How to Best Learn Dramatica
Do not try to learn all of Dramatica® at once and apply everything to your stories. Learning Dramatica takes time...lots of it. BUT, you do not have to learn much to get value out of Dramatica.
Here are the things I think are most important, somewhat ordered by their importance to fixing story problems:
The Four Throughlines: Knowing what the four throughlines are in general is probably the single biggest problem-solver for most stories. Many stories fail because they do not have all four throughlines.
The Main Character need not be the Protagonist: Understanding the difference between the personal throughline of the Main Character and the function of a Protagonist in the Overall Story throughline frees you from creating cookie cutter heroes.
The Main Character can Change OR Remain Steadfast: Though all characters should grow, Steadfast MC's grow INTO their resolve, while Change MC's grow OUT OF their resolve.
The Influence Character is NECESSARY for the Main Character to Grow: Without the intended, or unintended, impact of the Influence Character, a Main Character will not grow.
The Eight Dynamic Questions: These eight questions control the emotional sense of your story's message. They can be used in any combination you want. Each combination gives the story a different sense of meaning in the broadest aspects of your message to your audience.
The Eight Objective Character Archetypes: Knowing the eight archetypes gives you a place to begin populating your story with characters that have specific functions in the Overall Story throughline. Understand that archetypes are like characters with training wheels -- they are oversimplified but a good place to start. Turn them into complex characters to make them seem more real.
The Four Domains: Knowing that the four domains (Situation, Activity, Fixed Attitude, and Manipulation/Psychology) are the broadest areas of conflict, and tying the domains to the throughlines begins to lead a writer's thinking about how his story should develop. This is the only item on this list that seriously benefits from using the Dramatica Pro software, but you can work with the concepts without the software.
- Create a "Throwaway" Story in the StoryGuide: Before using the Dramatica software on your own story, go to Level I of the StoryGuide and make up a story, or use a fairy tale as a place to start. Go through the StoryGuide but do not spend more than three minutes on a topic. If you can't fill in a blank, leave it blank. If you pick from a multiple-choice questions, just make a random choice. The point is to go through the process at least once with a story with which you have no personal investment.
Both the Dramatic theory and the Dramatica software have LOTS more going on in them than the list above, but those are the concepts and processes I think are most useful to those new to Dramatica.
What is the Main Character Resolve?
Does your Main Character Change their way of dealing with the problem at the heart of the story (such as Ebeneezer Scrooge’s switch to generosity in A Christmas Carol) or remain Steadfast in their convictions (such as the innocent Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive)?
Change can be good if the character is on the wrong track to begin with. It can also be bad if the character was on the right track. Similarly, remaining Steadfast is good if the character is on the right track, but bad if he is misguided or mistaken.
Think about the message you want to send to your audience, and whether the Main Character’s path should represent the proper or improper way of dealing with the story’s central issue. Then select a changing or steadfast Main Character accordingly.
Do you want your story to bring your audience to a point of change or to reinforce its current view? Oddly enough, choosing a Steadfast Main Character may bring an audience to change and choosing a Change character may influence the audience to remain steadfast. Why? It depends upon whether or not your audience shares the Main Character’s point of view to begin with.
Suppose your audience and your Main Character do NOT agree in attitudes about the central issue of the story. Even so, the audience will still identify with the Main Character because he represents the audience’s position in the story. So, if the Main Character grows in resolve to remain steadfast and succeeds, then the message to your audience is, “Change and adopt the Main Character’s view if you wish to succeed in similar situations.”
Clearly, since either change or steadfast can lead to either success or failure in a story, when you factor in where the audience stands a great number of different kinds of audience impact can be created by your choice. In answering this question for your own story, therefore, consider not only what you want your Main Character to do as an individual, but also how that influences your story’s message and where your audience stands with regard to that issue.
Change Main Characters
- Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
- William Munny, Unforgiven
- Luke Skywalker, Star Wars
- Judah Rosenthal, Crimes story in Crimes & Misdemeanors
- James Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale
- Frank Galvin, The Verdict
Steadfast Main Characters
- Job, The Bible
- Dr. Richard Kimble, The Fugitive
- Laura, The Glass Menagerie
- Cliff Stearn, Misdemeanors in Crimes & Misdemeanors
- James Bond, most other James Bond films
- David Moscow, Big
[NOTE: This tip was based on material from Chapter 3: Character of the book, "Dramatica: A New Theory of Story" by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley. The full chapter is in the theory section on the Dramatica.com website
Archetypal Characters: Introduction to Archetypes
Archetypes exist as a form of storytelling shorthand. Because they are instantly recognizable, an author may choose to use archetypal characters for a variety of reasons—because of limited storytelling time or space, to emphasize other aspects of story such as Plot or Theme, to play on audience familiarity, etc. The main advantage of Archetypes is their basic simplicity, although this can sometimes work as a disadvantage if the characters are not developed fully enough to make them seem real.
