Tendency, Main Character Approach, Story Driver, and Crucial Element
When faced with the unknown, many Main Characters of a narrative balk and recede back into the comfort of their present surroundings. Seen by many as an indication of “refusing the call to adventure”, this unwillingness on the part of the central character to participate seemingly correlates with a key story point in Dramatica. Unfortunately, this similarity exists only in semantics and if left unexplained could lead to confusion and a misappropriation of narrative focus.
In short, the simplicity and subjective nature of the Hero’s Journey finds no correlation in the complex and sublimely sophisticated theory of story known as Dramatica.
The process of using the Dramatica theory of story to frame a narrative is often foreign and uncomfortable. Most writers become writers because they enjoy placing themselves in the shoes of the characters and writing what those people see and think and feel. The subjective experience of being someone else and working through their issues and problems draws certain artists in and turns them into writers.
Dramatica wants you, the writer, to look at your story as this thing, this object you hold in your hands. Dramatica wants you to look at your story from the outside, not the inside. Removed from the emotion and subjectivity of being within, you answer questions and determine story points from an objectified point-of-view. While certainly devoid of sexiness and passion, this vantage point helps you detect holes within the narrative that you can’t see from the inside.
Does the Main Character act like someone who prefers to solve problems externally before internally? Does the story reach a climax because options run out or because time runs out? Does the Main Character end the story completely resolved of their angst, or is there something still digging at them deep inside?
Writing from the Main Character’s point-of-view, an Author might be tempted to lie to himself or herself as the character—and most people—would. That is why professional writers need Dramatica and why it is such a powerful tool when it comes to refining the craft of writing. An objective point-of-view saves writers from themselves.
The last two weeks found us diving into what Dramatica refers to as Audience Appreciations. By combining certain key dynamic and objective story points together, we found that a writer can pierce the veil that lies between Author and Audience and predict subjectively how the Audience will receive and react to the story. In short, by understanding and employing these story points, writers can predict how an Audience will appreciate their work.
And if they can predict how an Audience will behave based on key story points, they can also reverse the process and determine their narrative based on the Audience behavior desired.
In Predicting Who Will Listen to Your Story, writers learned that the broadest audience embraces stories that feature a Main Character who prefers to solve problems linearly and stories that come to a conclusion because of options running out. In How to Tell If Your Main Character Faces Overwhelming or Surmountable Odds, writers discovered that the feeling of dramatic tension in a story is dependent on the growth of the Main Character’s personal development and the overall emotional judgment on the efforts to resolve the story’s central inequity.
In this article, we intend to continue our discussion on these Audience Appreciations by focusing on the third in this series of four: the Audience Appreciation of
The Dramatica theory of story defines Tendency as:
the degree to which the Main Character feels compelled to accept the quest. Not all Main Characters are well suited to solve the problem in their story. They may possess the crucial element essential to the solution yet not possess experience in using the tools needed to bring it into play.
Seasoned writers may attribute this story point to the “Refusal of the Call” sequence found in the Hero’s Journey narrative pattern.
And they would be wrong.
Brought into greater public awareness during the 20th century by Joseph Campbell and made popular by many more in search of a grand narrative code, the Hero’s Journey “structure” attempts to overlay a spiritual, or transformational, growth sequence to every narrative. The Hero’s Journey is given to gross inaccuracies and rampant generalizations in no small part due to its inherent position from within the story. Those blind spots mentioned above? This is where the Hero’s Journey and its subjective nature fail to capture the true nature of a narrative.
Not everything is a Hero’s Journey and neither is the Main Character’s tendency to be Willing to participate in a story’s narrative or Unwilling-ness to see it through.
Instead, the Main Character’s impetus to participate lies in a combination of that character’s preference to solve problems and the specific type of plot points that drive the story forward.
Some Main Characters prefer to solve problems externally first, while others prefer to change themselves internally first. Main Characters can and do both, but they will always defer to one over the other as they work through a narrative. The
Main Character Approach sees the primary character within a narrative falling into one of two places: either a Do-er or a Be-er.
The reason for the preference lies in the way the human mind operates: when we sense a problem we simultaneously define where we believe the solution to be.1 Problems do not exist without solutions in the same way that black does not exist without white. The location of that perceived solution is always in the same general area as the problem that motivates us to engage in problem-solving. If we experience an external problem, our preference is to solve it externally first. If we experience an internal problem, our first approach is to solve it internally first.
