Series of Articles
Main Character and Meaning
The fundamentals of a strong and personal point-of-view
Of the four throughlines found in every complete story, the Main Character Throughline is perhaps the most important as it represents the audience’s point-of-view on a story’s central problem. The audience needs that perspective illustrated in order to feel personally attached to a story and they need it illustrated through four key dynamic Story Points. When they don’t, the sense is that the story is incomplete and unrelatable.
Main Character and Meaning
When it comes to making your narrative mean something, a clear indication of the central character's point-of-view is paramount.
Of the four throughlines found in every complete story, the Main Character Throughline is perhaps the most important as it represents the audience’s point-of-view on a story’s central problem. Leave it out and you can pretty much count on your audience leaving as well.
The audience needs that perspective illustrated in order to feel personally attached to a story. When they don’t have it, the sense is that the story is incomplete.
There are four major questions or qualities that can be applied to a well-defined Main Character. There is the Main Character’s Resolve, the Main Character’s Growth, the Main Character’s Approach, and the Main Character’s Mental Sex.1 While the last may, at first, seem quite exciting, it really isn’t what you think it is. More on that in a moment.
For now, take a look at these choice clips of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his personal journey from American Beauty:
Before diving into each concept, it should be noted that while the answers to each may appear to be binary, it is more accurate to think of them as lying on an analog scale, i.e. shades of gray rather than black or white.
Main Character Resolve
Changed or Steadfast
This question simply asks, “When looking at the end of the story, is the Main Character the same as they were at the beginning, or have they adopted a new way of seeing things?” If they stayed true to their original approach and continue to solve the story’s problem in the same manner as they did in the beginning, then they are considered to be a Steadfast Main Character. If on the other hand, they have made a significant paradigm shift and now see things in a completely new light, they are said to be a Changed Main Character.
If the idea of having a Main Character that does not “transform” bothers you, you might want to check out the article entitled What Character Arc Really Means. Along with a compelling video, it attempts to illustrate that growth does not always have to be transformative.
The Influence Character’s Resolve works in tandem with the Main Character’s Resolve.2 It should ALWAYS be the dynamic opposite. If the Main Character Changes, then the Influence Character will Remain Steadfast. If the Main Character stays Steadfast, then the Influence Character will Change. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, but it is important that they are dynamic opposites. Why? Because…
All meaning in a story is based on this dynamic.
If you leave it out, or you are unclear, or both the Main and Influence Characters Change, you can guarantee that your audience will have no idea what it is you are trying to say with your story. An audience measures the outcome of a story in part by the approaches that led to it.
Confuse this concept and your audience will be left confused.
For example, let’s take a closer look at the original script for the film:
My name is Lester Burnham. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.
(a beat of emphasis)
It's kind of exhilarating isn't it? That is how I approach every day.
INT. BURNHAM HOUSE - MASTER BATH - MOMENTS LATER
We’re in the shower with Lester. A waterproof RADIO plays COUNTRY MUSIC. He stands with his face directly in the hot spray, eyes shut.
In a way, I’m dead already.
ANGLE from outside the shower, we see Lester’s naked body silhouetted through the steamed-up glass door. It becomes apparent that he is masturbating.
Look at me jerking off while I listen to country music. I hated this shit when I was growing up.
Funny thing is, this is the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.
Hope no one was offended there. But you have to admit, it’s a very quick and clear way to show that Lester does not look at the world in a positive light.
Now compare that with where he ended up at the end of the film:
EXT. PARKING LOT - DAY
ON VIDEO: We’re watching the video Ricky showed Jane earlier, of the empty white PLASTIC BAG being blown about. The wind carries it in a circle around us, sometimes whipping it about violently, or, without warning, sending it soaring skyward, then letting it float gracefully down to the ground…
I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me…but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst…
It is quite apparent from these two excerpts that Lester has indeed Changed. In fact, American Beauty takes great pains to show you that he has clearly adopted the point-of-view of his Influence Character Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Earlier on in the film, Ricky had the same thing to say about the PLASTIC BAG, feeling that “there was so much beauty in the world…that my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst.”
Most films and/or stories are not this obvious. American Beauty was and it led them to an Academy Award. Sometimes the most obvious path is the correct one.
There are three more dramatic concepts tied to the Main Character, concepts that will be addressed in future articles in this series. For now, it is important to realize that an audience expects a story to have meaning. Clearly illustrating the Main Character’s Resolve will go a long way towards making sure that a story’s message comes through loud and clear.