There are eight Archetypal Characters: Protagonist, Antagonist, Reason, Emotion, Sidekick, Skeptic, Guardian, and Contagonist. Several of these are familiar to most authors. Some are a bit more obscure. One is unique to Dramatica. We will introduce all eight, show how they interact, then explore each in greater detail.
In our earlier discussion of what sets the Subjective Characters apart from the Objective Characters, we described how authors frequently assign the roles of both Protagonist AND Main Character to the same player in the story.
The concept of “player” is found throughout Dramatica and differs from what we mean by “character.” Dramatica defines a character as a set of dramatic functions that must be portrayed in order to make the complete argument of a story. Several functions may be grouped together and assigned to a person, place, or thing who will represent them in the story. The group of functions defines the nature of the character. The personage representing the functions is a player.
In other words, a player is like a vessel into which a character (and therefore a set of character functions) is placed. If more than one Objective Character is placed into a single player, the player will appear to have multiple personalities. This is clearly seen in the dual characters contained in player, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, or the many personalities of Sybil.
Describing the Protagonist
No doubt the most well-known of all the Archetypal Characters is the Protagonist. As with all the Archetypal Characters, there is a specific “shopping list” or “recipe” of dramatic functions that describes the Protagonist. In this regard, the archetypal Protagonist is the chief proponent and principal driver of the effort to achieve the story’s goal.
At first, this description seems far too simple for even the most archetypal of Protagonists. This is because the Main Character is so often combined with the Protagonist when Archetypal Characters are used, that we seldom see a Protagonistic player representing the archetypal functions alone.
Still, pursuing the goal is the essential function of the Protagonist, and beginning here we can construct a network of relationships that describe the remaining archetypes.
(As a side note, the entire exploration of the Subjective Story is an independent job of the Main Character. For purposes of describing the Archetypal Protagonist, therefore, we will be considering only its role in the Objective Story Throughline as just another player on the field [albeit a crucial one]).
So, for our current needs, the Archetypal Protagonist can be considered the chief proponent and principal driver of the effort to achieve the story’s goal.
The Archetypal Antagonist is diametrically opposed to the Protagonist’s successful attainment of the goal. Often this results in a Protagonist who has a purpose and an Antagonist comes along and tries to stop it. Sometimes, however, it is the other way around. The Antagonist may have a goal of its own that causes negative repercussions. The Protagonist then has the goal of stopping the Antagonist. For purposes of establishing a consistent way to analyze how all Archetypal Characters relate to the goal of any story, Dramatica defines the Protagonist’s goal as the story’s goa;, regardless of which kind it is.
Antagonist and the Influence Character
Just as the Protagonist is often “doubled up” with the function of the Main Character, the Antagonist is sometimes (though less frequently) combined with the Influence Character. The Influence Character is fully explored in the Subjective Characters section of this book. For now, a simple description of the Influence Character will serve our purposes.
Just as the Antagonist opposes the Protagonist in the Objective Story, the Influence Character stands in the way of the Main Character in the Subjective Story. Note we did not say the Influence Character opposes the Main Character, but rather stands in the way. The Influence Character’s function is to represent an alternative belief system or world view to the Main Character, forcing him to avoid the easy way out and to face his personal problem.
When combining the Influence Character and the Antagonist in the same player, it is essential to keep in mind the difference between their respective functions, so that both dramatic purposes are fully expressed.
Reason & Emotion
Why Reason and Emotion Characters?
Having briefly described the Protagonist and Antagonist, we can already see how they represent basic functions of the Story Mind. The Protagonist represents the drive to try and solve a problem; the Antagonist represents the drive to undermine success. These two characters teeter back and forth over the course of the story as each in turn gains the upper hand.
Even in the most Archetypal terms this conflict is an insufficient process to fully describe an argument, for it fails to address many other basic concerns that will naturally occur in the minds of audience members, and must therefore be incorporated in the Story Mind as well. That is why there are six other Archetypal Characters. Just as Protagonist and Antagonist form a pair, the other six Archetypal Characters form three other pairs. The first of these is made up of Reason and Emotion.
