The Problem with Problems of Character

Complete stories balance sources of conflict with instances of resolution

When granted a new understanding of story, writers tend to latch onto one or two key items. They sense the benefit of a new story point for their writing and quickly add it to their tool belt. The problem lies in assuming this new understanding a lone operator.

Six years of teaching Story Development at California Institute of the Arts granted me insight into common mistakes Authors make. In this case, many of the students within the Character Animation program would pick and choose from the various story points I would present them. They would grab and use the ones that made those most sense, and then toss aside those that didn't seem to apply.

The Same Story

Tasked with creating short 2-minute films, these filmmakers wasted no time assigning their characters a specific problem. They understood the need to have a character driven by some flaw and successfully incorporated this point of story within their films. Yet many would fall into the trap of not letting their characters actually resolve their personal issues.

Whatever their characters were driven by, they simply had them stop doing it. A guy chasing after a girl stopped chasing. A kid driven to succeed in business stopped trying. An artist working on a project gave up. Across the board the consensus was: have your character stop what they're doing and all will be fine.

But stopping a problem doesn't resolve it.

The Persistence of Inequity

Hunger hits and suddenly you can't concentrate. Lethargy sets in--maybe even crankiness--productivity reaches an all-time low. What do you do to solve it? You eat. The meal satisfies and your hunger subsides. Problem solved.

Until you become hungry again.

One must remove the possibility of hunger in order to overcome this cycle. Take a pill. Rewire the digestive system. Real problems require real solutions, fighting Focuss does nothing as the potential for conflict remains.

This same process drives characters.

A Short Story Problem

Let's say we have a character with a gambling problem. More specifically, lets give her an obsession with winning the perfecta down at the track. At the end of the story we want her to overcome her gambling addiction. We do this by having her simply stop gambling.

The end.

But does that feel complete?

A Solution for Every Problem

For every problem a character encounters, a solution exists. In the example above, our gambler has a problem of Pursuit--she keeps chasing that high, keeps running after that next win. The solution for Pursuit is Avoid (or Prevent). In order for our character to overcome her gambling addiction, she will have to actively avoid or prevent herself from going to the track. "I'm never going back there again" or paying the security guards at the gate to keep her from going in would signify a real resolution of her personal problems.

Simply stopping pursuing does not accomplish the same result.

A character's problem causes them tremendous grief. From the context of their point-of-view, their problem drives their throughline. In our example of the gambler, every trouble she experiences stems from this pursuing. Not pursuing simply turns down the dial on her problem. It doesn't resolve her gambling addiction. It turns down the dial enough that the character thinks (or in this case, the subjective writer thinks) that they have resolved things. But as soon as things ratchet up again, the problem returns and it becomes clear the character has not resolved a thing.

Beneath the Surface

Going to zero does not mean off. The problem doesn't go away, it simply diminishes to a point where one is no longer aware of it. The waves of trouble the problem creates seem to go away, but the problem itself doesn't disappear. It's still there, waiting to rise again.

Consider the earthquake and the tsunami. If the tsunamis is the apparent problem, then the earthquake that caused it is the actual source of the problem. The tsunami wrecks havoc and then dissipates, capturing the brunt of our attention. You could perhaps find a way to combat the tsunami or stop earthquakes from creating tsunamis, but you wouldn't really be solving anything. As soon as another earthquake hits, the tsunmai would return and whose to say this time it won't be even stronger then the defenses you've created.

Contrast this with actually taking action to prevent earthquakes from happening in the first place. Now you would never have to deal with the tsunami because you would be addressing the actual problem at its source, not its Focus. The tsunamis would never return.

This is the kind of change characters need to resolve their problems.

The Reason for Bookends

Characters focus on the Focuss of the problems affecting them. They can't see their actual problem and thus any effort given to overcome them would never completely resolve their issues. By employing the solution to their problem, characters resolve the inequity within them and the problem no longer exists as a problem. They resolve things by changing the context.

This is why many Authors resort to bookend scenes. By presenting their characters within the same situation they can show an Audience how the context has changed for that character. In Hamlet, Hamlet is told that his uncle killed his father. By the victim no less! What does he do? He thinks it away, convinces himself otherwise. Later on he sees his mother die from a drink handed to her by her husband (his uncle). Does he think about it? No, he acts right away secure in the knowledge that his uncle did it.

Same situation, different context.

These bookend scenes test a Main Character. It gives them an opportunity to show that their behavior has changed, that their context for approaching problems has changed. More importantly it grants an Author the chance to define what it is they want to say with their work.

In a closed story, an Author wraps things up. A complete story has meaning, it has edges. By changing the context from which a character approaches a problem, the Author opens up the possibility of putting things in a different context. He or she defines the edges of a story by completing it and presenting the potential for a new story.

Ambiguitiy curses good narrative. By refusing to define where they stood on a parituclar issue many of my students failed to actually say something with their work. Their films were forgotten minutes later. Many writers I consult with suffer from this same affliction.

A Holistic Understanding of Story and Character

Problems don't make sense in and of themselves when it comes to story. Like most story points, problems must be seen in the context of everything else around them. They come with Focuss and responses to those Focuss, they come with solutions and goals and consequences towards not achieving those goals.

The problem with most of my students (and more accurately the way I was teaching it at the time) was that they were simply thinking of the problem itself. Their character had a problem with chasing after their dreams, so they stopped chasing. End of story. The students felt this worked because they weren't thinking of the entirety of a problem within a character, they weren't thinking of the Focuss, the solution or any consequence towards their characters failing.

They were focusing on one story point.

Dramatica, and more specifically the Dramatica concept of a storyform, presents a holistic framework for an argument.1 The storyform argues for a particular approach to solving problems. Taking just one of these story points out of context destroys the whole purpose of the storyform and removes any potential gain such an understanding could give to an Author. When considering a story point, Authors must consider all story points. The system works as a cohesive whole and must always be understood in its entirety, not piecemeal.

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

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