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Cause And Side-Effects In The Main Character

The difference between Finn the Stormtrooper and Max the Road Warrior.

At the base of every Main Character Throughline sit four Elements (Story Points) arranged into two pairs. Problem and Solution (Pair #1) describe the source of the Main Character's personal conflict and the element that will resolve that problem. Symptom and Response (Pair #2) describe the symptom--or side effect--of the problem and the treatment applied to resolve it.

As Chris Huntley explains in a recent discussion regarding character arc in the Main Character:

Pair #1 describes the 'Cause' of the inequity at the heart of the MC's personal troubles, whereas Pair #2 may be seen as the primary 'Side Effect' of the inequity.

Often reduced to the simplistic notion of want vs. need, these elements drive the Main Character's personal Throughline.

The Same Four Elements

The four elements work together to define the character and the conflict they work through. Far from reductive, the arrangement of other thematic elements within the story work to increase or produce a greater variety of character. Both Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Max in Mad Max: Fury Road share the same four elements, yet see a difference between the real problem and the apparent problem.

MC Problem Quad for The Force Awakens

Finn has a Problem of Support (won't kill for anyone), and a Solution of Oppose ("I'm in charge now!"). That Support Problem creates a side-effect of Pursuit (the First Order will chase him from one end of the galaxy to another) and a Response of Avoid (he runs from everything--good and bad). Max switches things around. Max has a Problem of Avoidance (always running from things--good or bad) and a Solution of Pursuit (when he actually turns around and heads back to fight). That Avoidance Problem creates a side-effect of Oppose (it's him against the world) and a Response of Support (an attraction to those who show him loyalty, i.e. Furiosa).

Similar sounding personal Throughlines to be sure--but different enough to warrant closer examination. Finn pursuing a fight wasn't enough to resolve his personal problems, he actually had to show that he could stand up against someone. Likewise with Max, he was already comfortable enough standing up against those who stood in his way--yet, he had never turned around and actually pursued a fight before.

The Changed and Steadfast Difference

This duality of the "Cause" of a Main Character's personal conflict and their apparent "Side-Effect" react differently when it comes to the arc of a character. The Main Character's Resolve--a story point that determines whether the Main Character adopts a new approach to solving problems (Changed) or stays the course with their current approach (Steadfast)--changes the context of these four elements.

Chris Huntley breaks down the difference between the two:

For Change characters, the character believes Pair #2 is the cause of its personal problems and is blind to Pair #1 and its importance. The character arc describes the process of character Growth that tears down the blinders -- act by act -- until the character is able to see Pair #1 as an alternative (and 'original') source and solution to the MC inequity.

For Steadfast characters, the character believes Pair #2 is the cause of its personal problems and MAY be aware that the MC Problem in Pair #1 is the source of its drive/motivation, but does not attempt to resolve the MC Problem. Instead, the character arc describes the process of Growth that shores up (or builds up) blinders to counter increasing pressure to Change, ultimately leading to an effort to stay the course and go with the MC Response to resolve its inequity.

Both Finn and Max are Changed characters when it comes to their personal Resolve. They both don't see their Problems as a problem until the very end. For an example of a Steadfast Main Character with these same four elements look to Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek reboot.[1]


  1. Strangely enough, also by J.J. Abrams. ↩︎