Reason and Emotion Described
The Reason Archetypal Character is calm, collected, and cool, perhaps even cold. It makes decisions and takes action wholly on the basis of logic. (Remember, we say wholly because we are describing an Archetypal Character. As we shall see later, Complex Characters are much more diverse and dimensional.)
The Reason character is the organized, logical type. The Emotion character who is frenetic, disorganized, and driven by feelings.
It is important to note that as in real life, Reason is not inherently better than Emotion, nor does Emotion have the edge on Reason. They just have different areas of strength and weakness which may make one more appropriate than the other in a given context.
Functionally, the Emotion Character has its heart on its sleeve; it is quick to anger, but also quick to empathize. Because it is frenetic and disorganized, however, most of its energy is uncontrolled and gets wasted by lashing out in so many directions that it ends up running in circles and getting nowhere. In contrast, the Reason Character seems to lack “humanity” and has apparently no ability to think from the heart. As a result, the Reason Character often fails to find support for its well-laid plans and ends up wasting its effort because it has unknowingly violated the personal concerns of others.
In terms of the Story Mind, Reason and Emotion describe the conflict between our purely practical conclusions and considerations of our human side. Throughout a story, the Reason and Emotion Archetypal Characters will conflict over the proper course of action and decision, illustrating the Story Mind’s deliberation between intellect and heart.
Sidekick & Skeptic
The next pair of Archetypal Characters are the Sidekick and the Skeptic, who represent the conflict between confidence and doubt in the Story Mind. The Sidekick is the faithful supporter. Usually, a Sidekick is attached to the Protagonist. Sometimes, however, they may be supporters of the Antagonist. This gives a good clue to the way Dramatica sees Objective Characters: The purpose of the Sidekick is to show faithful support. That does not determine who or what it supports, but just that it must loyally support someone or something. Other dynamics of a story will determine who the Sidekick needs to be attached to in order to make the story’s argument, but from the standpoint of just describing the Archetypal Characters by themselves, the Sidekick faithfully supports.
The Sidekick is balanced by the Skeptic. Where the Sidekick has faith, the Skeptic disbelieves; where the Sidekick supports, the Skeptic opposes. The nature of the Skeptic is nicely described in the line of a song… “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” In the Story Mind, it is the function of the Skeptic to note the indicators that portend failure. In contrast, the Sidekick notes the indicators that point to success. The interactions between Sidekick and Skeptic describe the Story Mind’s consideration of the likelihood of success.
Guardian & Contagonist
What are the Guardian and Contagonist?
Finally we come to the remaining pair of Archetypal Characters. The first of these archetypes is a common yet often loosely defined set of functions; the second archetype is unique to Dramatica. The first of these characters is the Guardian. The Guardian functions as a teacher/helper who represents the Conscience of the Story Mind. This is a protective character who eliminates obstacles and illuminates the path ahead. In this way, the Guardian helps the Protagonist stay on the proper path to achieve success. Balancing the Guardian is a character representing Temptation in the Story Mind. This character works to place obstacles in the path of the Protagonist, and to lure it away from success. Because this character works to hinder the progress of the Protagonist, we coined the name “Contagonist”.
Contagonist: “Whose side are you on?”
Because the Contagonist and Antagonist both have a negative effect on the Protagonist, they can easily be confused with one another. They are, however, two completely different characters because they have two completely different functions in the Story Mind. Whereas the Antagonist works to stop the Protagonist, the Contagonist acts to deflect the Protagonist. The Antagonist wants to prevent the Protagonist from making further progress, the Contagonist wants to delay or divert the Protagonist for a time.
As with the Sidekick, the Contagonist can be allied with either the Antagonist or the Protagonist. Often, Contagonists are cast as the Antagonist’s henchman or second-in-command. However, Contagonists are sometimes attached to the Protagonist, where they function as a thorn in the side and bad influence. As a pair, Guardian and Contagonist function in the Story Mind as Conscience and Temptation, providing both a light to illuminate the proper path and the enticement to step off it.
Archetypes—a Balanced Part of the Complete Argument
As a group, the Archetypal Characters represent all the essential functions of a complete Story Mind, though they are grouped in simple patterns. Because the Archetypes can be allied in different ways, however, a degree of versatility can be added to their relationships.
[NOTE: This tip was excerpted from Chapter 3: Character of the book, "Dramatica: A New Theory of Story" by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley. The full chapter is in the theory section on the Dramatica.com website
Hero, Protagonist, and Main Character
Dramatica separates the concept of the character who leads the efforts to achieve the Story Goal (protagonist), from that of the character through whose eyes the audience experiences the story on a personal level (Main Character).
