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A Blueprint for Effective Character Development

Wants. Needs. Character Arc and Backstory. When it comes to developing a strong central character, many do the best they can with these simple-to-grasp, yet disparate concepts of story. Effective character development calls for a system of story points that function as a cohesive whole.

The seventy-five or so story points found in a Dramatica storyform work together.1 Bouncing off one another and cooperating in narrative space, these appreciations of story help formulate a holistic image of what it is an Author is trying to say. Regarding the last article “The Problem with Problems of Character”:

Taking just one of these story points out of context destroys the whole purpose of the storyform.

Several story points within the storyform help define the Main Character’s Throughline. The Main Character’s Domain, Concern and Issue help illustrate in the broadest sense the kind of personal struggles the central character experiences while the Main Character’s Problem, Solution, Symptom and Response fine-tune the focus of narrative drive.

Many struggle to see how these narrative appreciations play nicely together. When faced with a Story Engine Settings report such as this:

Storyform for her

Many Authors unfamiliar with Dramatica paints the theory as too scientific and obtuse. They label the theory a tool for analysis rather than a springboard for creativity. And while the Dramatica theory book does an excellent job of introducing the concepts, it fails to suggest techniques for moving from storyform to blank page. The following examples illustrate one way of transforming Dramatica’s cold hard terminology into an outline for character development.

Change Characters

Main Characters split into two groups: those that Change their Resolve and those that Remain Resolute. The series Character and Change explores this concept in greater detail, but for now it’s important to understand that these two camps handle problems differently. Change Main Characters think they know where their problem is, when in reality they’re blind to the actual source of their trouble.

A Change Character With a Chip on his Shoulder

Consider these Dramatica story appreciations for a potential Main Character Throughline:

  • Domain: Situation
  • Concern: Future
  • Issue: Choice
  • Problem: Temptation
  • Solution: Conscience
  • Symptom: Feeling
  • Response: Logic

In this story, the Main Character will think that his problem comes from feelings and thinks the solution to his problem is to be more rational. Only at the end of the story will he realize that he is really driven by temptation and discover that abstaining will possibly resolve his personal issues.

For example, William the butler does not like the fact that his heart skips a beat when the lady of the house approaches and responds by coming up with several reasons why he shouldn’t fall for her. As a Stop character he tries too hard to make things better when backing off would make his feelings less obvious. After a couple of acts and a lot of resistance William finally gets to the point where he recognizes that the temptation to indulge complicates his position as head servant and influences the choices he makes as a leader. At a crucial moment in his personal struggle, William chooses to follow his conscience, quit, and live out the rest of his days concentrating on his career.

This is the same kind of personal throughline that happens in Election. Jim McAlister (Matthew Broderick) finds all kinds of reasons to rationalize away his feelings for his student Tracy. It’s not until the end that he finally realizes that the temptation of high school is too great, and that a new job in a new city is just what the doctor ordered.

A Change Character With a Hole in his Heart

  • Domain: Manipulation
  • Concern: Playing a Role
  • Issue: Desire
  • Problem: Expectation
  • Solution: Determination
  • Symptom: Test
  • Response: Trust

In this story, the Main Character thinks that her problem comes from constant scrutinizing and thinks that the solution to her problem is to build greater trust. Only at the end of the story will she realize that she is driven by meeting other people’s expectations and discovers that determining for herself the reason possibly resolve her personal issues.

For example, Laura hates it when her managers scrutinize her performance and responds by finding ways to convince her bosses that she is someone that can be trusted. Laura thinks that as long as she works on building those bridges she can keep from disappointing others. As a Start character she holds back when a bit of effort on her part could help the constant examinations. After a couple of acts and a lot of resistance, Laura finally gets to the point where she can recognize that her fundamental drive to meet other people’s expectations sits at the heart of her need to be wanted and her willingless to be manipulated. Realizing why she spends so much time trying to be what other people want her to be, Laura chooses to determine for herself the reasons why her managers look down on her.

