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Main Character and Meaning

Of the four throughlines found in every complete story, the Main Character Throughline is perhaps the most important as it represents the audience’s point-of-view on a story’s central problem. The audience needs that perspective illustrated in order to feel personally attached to a story and they need it illustrated through four key dynamic Story Points. When they don’t, the sense is that the story is incomplete and unrelatable.

March 1, 2010

Main Character and Meaning

Of the four throughlines found in every complete story, the Main Character Throughline is perhaps the most important as it represents the audience’s point-of-view on a story’s central problem. Leave it out and you can pretty much count on your audience leaving as well.

The audience needs that perspective illustrated in order to feel personally attached to a story. When they don’t have it, the sense is that the story is incomplete.

There are four major questions or qualities that can be applied to a well-defined Main Character. There is the Main Character’s Resolve, the Main Character’s Growth, the Main Character’s Approach, and the Main Character’s Mental Sex.1 While the last may, at first, seem quite exciting, it really isn’t what you think it is. More on that in a moment.

For now, take a look at these choice clips of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his personal journey from American Beauty:

Before diving into each concept, it should be noted that while the answers to each may appear to be binary, it is more accurate to think of them as lying on an analog scale, i.e. shades of gray rather than black or white.

Main Character Resolve

Change or Steadfast

This question simply asks, “When looking at the end of the story, is the Main Character the same as they were at the beginning, or have they adopted a new way of seeing things?” If they stayed true to their original approach and continue to solve the story’s problem in the same manner as they did in the beginning, then they are considered to be a Steadfast Main Character. If on the other hand, they have made a significant paradigm shift and now see things in a completely new light, they are said to be a Change Main Character.

If the idea of having a Main Character that does not “transform” bothers you, you might want to check out the article entitled What Character Arc Really Means. Along with a compelling video, it attempts to illustrate that growth does not always have to be transformative.

The Impact Character’s Resolve works in tandem with the Main Character’s Resolve.2 It should ALWAYS be the dynamic opposite. If the Main Character Changes, then the Impact Character will Remain Steadfast. If the Main Character stays Steadfast, then the Impact Character will Change. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, but it is important that they are dynamic opposites. Why? Because…

All meaning in a story is based on this dynamic.

If you leave it out, or you are unclear, or both the Main and Impact Characters Change, you can guarantee that your audience will have no idea what it is you are trying to say with your story. An audience measures the outcome of a story in part by the approaches that led to it.

Confuse this concept and your audience will be left confused.

Lester’s Change

For example, let’s take a closer look at the original script for the film:

LESTER (V.O.) My name is Lester Burnham. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.

INT. BURNHAM HOUSE - MASTER BATH - MOMENTS LATER We’re in the shower with Lester. A waterproof RADIO plays COUNTRY MUSIC. He stands with his face directly in the hot spray, eyes shut.

LESTER (V.O.) In a way, I’m dead already.

ANGLE from outside the shower, we see Lester’s naked body silhouetted through the steamed-up glass door. It becomes apparent that he is masturbating.

LESTER (V.O.) (amused) Look at me jerking off while I listen to country music. I hated this shit when I was growing up. (then) Funny thing is, this is the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.

Hope no one was offended there. But you have to admit, it’s a very quick and clear way to show that Lester does not look at the world in a positive light.

Now compare that with where he ended up at the end of the film:

EXT. PARKING LOT - DAY ON VIDEO: We’re watching the video Ricky showed Jane earlier, of the empty white PLASTIC BAG being blown about. The wind carries it in a circle around us, sometimes whipping it about violently, or, without warning, sending it soaring skyward, then letting it float gracefully down to the ground…

LESTER (V.O) I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me…but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst…

It is quite apparent from these two excerpts that Lester has indeed Changed. In fact, American Beauty takes great pains to show you that he has clearly adopted the point-of-view of his Impact Character Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Earlier on in the film, Ricky had the same thing to say about the PLASTIC BAG, feeling that “there was so much beauty in the world…that my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst.”

Most films and/or stories are not this obvious. American Beauty was and it led them to an Academy Award. Sometimes the most obvious path is the correct one.

Additional Concepts

There are three more dramatic concepts tied to the Main Character, concepts that will be addressed in future articles in this series. For now, it is important to realize that an audience expects a story to have meaning. Clearly illustrating the Main Character’s Resolve will go a long way towards making sure that a story’s message comes through loud and clear.