Take William Wallace (Mel Gibson) in Braveheart—not a whole lot of considering going on there. Wallace would struggle to understand Hamlet’s constant need to overthink things, and vice versa; Wallace’s impulse to jump in and lop off heads would appal the Great Dane’s sense of contemplation. Wallace witnesses a lack of proaction as problematic, and engages in wholesale violence to amend it.
Look at Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Boyz N the Hood or Ned (William Hurt) in Body Heat. Getting out of the hood and addressing one’s lust for a married woman require physical external approaches. You don’t plan on getting out, or getting in—as the case may be—by thinking and changing yourself first.
You can, however, if you’re Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in The Social Network or Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) in Dead Poet’s Society. Surviving a hurtful deposition by doubling down on your willful charisma and hiding one’s shyness while attending an elite prep boarding school call for internal shifts of character.
Seeing Cage (Tom Cruise) from Edge of Tomorrow among a sampling of internal Be-er’s may seem incongruous at first—until one takes the time to truly reflect on his personal issue within that story. Yes, he drives the story forward externally as the Protagonist, but his personal issues lie deep within the internal realm and what other people think of him.
The Main Character Approach—and therefore the Tendency of a Main Character to participate or “refuse” to join the call to adventure—focuses solely on the personal issues of the Main Character. Yet another in a long line of reasons why the Hero’s Journey fails to be sufficient enough for describing the building blocks of a narrative.
In addition to their familiarity with the inept “Refusal of the Call”, many writers also understand the presence of several key plot points that drive a story forward. Often beginning with an Inciting Incident, transgressing through a First Act Turn, a Midpoint, and a Second Act Turn, and ending with a Concluding Event, narratives naturally self-divide into four more-or-less equal sections. Referred to as Acts, these four units of dramatic development define the beginning, middles, and end of a story.
Dramatica goes one step futher with this recognition of division by defining the type of plot point that turns a story from one Act into the next. In fact, in order for a narrative to function correctly each and every plot point needs to be of the same type: either all Actions or all Decisions, and with each forcing instances of the other. Actions force Decisions or Decisions force Actions. These
Story Drivers clue the Audience in on the kind of work needed to progress through the narrative.2
Short Term 12, Pitch Perfect, Inside Out, and Big all require Action to push the narrative forward. Dealing with troubled teens—whether in a facility, a singing competition, or just one trapped in an adult body—requires external action to accomplish anything. Even working through the internal workings of a teenage mind calls for Joy and Sadness to engage in physical activity in Inside Out. Trying to think their way through the problem would have resulted in Riley’s complete psychological breakdown.
Action is not the only way to work through a narrative. Sometimes, the narrative potential of a story slowly diminishes as actions continue to be taken—until someone makes a major deicision and the conflict flares up again. These stories require decisions to push the narrative forward.
Deciding to undercut your crops, deciding to leave with a crazed gunman, deciding to leave the ghost world to help a choking kid, and deciding to follow ghosts into a cornfield—the major plot points of Field of Dreams resuscitate the narrative drive from one Act into the next by making decisions that force actions to be taken.
Same with Crazy, Stupid, Love. Typically a narrative focused on divorce sees adulterous Action as the instigator for deciding to part ways. Here, Cal (Steve Carell) faces a narrative with Decision driving the action. In order to work his way through the process he must decide how to dress, decide who to date, and ultimately decide whether or not to hold out for who he thinks is the one and only one for him.
Turns out a narrative initiated by a Decision requires a decision to wrap it all up. This happens because a story is not simply a confluence of intriguing characters and rising tension. Rather, story functions the way it does because it represents a complex model of the human mind at work.
Plot points have to be all the same type because that is how we think through problems.
Dramatica sees a story as a model of a single human mind working to solve an inequity. This model—while exploded out over two hours in a film or 600+ pages in a novel—theoretically happens in an instance. This is why the Story Drivers fall into either being all Actions or all Decisions: A story models resolution of a specific external or internal conflict. While the mind experiences several billion internal and external narratives a day, a single narrative can only model one or the other.
Juxtapose the Main Character’s personal preference for solving problems with the work required to drive a narrative forward towards resolution and you find two categories of Main Characters: those Willing to do the work necessary, and those Unwilling to do the work.
While Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) certainly “refuses the call”, he absolutely is Willing to take the Action. His personal issues lie in an external situation he would Do anything to overcome. Stuck on one side of the galaxy while his friends experience all the fun on the other side requires him to take action to get off the planet. It just so happens fighting an Empire requires the same. Put them together and you have a Willing Main Character.