- The Protagonist is one of many Objective Characters in the Overall Story throughline. The objective characters are defined by their function in the Overall Story throughline. For example, an archetypal protagonist represents the motivation to pursue and consider the goal and problems. Other objective characters in the Overall Story throughline include archetypes such as the antagonist, the sidekick, the skeptic, and others.
- The Main Character is a Subjective Character and gives the audience a personal view inside the story. It is through the Main Character's perspective that the audience gets the first person (I), “This is what it's like to have personal problems” experience. The other principle Subjective Character is the Influence Character who consciously or unconsciously challenges the Main Character's world view by offering an alternative way of seeing or doing things.
One advantage to separating the Main Character from the Protagonist is to be able to work with the Main Character and Overall Story throughlines separately. Here's a simple example:
Let's say the Overall Story Goal is to find the Holy Grail. Bob is the protagonist leading the efforts to find it. Fred is the antagonist and wants the Holy Grail to remain hidden at all costs. We also have Sally, Bob's assistant and sidekick, and Angela, Fred's skeptical sister.
So, who is the Main Character?
Anybody we want.
Following storytelling convention, we would make protagonist Bob the Main Character. A “hero” is typically both the Main Character and Protagonist, among other things. Perhaps we want to get the personal view from “the other side” and make skeptical sister Angela the Main Character. We might want to go the Sherlock Holmes route and make the sidekick, Sally, the Main Character—a la Watson in the Sherlock Holmes books. Or we might want to pick the antagonist as the Main Character. By separating their “objective” functions from their “subjective” functions, Dramatica lets you go beyond the confines of storytelling conventions. And that is the simplest advantage of separating the two.
Though connected, each Dramatica throughline has unique story elements and dynamics.
[NOTE: This tip was excerpted from the article, "How and Why Dramatica is Different from Six Other Story Paradigms" by Chris Huntley. The full article is in the theory section on the Dramatica.com website
How Best to Use Substories
In my opinion, the best use of substories -- we call them substories instead of 'subplots' because they contain plot, theme, character, and genre -- is to:
- Develop story elements that are otherwise extraneous to the main story
- Use them as a device to get things moving when you've painted yourself into a corner in the main story
The first use can be readily seen in Schindler's List. The main story involves Schindler saving the Jews from certain death. There is a substory that involves the commandant of one of the concentration camps and his exploration of being more humane to his prisoners. In the main story, this commandant would be one of many Nazis and wouldn't warrant the amount of screen time given to him. I believe the writer and Spielberg added the substory to explore an important EMOTIONAL expectation that their audience might have, namely to give a face to Nazism and explore the thematics of the power over life and death. By diverting from the main story for a bit, the authors were able to comment on the how and why the Nazis could be the way they were (as represented by the beliefs and actions of the commandant) which satisfied the American audience's need to give this aspect of the war the proper "weight."
The second use can be readily seen in Star Wars (A New Hope). The Han Solo/Jabba the Hut substory pops in and out of the main story, often conveniently breaking story deadlocks. For instance, after the group has been pulled aboard the Death Star and are waiting for Obi Wan to power down the tractor beam generator, Luke and Han find themselves waiting around. Luke finds out that Leia is going to be "terminated" and wants to rush to save her. Han, in his Oppose manner, refuses to budge. Suddenly, up pops the substory. Luke goes from protagonist in the main story to temptation in Han's substory, while Han goes from skeptic to protagonist/main character. Luke entices Han to rescue the princess with the promises of great wealth. While Han in the main story wouldn't budge, Han in the substory does, thus moving BOTH stories forward.
The reason it's a good idea to develop a separate storyform and story file for your substory is so that you have the richness of a full story available to you--even though you will most likely only use a fraction of it in the finished work.
Understanding the Story Limit
The Story Limit describes the “size” or “scope” of a story and brings about the story’s climax. It clues the audience in to when the story will be over. Without a Story Limit, there is no structural reason for a story to come to a close. Therefore, the Story Limit plot dynamic plays an important part in defining the story’s limitations. Those limitations come in two forms: Timelocks and Optionlocks.
Timelocks are unchangeable limits on time that draw the story to a climax. There are two forms of Timelocks:
- Deadline—A deadline is a specific time, such as 8:00 AM next Monday or 12:00 noon (e.g. High Noon).
- Fixed Amount of Time—A fixed amount of time is a quantity of time allotted for the story to take place, such as one day or forty-eight hours (e.g. the TV show, “24,” and the film, “48 Hrs.”).