  1. Dramatica's original terminology for setting the bias of the Storymind was Main Character Mental Sex. We now refer to it, perhaps less accurately, as Problem-Solving Style ↩︎

  2. We now refer to this character as the Influence Character. Why? Read Why the Change from Impact to Influence Character ↩︎

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March 9, 2010

Development of Character Arc

Transformation of character is one thing; how they got there is another. Continuing an in-depth look at the most important character of any story, we now shift our attention towards the direction their growth takes.

The Main Character’s Growth

This dynamic identifies the kind of growth the Main Character must take before they can finally address their resolve. It is the closest thing to what most story gurus or story-structure enthusiasts refer to as the Character Arc. The problem with this generally accepted definition of “Arc” is that it assumes that every character must fundamentally change in order to grow. This assumption is half-true as there are millions of meaningful stories where the Main Character grows, yet does not change. These Main Characters grow into their resolve.

Storytellers would be wise to understand the marked difference between transformational change and the development of character.

The Dramatica understanding of this concept attempts to define the kind of growth the Main Character undertakes without insisting that it lead to change. Instead of defining the end result of the character’s journey, it focuses on the process of getting there (as a definition of growth should). There are two ways to label this development in a character: Stop or Start.

It’s important to note too that this appreciation is generally felt more by the audience, rather than something that the Main Character is actually aware of.

Understanding Growth Through Resolve

The definition of this growth changes depending on the Main Character’s Resolve. A Main Character who Changes by Stopping something will feel to the audience as if they have a chip on their shoulder or as if some great burden is weighing them down. Woody from the original Toy Story has a major chip on his shoulder when Buzz is introduced to their tight-knit community. Before he can become selfless he must first “stop” doing all those jealous jerky-things he does to maintain his position as Andy’s favorite toy (like knocking Buzz out of a window).

Note: The above analysis of Woody in Toy Story fails to accurately describe the Main Character/Influence Character dynamic in the film. Woody is, in fact, a Steadfast Main Character with Buzz functioning as the Changed Influence Character. For a more updated, and far more sophisticated look at this film, please read The Toy Story Dilemma.

On the other side of growth, a Main Character who Changes by Starting something will feel to the audience as if they have a hole in their heart, or that they are lacking something important. Rick, in the classic Casablanca, is an empty shell of the great man he once was. He “sticks his neck out for no one” and thus, must “start” taking action to insure that the love of his life leads the life she has always dreamed of.

This dynamic changes if the Main Character remains Steadfast till the end.

Steadfast Main Characters and Growth

When looking at Main Characters who maintain their resolve to the bitter end, it is more appropriate to look at their growth as a response to the world outside of them. As they themselves don’t fundamentally Change, their growth is seen as a matter of buttressing up against forces that they wish to change. Again, the nature of that change in the external can be described as either Start or Stop.

In a story with a Main Character who Remains Steadfast by Stopping, the Main Character will appear to the audience as someone who is holding out for something to stop. Like Kirk holding out for Nero to “stop” seeking revenge in the latest Star Trek movie, William Wallace in Braveheart is holding out for England to “stop” its reign of tyranny.

In stories with Main Characters who Remain Steadfast by Starting, the Main Character will be holding out for something to start. In these kinds of stories, the Main Character is seen to be holding out for something better to come along. Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams keeps following the whims of a ghostly voice heard in a cornfield. “If you build it, he will come” describes Ray’s growth as a process he undertakes in the hopes that something inexplicably wonderful will start.

Lester’s Growth

In American Beauty, we have already seen how Lester fundamentally Changes at the end of the story. Taking a look once again at the original screenplay, we can see the direction his growth takes:

INT. COMMUTER TRAIN - A SHORT TIME LATER LESTER sits IN the crowded TRAIN, his head UP against the window. He’s fast asleep. LESTER (V.O.) Both my wife and my daughter think I’m this gigantic loser. He has a paper CUP OF COFFEE IN one hand, haphazardly holding it against his knee. Slowly, it tips over, spilling onto his pants leg. He remains asleep. LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d) And they’re right. I’ve lost something very important. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this…sedated.

And here’s the video montage again in case you missed it from the first article:

In the final version, the filmmakers even added the line, “But you know what? It’s never too late…to get it back.” A perfect example of a Main Character who will grow in the direction of “starting” something.

In next week’s article we’ll discuss how Lester sets out to tackle these new changes.

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