Main Character Problem and Overall Story Problem
Effective story structure is more than hitting familiar emotional beats or rising complications of plot. Structure exists to grant Audiences a better appreciation of the problems in their lives. The narrative’s ability to shift contexts while looking at the same thing presents an opportunity of understanding unheard of, and thus demands careful consideration.
Our last article, A Blueprint for Effective Character Development, discussed how to take Dramatica’s sometimes cold and impersonal view of story structure and turn it into something organic and writer-friendly. Offering an approach to interpreting story points like Problem, Symptom and Response, the article focused its attention on only one Throughline: the Main Character. Main Characters do not operate in a vaccuum. They need an Influence Character to challenge their approach and a Relationship with which to grow from. And while it may seem the furthest thing away, they also need an objective look at their Responses and Resolve. They need an Overall Story Throughline.
More than simply a battleground for objective character functions like Protagonist, Antagonist, Skeptic and Sidekick, the Overall Story Throughline presents an outside look at the problems faced by the Main Character. Sometimes referred to as the ‘A’ story line, or simply plot, this Throughline compliments the other three Throughlines found in a complete story. While the Main Character Throughline offers an intensely personal, first person “I” perspective on things, the Overall Story Throughline grants an objective “They” look at what befuddles the characters. The remaining two Throughlines—Influence Character and Relationship Story—present counter-arguments to those first two in the form of “You” and “We” perspectives.
What happens when you don’t have all four of these throughlines? If you’re a fan of self-inflicted pain take a night to watch National Treasure. While crafty in its hunt of hidden treasure, the film itself offers nothing in terms of emotional relevance. One cannot connect to this film. The reason can be found with the complete lack of a Main Character Throughline. Sure, there is an attempt to give Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) an issue with the family name, but this is quickly forgotten and never develops into moments of quiet reflection or angst regarding his true identity. Compound this with the lack of any challenging Influence Character to oppose him (despite the obvious candidates in the form of the beautiful girl and the skeptical dad) and the complete absence of any Relationship Story and the film quickly becomes an exercise in self-inflicted torture.
Crafting a story with Four Throughliens becomes priority one for writers who want to say something with their work. But even more important they need to find a way to weave the Main Character’s Throughline with the Overall Story Throughline. These aren’t simply separate occurrences or disparate storylines. The Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines offer an objective and subjective look at the same problem.
Before Dramatica, writers had to figure this out on their own and often did so by reflecting the Main Character’s personal problem in the Overall Story (or vice versa by reflecting the Overall Story Problem in the Main Character).1 By doing this, audiences get an overall logistical take on how to best solve problems while at the same time receviing an intimiate look at what it feels like from inside to have these very same problems. When you put the two against each other within the same work magic happens. Magic, because this is something you can’t do in your real life. You can’t be both within and without. You can only be without. And then within. Never at the same time. This is what makes stories so special and so unique to the human experience.
So how does one go about doing this? Better yet, let’s take a look at classic stories and how the personal problems of the Main Character find themselves reflected in the larger Overall Story. (and of course, we’ll do it the other way as well)
In Casablanca, refugees filter through Rick’s cafe on the way to America. They seek freedom. Freedom from Hitler and internment camps and tyranny. Major Strasser and the Nazi party he represents seek to control every movement in and out of Europe.
What better way to experience this tyranny from inside than to create a character shut-off and isolated from his own feelings? A character so determined to control his emotions that he hardly bats an eye when a teenager asks him whether or not she should sleep with the Captain of the Police in exchange for a ticket to America. Rick (Humprey Bogart) seeks to have control over himself every bit as much as the Nazis wish to exert their control over the citizens of Europe. By showing us an objective look on how to solve a problem of control (“Round up the usual suspects”) while simultaneously granting us a subjective personal take on how to overcome control (“Here’s looking at you kid”), Casablanca argues the very best approach to solving control: freedom.
In the Academy Award winning screenplay for her, self-absorbed hipsters attempt to envision better relationships through technology. Whether it be scolding a friend for juicing their fruits and eating their vegetables or walking aimlessly through downtown without recognizing a single soul, the crushing amount of self-absorbtion threatens our future selves.
What better to way to experience this self-centered approach than to create a character who only sees the effects of his divorce on himself? Obssessed with his wife’s anger towards him, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes locked within his own memories, playing them over and over again in an effort to determine why me? By showing how a greater awareness of his own contribution to the demise of his marraige released Theodore from his obssession while simultaneously presenting the failure that occurs when the machines seek even greater self-awareness, her argues for an end to this tendency to draw inward.
This works for half of the stories out there. Stories where the Main Character does a complete 180 on their point-of-view will find the Overall Story Throughline and the Main Character Throughline sharing the same kind of problem.2 The other half, the half that feature a Main Character who stays resolute to their core beliefs, will find the same similarity between the Overall Story Throughline and the Influence Character Throughline. The juxtapostion between between objective and subjective still exists, only in these stories the subjective is once removed.
For instance, in How to Train Your Dragon how else can you make the struggle to overcome the non-acceptance of winged monsters more personal than by presenting a character who refuses to accept his only son? Stoick’s rejection of his son matches the Viking’s refusal to compromise when it comes to killing dragons. Unlike her and Casablanca above, the problem rests outside of the Main Character, yet its influence still affects us on a personal level. As Hiccup, we feel it. But this time, instead of my problem, it’s his problem.
Same thing happens in Back to the Future. What better way to juxtapose the trouble that happens when you try to prevent or avoid an unwanted future than by inserting a character who avoids conflict at all costs? George McFly (Crispin Glover)—like future boy and the doctor—splits and runs in the presence of danger, yet through this nebbish science-fiction fan we feel its impact personally.
Regardless of whether we feel the problem as our own or through someone close to us, this conflict always finds itself reflected in the larger scheme of things.
We can’t really determine for ourselves the best approach to solving a problem until we’ve seen it from all sides. The power of story lies in its ability to offer both subjective and objective views of the same problems. We simply can’t experience that in real life. That is why stories eventually developed the four Throughlines and that is why we keep returning to them day after day. By showing us the ramifications of problem-solving in different contexts, stories gift us powerful insight to approaching and solving the problems in our own lives.
Dramatica is a theory of story that represents the next chapter in story development. Presented in 1994, Dramatica theorizes that every story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. ↩︎
50% of stories feature a Main Character who Changes their Resolve. The other 50% offer a Main Character who Remains Steadfast in their Resolve. The series, Character and Change covers this unique aspect of story structure. ↩︎