Main Character Problem-Solving Style
Some characters do things even their own Authors don’t understand. Understanding how the problem-solving technique of a character works within story can help clear things up and hopefully bring those Authors closer to their own work.
Male and female. Linear and holistic. Two different ways of categorizing the mind’s problem-solving style. The first (Male/Linear) operate step by step, the second (Female/Holistic) by juggling balances. Recognizing the connections between? That’s the wheelhouse of the female/holistic thinker. Examining the evidence and deducing the next stage of investigation? That’s for the male/linear thinker to decide. Both believe their style to be the most accurate, yet both are blind to what the other can see. Set them to the resolution of the same task and conflict ensues.
Showtime’s popular series Homeland presents a shining example of these two psychologies at work.
As CIA analysts tracking down terrorists within, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) clash over the quickest and most efficient way to prevent the next attack. Carrie prefers a more holistic approach, her beloved cork-board a visual representation of what goes on within her mind. To Saul her ideas come across as simple guesses, mere intuition to be disregarded at the earliest convenience. Instead, he demands of her a direct linear connection. “Connect the dots for me Carrie”. Saul cant see what Carrie sees until she draws that line from a to b to c. The conflict between the two of them, and that special something that makes this show so dynamic, centers around these disparate problem-solving techniques.
Contrast their interaction with the rather vapid discourse between Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) in Zero Dark Thirty. The audience has no idea why Maya feels it necessary to yell so much or how her approach differs from Bradley’s or for anyone else within the agency for that matter. Compare Maya’s empty vessel with that of Carrie’s and one can easily see why so many characterize the film as “boring”.
The Main Character of a story—regardless of medium—needs that well-defined psychological process to clue the audience in on how the Main Character thinks and thus, what kind of conflict to expect.
In How to Train Your Dragon Hiccup and the dragon he shot down, Toothless, engage in a fun drawing game. Hiccup starts the ball rolling with his very linear approach to art. Direct and representational, Hiccup’s sketch reaches for nothing more than a good drawing.
Toothless, on the other hand, grabs the opportunity to make simple sketching something more. Ripping a tree from its roots, the playful dragon carves lines in the sand setting up boundaries for Hiccup to discover. The Viking boy, of course steeped in linearity as he is, doesn’t get it. He crosses Toothless several times before he finally figures it out. Only once he determines Oh, if I step here then he’ll growl. If I step here he smiles is Hiccup finally able to complete the game and get closer to a dragon than any other Viking before him.
This scene presents an opportunity to discuss a golden “rule” when it comes to the disparity between the two approaches: Linear thinkers don’t get holistic thinkers.
To most male audience members (and like-minded Authors for that matter), holistic thinkers do wacky things. In Juno, the titular character recreates the room she and Bleaker first did it in on his front lawn as a way of telling him the big news. Sybylla Melvyn from My Brilliant Career shifts the balance of power between her and wealthy Harry Beecham by pulling him into an area reserved for the lower class. “Did I make you jealous?, she asks, knowing the tide has turned. Carrie, again from Homeland, saunters in to a private veteran’s support group where the man she believes to be a terrorist is a member.
Upon witnessing characters act like, most linear-thinking audience members (males) cry out Why is she doing that? Why doesn’t Juno just tell him straight out? Why doesn’t Carrie work on gathering more evidence and stop playing these silly games?
But they’re not games.
To the logical thinker they come off as manipulative and shifty, but to the holistic thinker they appear as valid attempts to shift the balance in favor of resolution. An easier way to recognize which technique is being used—particularly if one happens to be a predominantly linear thinker themselves—rests in asking whether or not the approach is direct or indirect. Technically they’re both direct, but to a linear cause and effect guy holism feels more indirect.
It might not make much sense to linear thinkers why Sybylla suddenly wanders off into that part of town until they recognize her efforts to indirectly work on the relationship between her and Harry. By taking this approach she engages in the same manner of thinking Carrie does with her cork board: concentrating and paying attention more to the relationship between rather than focusing on the individuals themselves. To holistic thinkers, the connection counts for everything even if it does come off as indirect and manipulative.
Indirect or not, the application of problem-solving technique to story provides the necessary fodder for conflict and growth within the Main Character. Leaving it out deflates potential and severs the connection between Audience and narrative. Instead of avoiding techniques of problem-solving that don’t gel with their own, linear writers should embrace the idea of holistic thinking and find ways of incorporating this foreign approach within their own work.