Imagine a story’s structure as a war and the Main Character as a soldier making his way across the field of battle. Suddenly, through the smoke of dramatic explosions he spies a murky figure standing right in his path. In this fog of war, the Main Character cannot tell if this other soldier is a friend or foe. Either way, he is blocking the road.
As the Main Character approaches, this other soldier starts waving his arms and shouts, “Change course – get off this road!” Convinced he is on the best path, the Main Character yells back, “Get out of my way!” Again the figure shouts, “Change course!” Again the Main Character replies, “Let me pass!”
The Main Character has no way of knowing if his opposite is a comrade trying to prevent him from walking into a mine field or an enemy combatant trying to lure him into an ambush. And so, he continues on, following the plan that still seems best to him.
Eventually, the two soldiers meet, and when they do it becomes a moment of truth in which one will win out. Either the Main Character will alter course or his steadfastness will cause the other soldier to step aside.
This other soldier is called the Obstacle (and sometimes Influence or Impact) character. He represents that “devil’s advocate” voice we all have in ourselves that makes us consider changing our ways.
In our own minds we are often confronted by issues that question our approach, attitude, or the value of our hard-gained experience. But we don’t simply adopt a new point of view when our old methods have served us so well for so long. Rather, we consider how things might go if we adopted this new system of thinking.
We look at it, examine it from all sides and ask ourselves, how would my life, my self-image, my identity be if I were to become that kind of person by giving up my old views in favor of this new, unproven one that is only potentially better?
It is a long hard thing within us to reach a point of change, and so too is it a difficult feat in a Story Mind. In fact, it take the whole story to reach a climax in which all the research has been done that can be done. And even then, both sides of the argument are so well balanced that the Main Character cannot see a definite edge to either.
This crucial moment leads to those weighty decisions where Main Characters step off the cliff into the darkness, hoping they’ve made the right choice – the classic “Leap of Faith.”
Of course, not all decisions are that cataclysmic. And as we shall see, there are many other ways the differences between Main Character and Obstacle Character points of view can resolve. But for now, it suffices to acknowledge that a Story Mind that did not include and Objective view, a Main Character view, and an Obstacle Character view could not possibly feel like our own minds in real life as we seek to make the best choices based on our best information.
Many novice authors fashion only the first two points of view, believing that a general epic story and a personal view through the eyes of one of the characters is enough. More experienced authors recognize the need to show an alternative approach to that of the Main Character, and include the Obstacle Character as well. But a surprisingly small percentage of authors ever realize that a fourth perspective is necessary or a story will feel incomplete.
What is that final view point? It is the personal argument between the Main Character and the Obstacle Character as they approach each other: their own private skirmish right in the midst of the overall battle.
Movies like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” have an overall Objective story, a Main Character with a problem, and an Obstacle Character who has a different point of view about the propriety or validity of the Main Character’s approach or attitude. But even with all that, it is lacking one crucial thing – the interaction between Main and Obstacle as the duke it out philosophically.
In “Nightmare,” Jack Skellington believes he can be something beyond his nature and resolves to try. His girlfriend states that he should be happy with who he actually is, and not to try and be something that really isn’t him.
Jack will have none of it, and sets plans in motion that cause all the problems of the story. In the end, he realizes she was right and resolves from now on to be the best of what he truly is.
But the problem is that they never discussed these differing philosophies. They simply stated their opposite beliefs and in the end, Jack changes course and she remains on the road where she started.
Though there is a message, without the give and take between the Main and Obstacle, we the audience are given no information on how to achieve that change of heart within ourselves. So the message is simply acknowledged as being noble, but it isn’t personalized or taken to heart.
This fourth point of view is called the Subjective Story. It is the perspective of the battle over philosophies that explores the value of each belief system fully and completely, testing one against the other, pitting them against each other in all contexts. Only if this is seen in the Story Mind does the audience become convinced that the message is of real value to them.
So, these four throughlines – Objective, Main, Obstacle, and Subjective are all required for a story structure to feel complete. They likely seem pretty strange and unfamiliar in contrast to your usual way of approaching stories.
Fortunately, there is a much simpler way to think about these throughlines. The Main Character represents the “first person” perspective: “I”. He looks at the Obstacle Character’s philosophy and sees that character as “You.” He considers the personal skirmish between himself and the Obstacle character as defining “We,” and the view from the hill of the whole durn thing looks at “They.”
I, You, We, and They – the simpler, more familiar equivalents of Main Character, Obstacle Character, Subjective Story, and Objective Story. They are the four points of view we have in real life, and they must be represented in stories if they are to successfully press home their messages to the audiences.
Melanie Anne Phillips