Development of Character Arc
All growth is not transformative.
Transformation of character is one thing; how they got there is another. Sometimes, a character stands fast to their resolve in order to change the world around them. Continuing an in-depth look at the most important character of any story, we now shift our attention towards the direction their growth takes.
The Main Character’s Growth
The Main Character Growth identifies the kind of growth the Main Character must take before they can finally address their resolve. It is the closest thing to what most story gurus or story-structure enthusiasts refer to as the Character Arc. The problem with this generally accepted definition of “Arc” is that it assumes that every character must fundamentally change in order to grow. This assumption is half-true as there are millions of meaningful stories where the Main Character grows, yet does not change. These Main Characters grow into their resolve.
Storytellers would be wise to understand the marked difference between transformational change and the development of character.
The Dramatica understanding of this concept attempts to define the kind of growth the Main Character undertakes without insisting that it lead to change. Instead of defining the end result of the character’s journey, it focuses on the process of getting there (as a definition of growth should). There are two ways to label this development in a character: Stop or Start.
It’s important to note too that this appreciation is generally felt more by the audience, rather than something that the Main Character is actually aware of.
Understanding Growth Through Resolve
The definition of this growth changes depending on the Main Character’s Resolve. A Main Character who Changes by Stopping something will feel to the audience as if they have a chip on their shoulder or as if some great burden is weighing them down. Woody from the original Toy Story has a major chip on his shoulder when Buzz is introduced to their tight-knit community. Before he can become selfless he must first “stop” doing all those jealous jerky-things he does to maintain his position as Andy’s favorite toy (like knocking Buzz out of a window).
Note: The above analysis of Woody in Toy Story fails to accurately describe the Main Character/Influence Character dynamic in the film. Woody is, in fact, a Steadfast Main Character with Buzz functioning as the Changed Influence Character. For a more updated, and far more sophisticated look at this film, please read The Toy Story Dilemma.
On the other side of growth, a Main Character who Changes by Starting something will feel to the audience as if they have a hole in their heart, or that they are lacking something important. Rick, in the classic Casablanca, is an empty shell of the great man he once was. He “sticks his neck out for no one” and thus, must “start” taking action to insure that the love of his life leads the life she has always dreamed of.
This dynamic changes if the Main Character remains Steadfast till the end.
Steadfast Main Characters and Growth
When looking at Main Characters who maintain their resolve to the bitter end, it is more appropriate to look at their growth as a response to the world outside of them. As they themselves don’t fundamentally Change, their growth is seen as a matter of buttressing up against forces that they wish to change. Again, the nature of that change in the external can be described as either Start or Stop.
In a story with a Main Character who Remains Steadfast by Stopping, the Main Character will appear to the audience as someone who is holding out for something to stop. Like Kirk holding out for Nero to “stop” seeking revenge in the latest Star Trek movie, William Wallace in Braveheart is holding out for England to “stop” its reign of tyranny.
In stories with Main Characters who Remain Steadfast by Starting, the Main Character will be holding out for something to start. In these kinds of stories, the Main Character is seen to be holding out for something better to come along. Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams keeps following the whims of a ghostly voice heard in a cornfield. “If you build it, he will come” describes Ray’s growth as a process he undertakes in the hopes that something inexplicably wonderful will start.
In American Beauty, we have already seen how Lester fundamentally Changes at the end of the story. Taking a look once again at the original screenplay, we can see the direction his growth takes:
INT. COMMUTER TRAIN - A SHORT TIME LATER
LESTER sits IN the crowded TRAIN, his head UP against the window. He’s fast asleep.
Both my wife and my daughter think I’m this gigantic loser.
He has a paper CUP OF COFFEE IN one hand, haphazardly holding it against his knee. Slowly, it tips over, spilling onto his pants leg. He remains asleep.
LESTER (V.O.) (cont’d)
And they’re right. I’ve lost something very important. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this…sedated.
And here’s the video montage again in case you missed it from the first article:
In the final version, the filmmakers even added the line, “But you know what? It’s never too late…to get it back.” A perfect example of a Main Character who will grow in the direction of “starting” something.
In next week’s article we’ll discuss how Lester sets out to tackle these new changes.
How Main Characters Approach Problems
Some prefer to take action, others prefer to internalize.
Main Characters have a myriad of approaches they can employ when it comes to solving the problems in a story. Knowing which one clues Authors in on the kind of conflict their Main Charater faces. The important thing when writing a successful Main Character is determining which approach they will take first.
