Applying Pressure to the Main Character

Keeping the balance between internal and external pressures.

While the growth of the Main Character through a complete story is regarded as one of the most important aspects of a story, it is also the most difficult to quantify.

Previous attempts to describe this process (those that rely heavily on the Protagonist as Hero model) often resulted in paradigms that confused a character's development over time with their actual final resolve at the moment of crisis. The fallout from such thinking produced the well-worn, yet highly inaccurate, notion that every Main Character needs to change.

Proficient writers know instinctively that Main Characters need not always transform.

Understanding the Balance of Pressure

Imagine climbing into a diving bell and being lowered into the deep, blue sea. As you descend, the pressure on the outside of the bell increases. This requires you to compensate for the pressure by building up pressure on the inside so that there remains a balance between the internal and external forces. Each change in depth requires further attention towards maintaining that state of equilibrium.

If you raise the diving bell, the pressure on the inside becomes greater than the outside and there is the threat of an explosion if internal pressure isn't reduced. If instead you were to lower the diving bell, the pressure on the inside would become less than the outside and there would be the threat of an implosion if internal pressure isn't increased in response.

Internal or External: Which One is Unpredictable?

These internal and external forces applied to the diving bell behave differently in a complete story. One will seem to flow naturally, or predictably. The other will seem to have some sort of uncontrollable or unreasonable element to it. If the external is predictable, then the internal will be unreasonable. If the internal flows naturally, then the external forces will be uncontrollable.

This analogy of the diving bell also contains two sets of controls. One operates the crane lowering or raising the bell. The other maintains the level of internal pressure.

The Main Character of a story takes a position within the diving bell. He controls the level of internal pressure.

The Obstacle Character controls the crane.

In stories where the Main Character ultimately transforms, they will appear to be the unpredictable side of the equation. As external pressure increases or decreases, the Main Character either cannot stop using the internal controls to overcompensate, or is unwilling to use the controls sufficiently enough to prevent discomfort or harm.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Inception is an example of someone who overcompensates while at the controls. Surprise trains and playful children manifest themselves as projections of his attempts to make up for the guilt he feels for his participation in his wife's suicide. As pressure mounts from the outside in the form of his wife Mal, Dom can’t help but continue to maintain that potential for disaster.

Bud Baxter (Jack Lemon) in The Apartment is an example of someone unwilling to work the internal controls. His unwillingness to stand up for himself perfectly illustrates that character who, for whatever reason, refuses to balance out the pressures building up within the bell. Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) raises that bell and still, Bud refuses to respond. The imbalance within increases until finally he has no other choice than to step up, grab those controls, and change for the better.

When the External Becomes Erratic

Stories with a Main Character who maintains his resolve throughout the moment of crisis portray a very different scenario. In these narratives, whoever or whatever controls the ascension or descension of the diving bell is the erratic or uncompromising factor. The Main Character, perfectly willing to go along for the ride, works the internal controls with predictable execution in the hopes of achieving some level of resolution.

The trilogy of Bourne movies serve as a perfect example of this dynamic. Jason Bourne, while somewhat unpredictable from a superficial storytelling perspective, is completely unwavering on the inside. In this way, he resembles his country cousin James Bond (except for the most recent Casino Royale where Bond breaks the mold as a Steadfast Main Character). Violent and forceful on the outside, stoic and resolute in the inside.

In these kinds of stories, it is the other principal character—the one with which the Main Character develops a meaningful relationship—that becomes the unpredictable factor. The Obstacle Character is the unknown.

In the first Bourne movie, The Bourne Identity, Bourne's girlfriend Marie (Franka Portente) is the uncontrollable one. Her wavering allegiance and inconsistent complicity with his actions force him to maintain balance within his personal “bell.” Bourne constantly adjusts to stay in balance with her.

In the second film, The Bourne Supremacy the person working the crane holding Bourne's personal diving bell is CIA Analyst Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Like her counterpart Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, Pamela works as the wildcard, erratic in her attempts to fully assess the situation. Bourne, again, must keep an ever-watchful eye on the balance between them.

And finally, in The Bourne Ultimatum, fellow assassin Paz (Édgar Ramírez) is the one uncompromising in his efforts to lower Bourne deeper and deeper into the ocean. Jason must brace himself with greater and greater resolve to counterbalance that mounting pressure from the outside. Eventually, Paz relents and releases control of the bell.

In all three films, the Obstacle Character transforms and adopts a new way of approaching problems. This paradigm shift resolves the inequity between operators and restores the equilibrium between the internal and external worlds.

Who Is At Fault Here?

In stories where the Main Character ultimately changes his nature, they often appear to be the cause of their own difficulties. Inception, Star Wars, Hamlet—these stories of transformation deal with characters who have trouble keeping that pressure level bearable within the diving bell.

In stories where the Main Character remains true to their nature, they will appear to be the victim or pawn of larger forces outside of their control. Trapped within that diving bell, they do what they can throughout the story to maintain a state of equilibrium. Jason Bourne, Dr. Richard Kimble, Rocky—these accounts of steadfast resolve center around characters at the mercy of external forces. Characters who stand up to meet the challenge.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

This concept of the diving bell and the Main Character originated with an initial conversation with Chris Huntley, one of the co-creators behind the Dramatica theory of story. This analogy is an attempt (a fantastic attempt) to qualify the difference between the Main Character Resolve and the Main Character Growth.

When it comes to Main Character Growth, Stop and Start affect the controls of the crane raising and lowering the diving bell (external world), as well as the controls inside the bell increasing and decreasing the internal pressure (Main Character). The appreciation of Main Character Growth sets the dynamic relationship between the Main Character and the external world; it sets the relationship between what it feels like to constantly adjust internal pressure against the outside forces that constantly increase or decrease external pressure.

In a Change story, the Main Character is the unpredictable element while the external world flows as expected. In a Stop story, the Main Character can't stop using the controls or overcompensates as pressure increases and decreases. In a Start story, the Main Character is unwilling to work those controls as pressure mounts from the outside.

In a Steadfast story, the Main Character is willing to go the prescribed course, but whomever or whatever is controlling the ascension or descension of the diving bell becomes the erratic or uncompromising factor. The Main Character responds by working those internal controls, holding out for the Obstacle Character to Stop or Start using those controls for the crane.

If the Obstacle Character continually raises and lowers the diving bell, the Main Character works for that erratic response to Stop. If the Obstacle Character simply watches the diving bell sink, the Main Character works the internal controls with the hope that the unpredictable one will Start operating the crane.

The Start and Stop Dynamics of Main Character Growth describe the Main Character's efforts to come into balance with external pressures. Once there is a close equilibrium, he can then take that final step toward removing the inequity entirely (through the Main Character Resolve).

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