, works to resolve his issues of guilt quite externally in The Limey.

Be-ers, on the other hand, seek to internalize—or change themselves before taking action.

Be-ers

Rick in Casablanca sticks his neck out for no one. Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) struggles to think more like a member of the Amish community in Witness. And Lucy Honeychurch (Helene-Bonham Carter) struggles to maintain traditional Victorian values while discovering her own unique potential in A Room with a View.

Preference Over Exclusion

Many writers new to Dramatica ask “Why can’t my Main Character do both?” Well, they can. But the Main Character Approach isn’t asking an Author what their central character can do, it asks what their character prefers to do.

Characters who favor mental effort when it comes to solving their problems can engage in physical problem-solving as much as those with a preference for physical problem-solving can engage in focused mental effort. Preference speaks of what comes first, of where their focus is, and how the Main Character hopes to resolve their personal issues.

Personal Issues over Narrative Drive

This last bit is important. Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity is a Be-er. As is Chris Kyle in American Sniper, Tom Cruise’s character Cage in Edge of Tomorrow (Live, Die, Repeat), and Deckard (Harrison Ford) in Blade Runner.

Dramatica makes a distinction between the prime mover of plot (the Protagonist) and the point-of-view we assume as our eyes and ears into a narrative (the Main Character). In Dramatica theory, the Main Character is not always the Protagonist and in fact, many great stories separate out these two roles into separate characters.1

Yet in the case of Bourne, Kyle, Cage, and Deckard they do function as Protagonists. Why then the focus on their internal problem-solving? Dramatica classifies them as Be-ers because their personal issues exist in the internal domains of the mind, not the external.

The Main Character’s Emotional Baggage

To identify the personal issues of your Main Character, look to their justifications built over time—those issues that they would take with them into any story. That personal baggage unique to them? That’s where the Main Character Approach comes into play. As Protagonist they may focus on Goals and Outcomes, but as Main Character, they work through their own emotional junk.

If this proves difficult, imagine your Main Character in a completely different story? What would they take with them…emotionally? If Chris Kyle replaced Matt Damon in The Martian, he would take with him that issue of PTSD that he intimately portrayed in American Sniper. They could play out the same exact plot events and the story would feel completely different—because our in to the story would lie in a completely different Domain.

The Main Characer’s personal issues pull an Audience into a story. By offering them a first-person perspective of the conflict to empathize with, an Author establishes an emotional connection between Receiver and Message. The Audience becomes a part of the narrative.

Throw the Main Character in the jungle, the ocean, or put them on top of a mountain. What emotional baggage would they bring with them on that journey?

The Differential Between Our Insides and Our Outsides

Personally, Bourne can’t remember where he came from or who he is and carries tremendous inner guilt over what he used to do for a living. Kyle suffers from PTSD, a pscyhological disorder that began when he shot a child trying to kill Marines. Cage and Deckard struggle with their own internal identities.

Each of these characters takes action to solve problems in their action-oriented Overall Story Throughlines, while simultaneously internalizing their own personal problems.

Ugga and Orga likely encountered problems of a similar nature: external in terms of the bigger picture, while internal from a personal point-of-view. Communicating that required a method of setting the Main Character’s personal issues apart from the Overall Story issues plaguing everyone.

They needed to develop the Main Character’s Approach.

The Bias of the Model, the Bias of the Mind

Effective story structure requires an Author to model the bias that exists in every mind. The Main Character Approach defines the edges of this partiality. By setting the personal issues of the Main Character in either the external or internal realm, an Author completes the alignment of Throughlines set into motion by the Main Character Growth.

With the bias set, the focus now turns to the dynamics applied to the model. The Main Character Resolve determines which persepctive winds up first: the external or the internal. The subject of next week’s article, the Main Character’s Problem-Solving Style, sets the pattern for the wind up itself.

Give an Audience something intimate and personal to empathize with and call their own. They do in their real lives a million times a day already—why not give them an experience that mirrors that reality?

Great narrative isn’t about great characters—it’s about constructing a model of psychology that persuades as it infects the mind at the moment of inception. The Main Character Approach is the keycode to the safe lying next to the bed of Fischer’s father.

Use it wisely.


  1. To Kill a Mockingbird splits Protagonist into Atticus and the Main Character into Scout. The Shawshank Redemption splits Protagonist into Andy and Main Character into Red. The Great Gatsby offers the Protagonist function to Gatsby himself and the Main Character role to Nick Carraway. ↩︎

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