Some people prefer to first take action to solve their problems. Others prefer to start by internalizing, adapting themselves to the problems that they face. The Main Characters Approach determines whether they instinctively veer towards the internal, or towards the external.
According to the Dramatica theory of story, this preference determines whether a Main Character is a Do-er or a Be-er. Do-ers are focused on the external, Be-ers on the internal. It's really that simple.
The Main Characters Approach
It should be noted that this preference is just that a preference. It is not an absolute, set in stone, I-cant-do-the-other-side sort of rule. Fully realized Main Characters will solve problems both externally and internally. Theyre based on real people after all. But it is important to determine which area they venture off into first. Why?
Because this will set up the kind of dramatic issues the Main Character will face in the story. Everyone has read before how character is action or characters are what they do. These phrases represent the basic understanding that character is plot and plot is character. But on a deeper level what this really means is that the issues a character faces in a story will grow from the approaches they take. Do-ers face external issues. Be-ers face internal ones.
So if you want to figure out how to write a meaningful Main Character, it helps to know what kind of approach they prefer.
If they tend towards the external running in and taking action then the kinds of issues they will face will center on things external, like the future state of things or fighting for your country. Columbus in Zombieland is just this kind of character. His problems arise from the kind of actions he thinks he has to take in order to stay in control. The story takes him to a place where he can stop doing these things.1
If they instead prefer to adapt themselves changing who they are first then the types of issues they will face will focus on the internal, like a racist attitude, or a dysfunctional behavior. Ryan Bingham in Up In The Air is the kind of Main Character who prefers to approach things internally. His issues stem from this attitude he has that everyone else in the world is just excess baggage. The less you have in your backpack, the happier your life will be. The story allows him to grow, again, to a place where he can stop having this attitude and perhaps take some action to change things around for him.
In American Beauty, Lester prefers to take action in order to resolve the personal problems in his life:
EXT. ROBIN HOOD TRAIL - EARLY MORNING
Were FLYING high above the neighborhood, like in Lesters dream at the beginning. Below us we see the two Jims, jogging. We approach them steadily.
Its a great thing to realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you've forgotten about.
EXT. ROBIN HOOD TRAIL - CONTINUOUS
We're now at street level, FOLLOWING the two Jims.
Hey! You guys!
Still running, the Jims turn back in perfect unison to see:
Their POV: LESTER, IN a baggy sweatshirt and a pair of faded old Ithaca College sweatpants, runs toward them.
They slow down until he catches up, then the three men RUN together in the early morning light.
Lester, I didnt know you ran.
Good for you.
I figured you guys might be able to give me some pointers. I need to shape up. Fast.
Well, are you just looking to lose weight, or do you want increased strength and flexibility as well?
I want to look good naked.
Lester wants to look good naked. So what does he do? He doesnt sit in the front of the mirror and repeat over and over to himself, I'm a pretty man, I'm a pretty man. Instead, he grabs his old sweats out of the back of the closet, suits up and hits the pavement, seeking out the advice of those he knows know what theyre doing. Lester is a Do-er, preferring to work things out externally first.
If you take a look at the Main Character from the standpoint that he or she is the audience's eyes into the story, then it makes sense that their personal issues will come from what it is they do the most. It's the area they gravitate towards instinctively, and thus, the area where they will find the most trouble.
One More Concept
In next week's final article on Main Character, we'll examine the idea that regardless of whether or not they prefer to solve things externally or internally, Main Characters also have a certain mental approach towards solving those problems.
The Mind of a Main Character
The base operating system of a character
Almost as important as establishing the issues facing a Main Character is determining the order in which he or she attempts to overcome them. The Mindset of a story signals to the Audience why the Main Character behaves a certain way Every story is unique, yet the mechanism that establishes this order can be broken down with this one simple concept.
This one dramatic concept is known as The Main Character's Mental Sex.1 While you're likely to have never heard of this concept before, once you come to understand what it is describing, you'll have a hard time not noticing it popping up in everyday conversations, let alone in any analysis of story.
The Main Character's Mental Sex
Right off the bat, let's clear some things up. This has nothing to do with anything sexual in a prurient way (booo). It also has nothing to do with gender, gender identity, or sexual preference. In fact, all it has to do with is how the Main Character thinks; how they go about solving problems.