This is what happens in the 1960 Billy Wilder classic, The Apartment. Eager to climb the corporate ladder, C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemon) lets his managers walk all over him. It’s only once he starts determining for himself the reasons why people think less of him that he begins to take back control of his life.

Steadfast Characters

Steadfast Main Characters operate a little differently. Instead of focusing narrative energy on what happens within them, stories that feature resolute central characters harness their attention towards what happens around the Main Character. Rather than having them grow by shedding a hurtful trait or gathering some new technique, Authors showcase these characters holding out for something to start or something to stop. The focus remains on the external.

A Steadfast Character Holding out for Something to Stop

  • Domain: Situation
  • Concern: Present
  • Issue: Attempt
  • Problem: Protection
  • Solution: Inaction
  • Symptom: Re-evaluation
  • Response: Evaluation

In this story, the Main Character sees problems in the world coming from people refusing to change their impressions and sees the solution to those problems to get others to simply open their eyes. At the end of the story he’ll realize he’s driven to protect others and that not doing anything could possibly make his life easier.

Frank hates it when the other wranglers treat the cows like dumb animals and responds by pointing out the wrangler’s individual shortcomings. Frank thinks that as long as he continues to bring up how dumb humans can be that he’ll keep the pressure off his bovine friends. As a Stop character he focuses on all the bad things people do, when backing off might ease tension. After a couple of acts and a lot of resistance, Frank finally recognizes that his drive to protect the cows comes from his struggles with his own weight. Understanding that his passion stems from issues with what others say he can and cannot do, Frank considers giving in the next time he witnesses an episode of animal abuse. At a crucial moment in his personal struggle, Frank stands in front of the cows and challenges the wranglers to see man and animal as the same.

How To Train Your Dragon tells a similar story. Hiccup finds himself driven to protect the dragons because he looked into their eyes and saw himself. Challenging the other Vikings to see dragon and human as the same overcame the option to simply give up.

A Steadfast Character Holding out for Something to Start

  • Domain: Fixed Attitude
  • Concern: Impulsive Responses
  • Issue: Worry
  • Problem: Result
  • Solution: Process
  • Symptom: Non-accurate
  • Response: Acccurate

In this story, the Main Character sees herself as not being good enough and sees the solution to her problem as directing effort towards becoming more acceptable. At the end of the story she’ll recognize that she is too results-driven and that focusing on the journey might make her life easier.

Amanda does not like it when her girlfriend’s parents tell her she doesn’t live up to their standards and responds by trying to fall into line with what they deem acceptable. Amanda believes that the more she can be tolerable the less she has to worry about being good enough. As a Start character, Amanda waits for others to ease her personal conflict when focusing on what she can do would ease tension. After a couple of acts and a lot of resistance, Amanda finally gets to the point where she realizes that it is her drive to get results immediately that is at the heart of her panicked nature and her constant consternation. If she could understand that sometimes these things take a little time, then she could perhaps avoid leaping before she looks. Unfortunately, at a crucial moment in her personal struggle her impatience wins out and her obsession with her girlfriend leads her to do something she ultimately regrets.

This is Romeo from Romeo and Juliet. Struggling against the standards set by Juliet’s parents, Romeo leaves town in the hopes that eventually his presence will be tolerated. Unfortunately his desire to be with Juliet without haste leads him to impulsively take his own life.

The Creative Impulse

The individual story points within the Main Character Throughline work in concert to define and encapsulate a personal approach to solving problems. By delineating points of narrative that work in harmony, the Dramatica theory of story offers Authors the chance to write complex and emotionally full central characters. As it presents an objective take on the dramatics within story, the theory can sometimes come off cold and uninviting. Discovering new ways to play with the theory and to transform the scientific elements into a solid familiar compound can help a writer unleash their creativity.


  1. A storyform combines seventy-five thematic elements together and provides the message of the story. ↩︎

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