Main Character Throughline and Main Character Problem-Solving Style
Almost as important as establishing the issues facing a Main Character is determining the order in which he or she attempts to overcome them. Every story is unique, yet the mechanism that establishes this order can be broken down with 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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
ANGELA But your dad is actually kind of cute. JANE Shut up. Lester, still in his suit, stands outside Janes room, his ear up against the door. He cant believe what hes hearing. ANGELA(O.C.) He is. If he just worked out a little, hed be hot. 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.