Same with Woody (Tom Hanks) in Toy Story, Joe (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard, and Clarice (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs. Playing with your best friend, writing screenplays, and saving those screaming lambs necessitate taking Action—the same process that gets you back home, drives your benefactor to madness, and kills the serial killer. If the story calls for an event for which your Main Character is perfectly suited for, they will willingly participate.
What about Be-er’s in a Decision story? Living under oppression often requires one to adapt themselves to environment; rarely does taking action result in the same progress seen above. The decisions made while under state rule often signify the difference between life and death.
In The Lives of Others and The Counterfeiters both Cpt. Weisler (Ulrich Mühe) and Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) find themselves faced with conflict driven by the decisions of men in power. Thankfully, they both understand where this conflict originates due to their familiarity with internal pressure. Weisler personally suffers from a low opinion of himself brought about by living in East Germany. Likewise, Salomon suffers from a psychology bent on survival at any cost—regarldess of the choices one has to make.
It is when we turn to examples of Unwilling Main Characters that the concept of Tendency starts to break down:
Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) from The Fugitive is unwilling to participate in the clearing of his own name? Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown engages unwillingly in the investigation behind the murder of Hollis Mulwray?
Those don’t sound remotely correct.
Tre from Boyz N the Hood? Lester from American Beauty? Rocky Balboa? He’s an unwilling character too??
These only account for the Do-er’s in Decision stories. Perhaps the Be-er’s in Action stories will feel more Unwilling:
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) from American Sniper?! If there ever was a more willing character, he would be it—he went back three times! Becca (Anna Kendrick) from Pitch Perfect feels a little more closer to unwilling, but really it feels more like she is resistant to the narrative rather than unwilling. She wants to sing in the competition.
As with last week’s investigation of the Audience Appreciation of Nature, perhaps Chris and Melanie mislabeled the semantic values for Tendency.
Recall the discussion of a complete narrative as a model of a single human trying to solve a problem. And then refer back to last week’s explanation of this model as already having time factored in:
Remember that the storyform has time built into it. Though it may look like a single set of story points defining the state of things, it simultaneously delineates the passage of time through the mental processes of a single human mind solving a problem.
When reading the Tendency of the Main Character, what the Audience is really seeing is the resistance or flow of the Main Character’s personal issues within the dramatic circuit of the narrative. Some Main Characters gum up the works with their personal problems, while others help facilitate the flow of conflict resolution.
Willing Main Characters amplify flow. Unwilling Main Characters build up resistance.
With this in mind, one can now see how an Audience might appreciate the resistance Dr. Richard Kimball or Jake Gittes brings to the dramatic circuit of their narratives. Kimball hampers resolution with his constant need to prove his innocence. Gittes mucks everything up by constantly sticking his nose in places it doesn’t belong (literally).
Same with Chris in American Sniper, Cage in Edge of Tomorrow, and even Jason Bourne in the original The Bourne Identity. The very presence of their personal issues creates a blockage within their respective stories.
What then of the Willing Main Characters?
Looking back we can see Woody, Joe, and Clarice as facilitating the flow of dramatic resolution. If it weren’t for their personal issues, their stories would not have circulated quite as easily. Same with Weisler, Sorowitsch, and Skywalker. Their narratives surged smoothly because of the way each had grown accustomed to dealing with their own personal problems.
More than “refusing a call”, a Main Character’s Unwillingness to participate in a narrative results in a greater resistance and dramatic buildup to any potential conflict. Conversely, a Willingness to do what is needed facilitates flow and circulation of that potential.
Regardless of nomenclature, the very idea that Chris and Melanie were able to objectify the forces within a narrative should be seen as a monumental achievement towards a better understanding of story. By allowing Authors to remove themselves from the equation, the Dramatica theory of story makes it possible to establish the resistance or flow of dramatic conflict throughout a narrative. By seeing this current as a function of personal issues multiplied by dynamic progression, a writer appreciates how the Audience will respond and can adjust the narrative accordingly.
Dramatica truly is a call to action. By refusing this call to understand story with greater precision and higher accuracy, the writer unwittingly places themselves in the role of the tragic Hero.
And that is no journey any Artist should suffer through.
Really, we create problems in our minds as a means of the problem-solving process. Problems don’t really exist in the real world—we manufacture them in our heads. Not until we accept one-half of an inequity as a given, do we actually see the other half as the location of a potential “problem.” For more, read How an Inequity—and a Story—is Made ↩︎
Interestingly enough, the Story Driver used to be called Story Work under Dramatica 1.0. As with most things Dramatica, the original terminology tends to describe certain points of narrative with greater accuracy. ↩︎