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Discovering the Influence Character of Your Story

The shortcut to your writer's intuition.

In last week’s Writers Room, we explored the narrative structure of the 2018 Nicholl Fellows Award Winner Numbers and Words. Written by Grace Sherman, this fictional account of a math genius who learns what to do with his talents almost hits the mark. As writer Mike Lucas explains:

I found it really informative to see a story that was almost complete, but missed on a few points. Interesting how both the RS [Relationship Story] and the OS [Overall Story] "climax" seemed the most affected by the misses -- like the Author's mind being unclear on one meant they were unclear on both, at least in this case.

While we discuss the particulars of what could have been improved in the class, this interview with Go Into the Story answers some questions we had during our meeting:

Grace: Actually, she [Beth] evolved first with meeting him while he’s in prison. I had set it where she would meet him in the second half of the story, and they would start the dialog there. He’s incarcerated. I wanted his relationship with her to offer him hope and inspiration while he is incarcerated.

She would come and visit him. Then they would have that dialog and that conflict. Then, as I was writing it and developing it, I don’t know [laughs] how it came about. Just one day. A spark. Woo. What if he knows her beforehand? What if he meets her in childhood?

Dramatica is a theory of story based, in part, on writer's intuition. It's quite literally a model of how we think within a narrative. Answering Dramatica's questions allows the writer to arrive at these revelatory moments ahead of time. Before the countless rewrites and the dead-ends.

Sherman's intuition understood the need for an Influence Character Throughline. No one exists, or grows, in a vacuum. In fact, a Main Character cannot be a Main Character without an Influence Character.

That would be like an up, without a down.

Then I toyed with it. Then I was like, “Yes, yes.” In the way I wrote her character, she pushes him. She’s the challenge. She’s the conflict. I needed somebody that, intellectually, was at his level in some way.

You and I are both alike. That's why that cliche pops up over and over again. You, the Influence Character, and I, the Main Character, are on the level in some way.

The great thing about Dramatica is that you find the exact nature of that "some way." It's not something you need to blindly guess at while writing your story.

Math is his strong point, English is hers, but they can challenge and push each other. You have him, who’s [laughs] not a people person. “Let me just focus on my math,” a loner. Then here comes Beth, who is jovial, loves education, wants to be immersed in everything, likes going to school, and she pushes him.[1]

The role of an Influence Character is to push the Main Character out of his, or her, justifications. Note that they can also pull the Main Character away from personal baggage--a subtle, but important distinction.

Mike shows what happens when you understand story from a Dramatica perspective:

what's really interesting is that she didn't originally have Beth in the first half of the story at all. I think it was great she put Beth there in the beginning too, the story would have been lacking without that influence in the first act. BUT I wonder if that messed up the RS for her -- she was thinking of it as a romance, but then she needed to have them relate as kids too. So maybe she was never able to focus it down to what it needed to be, leaving it kind of scatterbrained.

When you don't know, or fully understand, the nature of conflict within your story, you tend to fall back on preconceived notions of relationships. Romance becomes the easy get--when there are countless other ways we relate beyond our individual points-of-view.

Watch our analysis of Numbers and Words


  1. Bold emphasis courtesy of Mike Lucas ↩︎