If they tend to take the stereotypical Male approach to solving problems, then they will solve problems LINEARLY. These characters will be said to have a Male Mental Sex. If they instead take the stereotypical Female approach to solving problems, then they will solve problems HOLISTICALLY. These are characters with a Female Mental Sex.
I know what you're thinking. Can't Main Characters do both? Real people do. The answer is yes, they can do both, but there will be one that they will go to first, almost instinctively. It's where they gravitate to when first faced with a problem.
Linear MALE problem solvers are the kind of characters that gather evidence and work step-by-step as they try to solve the problems they face in a story. Sometimes they are portrayed as the kind of character who cannot see the forest for the trees. Satisfaction is their ultimate goal.
Hiccup in the animated How to Train Your Dragon is a Linear problem solver. Faced with the task of raising a deadly creature all on his own, he breaks his new job down in steps: learning all he can from books and elders, building flying apparatus, testing it out, and so forth. Working in a linear logical fashion, he asks questions, find answers, and then figures out the essential steps he needs to take in order to tame his new friend.
Holistic FEMALE problem solvers are the kind of characters that judge the balance between things, focusing more on the relationships between things or people that they come across in a story. Their efforts will be more geared towards balancing the problems in their life, instead of attacking each one by one.Fulfilment is their ultimate goal.
Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a Holistic problem solver. When faced with the problem of Mr. Darcy interfering in her sister Janes affairs, she takes a holistic view of the situation, including all the reasons why Mr. Darcy may object and the possibility that he may in fact want Mr. Bingley to marry his own sister, Georgiana. Any reservations Mr. Darcy may have about Jane are easily balanced out by her strong points and assumption that Elizabeth is all too quick to point out.
Only A Preference
Just as the Main Character Approach was only a preference, the Main Character's Mental Sex is only a part of the entirety that makes up the Main Character's mind. Mental Sex is the Dramatica way of explaining what many others refer to as the lizard brain. It's the instinctual filter that operates before we've even had a chance to process our thoughts on a conscious level. However, as mentioned before, there is so much more to the human mind.
Main Characters, like the rest of us, still have their memories, their egos, and yes, their own conscious thoughts that they have to deal with in addition to this idea of Mental Sex. Mental Sex is only one part.
But it is an important part. Why?
The Order of Events Has Meaning
If you accept the idea that stories are about solving problems and that every story is really an analogy to a single mind, complete with its own personality and drives, than it follows that you would want to know how that mind goes about solving problems.
Mental Sex determines that order.
People who solve problems linearly operate in a different order than those who operate holistically. Likewise, Main Characters who instinctively operate in a logical Male style will have a different act order than those who operate with a holistic Female style.
Mental Sex and American Beauty
It should come as no surprise that Lester Bingham in American Beauty is a Male Mental Sex Main Character. The film is basically a two hour exploration of the problems created by linear thought:
But your dad is actually kind of cute.
Lester, still in his suit, stands outside Janes room, his ear up against the door. He cant believe what hes hearing.
He is. If he just worked out a little, he'd be hot.
Lester, still in his suit, stands outside Janes room, his ear up against the door. He can't believe what hes hearing.
Overhearing that his daughters friend, Angela, would sleep with him if only he built up his chest and arms, Lester immediately runs for the garage and begins digging out his weights. Basically, he is thinking, If I work out and get hot enough, this teenager will sleep with me.
Again, another perfect example of a dramatic concept providing ample material for a meaningful story.
In this series on Main Character and Meaning, we have taken a look at the meaning behind the Main Character's Resolve at the end of a story. Do they remain steadfast in their beliefs or do they change to some new way of thinking? And what does that ultimately mean?
We have also taken a look at the kind of growth that occurs during that development and what kind of Approach they take in order to solve their personal problems. Each concept builds upon the other, providing authors with material essential for meaningful dramatic conflict.
And finally, while the approaches Main Characters take towards solving their problems can be a prime source for dramatic conflict, so too are the thought processes they take to arrive at those approaches. These processes, the Main Characters Mental Sex, determine the order in which these dramatic events occur.
Four concepts, four powerful tools. Essential ingredients for meaningful, long-lasting stories. Search out the films and novels that have stood the test of time and you will no doubt discover these dynamics behind the powerful messages these works of fiction hope to procure.
A Main Character is the most important character in a work of fiction. It is the responsibility of authors everywhere to insure that their central character illustrates these four concepts to the best of their abilities. Only then will they be assured of having structured a story that can effectively deliver the personal perspective on the story's central message.