Most believe the Main Character of a story needs to change herself. Riddled with elementary school level renditions of narrative structure, the modern Author often grafts a meaningless change of character onto their story. The result is a work that means nothing—a duplicitous offering that leaves an Audience feeling their time wasted and misspent.
This is not a problem in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.
In fact, Cuarón delivers a unique work of art so subtle in execution, that even self-proclaimed story experts find themselves playing catch-up.
A complete narrative consists of one of two paths: the Changed Resolve story and the Steadfast Resolve story. The Resolve is about the Main Character of the piece, and setting it shifts the entire focus of the narrative. Choosing to write about a Changed Resolve or a Steadfast Resolve alters the narrative structure of the story.
The Changed Resolve Story
Almost everyone understands the Changed Resolve story. Star Wars, The Matrix, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Casablanca—each one of these films tells the story of a Main Character who adopts an alternate approach to solving problems. They Change their Resolve.
Luke trusts in the force instead of testing himself all the time. Miles chooses who he wants to be, instead of living up to others‘ expectations. Ric frees himself up to express his true feelings for Ilsa, instead of drowning them in a bottle. Each character supplants their Problem with a Solution.
Miles turns to a Main Character Solution of Determination to replace his Main Character Problem of Expectation. He reaches out and touches Kingpin’s shoulder with a confident “Hey”—signaling his choice of self.
Most writers understand the Changed Resolve story because it is clear how the Main Character’s decision ties into and ultimately resolves the Overall Story Throughline of —the plot that pertains to everyone.
Syncing Up Resolve with Outcome
Luke’s turn to the Force shows the Rebels how you can beat the Empire. Miles’ choice to be the Spider-Man in this universe frees the others to return to theirs. And Ric’s selfless sacrifice makes it possible for Ilsa and Victor to escape the clutches of the Nazis.
These Main Characters save the day because their personal problem matches the problem in the Overall Story.
The Empire and the Rebels continuously challenge one another, in much the same way that Luke tests himself. Their Overall Story Problem of Test, therefore, needs a Main Character Solution of Trust to save the day.
Same thing in Spider-Verse. Kingpin and the Spiders clash because that is what is expected of them—just like Miles’ Issue with great expectations. Their Overall Story Problem of Expectation requires a Main Character Solution of Determination.
The Nazis exert significant control over the citizens of Casablanca—the same kind of control Rick shrouds over his emotions. That Overall Story Problem of Control can only be resolved with a Main Character Solution of Uncontrolled.
The Changed Resolve story is easier to understand because the Main Character changes into the exact thing needed to solve the big world Overall Story Problem.
But this isn’t the only way to solve problems in the outside world. Sometimes, treating the symptoms is all that is needed to affect meaningful change.
Our Blindness to Problems
When we justify behavior, we do so by making ourselves blind to motivation. This buried Element is reflected in the Dramatica model by the Problem Elements found at the base of each Throughline. It’s a problem because we can’t see it.
Instead, we focus our attention elsewhere—on the symptoms of the Problem. We fix what we assume is the real problem.
In Dramatica, this point of attention is the Focus of that Throughline. Where we direct our efforts to resolve that symptom is called the Direction Element.
The Steadfast character of a story represents that aspect of the mind given to work through the Focus and Direction. You don’t need to attack the Problem directly to resolve conflict. Sometimes all that is required is the regular treatment of the symptoms.
How a Steadfast Story Works
In a Steadfast Resolve story, the focus is on the work employed to treat the symptoms of the problem. Instead of driving attention towards the dilemma surrounding a change of heart, the Steadfast story sheds light on what it feels like when keep believing and acting as if you’re on the right path. The first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Hacksaw Ridge, and yes, Roma, all feature Main Characters who stay resolute to the very end.
“Midge” Maisel’s hyper-focus on what’s wrong drives her to be better and better with each performance. Dawson Doss’s refusal to give up control over his beliefs guides him towards the freedom needed to save a hundred men. And Cleo’s denial of the stark realities around her free the young woman up to see life on her own terms.