Optionlocks are unchangeable limits on options that draw the story to a climax. There are two forms of Optionlocks:
- Destination (limited space)—A destination is a specific location that brings about the story climax when reached, such as the Rebel Base in the original “Star Wars,” or Los Angeles in “Midnight Run.” This type of Optionlock is often used in road pictures.
- Limited Number of Options—A limited number of options consists of a finite set of variables to be explored before the story is drawn to a climax, such as three wishes in the short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” and seven deadly sins in the film, “Se7en.”
Though all stories may contain both time limits and option limits, only one may be the Story Limit within a given story. For an example of what happens when a story has more than one Story Limit read, “A.I. Wars: The dueling visions of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Spielberg in A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”
NOTE: As a gross generalization and general rule, female audiences tend to find Optionlock stories more involving than Timelock stories, while male audiences tend to find both Story Limits equally involving..
How to Find the Inciting Incident
The inciting incident, the event that kicks off the story, so to speak, is tied to the Story Driver in Dramatica. The Story Driver principally describes how things work in the Overall Story throughline -- the "Big Picture" or what is typically thought of as the plot part of the story.
The Story Driver asks whether Actions drive Decisions, or Decisions drive Actions. The Story Driver lets you set up, or identify, what drives the story: Actions or Decisions? The Story Driver is a plot dynamic. It establishes the causality in the story's world, and answers the question about "which came first...?" It is also consistent throughout the story, from beginning to end.
The Story Driver has five (5) primary instances in a story.
- The Inciting Incident (or Inciting Event in Dramatica terms)
- Act I to Act II turn
- Act II to Act III turn (or the midpoint of Act II in traditional three-act structure)
- Act III to Act IV turn (or the Act II to Act III in traditional three-act structure)
- Closing Event (the event that wraps up the Climax)
If you have an Action driven story, all five instances of the Story Driver are actions that turn the story in new and different directions. The actions force decisions to be made in the story. (For example, Driver Event 1/ the Inciting event in the film, "Jaws," is the first shark attack. No initial shark attack--no story. Driver Events 2 & 3 are the Act turns caused by the two other major shark attacks, and Driver Event 4 is the point where the shark begins attacking the boat. Driver Event 5 is the Closing event where the shark is blown up.)
If you have a Decision driven story, all five instances of the Story Driver are decisions (or deliberations) that turn the story in new and different directions. The decisions force actions to be taken in the story. In The Godfather, for example, Don Corleone's decision to stay out of the drug trade causes the other mafia bosses to attempt to assassinate him. The closing even is when Michael decides/is chosen as the new godfather.
Protagonists, Antagonists, and Negative Goals
In the strictest sense, the protagonist is for the goal and the antagonist is against the goal, so who is who is completely dependent on how the author defines what the goal is. If the goal of Rosemary's Baby, for example, is to bring the Devil's child successfully to this world, then the cultists would certainly be for that. If the goal of The Stepford Wives  was to make all wives complacent, agreeable, and controllable, then the men of Stepford would be in the protagonist camp.
HOWEVER, part of what is NOT explicit is the commentary or "spin" that the author puts on the story. Is the author for the son of the Devil, or against it? Is the author for marital automatons, or against them? The author's intent is usually built into the goal. It is obvious in some cases, and not so obvious in others.
In The Stepford Wives, the author seems to lean in favor of preventing or avoiding the outcome -- thus The Stepford Wives is a Failure story because Joanna (played by Katherine Ross) becomes a Stepford wife, and therefore the story acts as a cautionary tale.
In Rosemary's Baby, it's not so obvious and leaves room for interpretation. I believe Mark Harrison (the Dramatica story analyst for the Damatica story analysis of the film) chose the pro-devil way of looking at it (Story Outcome = Success) because it seemed more consistent with the time in which the story was written/filmed, as well as the sensibility of the author/director (Ira Levin/Roman Polanski). This is not to say that the author(s) was for bringing the devil's child to our world, but more likely that he put that message out there to shock audiences' sensibilities and create moral outrage.
There's a fine line between being straightforward by saying what you mean and saying something inflammatory to provoke discussion, but the important aspect of it from an author's point of view is to be consistent. Pick what the goal is and what you want to say about that goal and then place the overall story characters appropriately in relationship to it.
Dramatica® is unique approach to creating and understanding story. It includes the seminal book, "Dramatica: A New Theory of Story", a website Dramatica.com, and a number of software programs: Dramatica® Pro, Dramatica® Story Expert, and Writer's DreamKit™.