In each of these examples, it is the Main Character’s Focus and Direction that ties into the Overall Story plot of their own stories.
Maisel’s Main Character Focus of Non-Accurate in her personal life—falling off the wagon with her body measurements and not living up to the standards of being a perfect housewife—find resonance in the Overall Story Focus of Non-Accurate. Here, it is the bombing on stage, not at home, that consumes most of the character’s lives. Getting better and better with each performance requires a Main Character with a Main Character Direction of Accurate—a Main Character who treats the symptoms of her life by working towards that standard, by reaching that higher mark.
Note the contrast between the above explanation and those of Changed Resolve characters. The Steadfast Resolve requires more real estate to explain because it describes something more than a simple flipping of the switch. Steadfast focuses on resistance and flow, rather than potential and result.
In Hacksaw Ridge, Doss’s Main Character Focus of Control dovetails nicely with the Overall Story Focus of Control. This is the story of a military operation in the Pacific during World War II. Discipline and regulation and the loss of control incurred by a soldier unwilling to follow orders increase resistance. Doss directs his efforts towards thinking freely. This Main Character Direction of Uncontrolled is the only thing that would have freed up resistance and allowed true bravery to flow through the battlefield on that day. His personal freedom freed up others to behave unregulated and fulfilled the story’s need for an Overall Story Direction of Uncontrolled.
As complex and sophisticated as these two examples are of the Steadfast dynamic, Cleo’s story in Roma takes it to another level.
The Strength of Character
The alignment of Throughlines in Roma creates a storyform that sees Actuality as the shared Focus Element and Perception as the shared Direction Element.
The easiest way to understand the difference between these two Elements is to think of the M. Knight Shyamalan classic The Sixth Sense. Without giving too much away, the Main Character of that film perceives the world in a certain way. His problems resolve once he sees what is actually going on—the actual reality of his situation. The Sixth Sense operates on a Problem of Perception and a Solution of Actuality.
Roma is a bit more down to Earth.
With Chaos driving conflict, the stark reality of the character’s situation seems untenable. How will the family survive without its patriarch? How will a young pregnant woman survive her abandonment? How will those innocents who encounter violence in the hospitals and on the street manage to cope?
These questions point to a Focus of Actuality.
You’ll note that I listed examples from both the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline.
This is the inflection point where the two meet.
How will the family survive without its patriarch? That’s an Overall Story Focus of Actuality.
How will a young pregnant woman survive her abandonment? That’s the Main Character Focus of Actuality.
And this is where Cleo’s steadfastness gives her employer Sofia—and the entire audience-the keys to working through these stark realities.
She sees the world the way she wants to view it.
Cleo directs her efforts towards Perception. And her life is better for it.
And so is ours.
Subtle Indications of Resistance and Flow
The Steadfast story argues the integrity of a particular approach just as powerful as its Changed story cousin. The argument can be as strong and in-your-face as it is in Hacksaw Ridge, or it can be subtle and sophisticated as it is in Roma.
The Steadfast Main Character does not share the same Problem as witnessed in the Overall Story. That responsibility of Change is left up to the Influence Character. One character changes her approach, the other remains steadfast.
The family dynamic in Roma allows us to see the effects of Chaos on a micro level. The father’s trips to the city and absentee lifestyle challenge the mother’s ability to care for her children and return some kind of Structure back to their lives.
Cleo is the answer to Sofia’s problems. Not so much in the way of her duties as nanny and caregiver, but more so in the way Cleo approaches her life.
By showing Sofia the flow possible when one alters their perception of reality rather than reality itself, Cleo clears the way for higher order. Her steadfastness treats the symptoms of Chaos, bringing success to a family trying to piece itself back together.
The Steadfast story focuses on the work, the Changed story on the dilemma.
The only dilemma left up to the Author is choosing which one tells her story best.
Then all that’s left is the work.