The Story Mind (Part 4) – The Dramatica Chart

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica

A part of the Dramatica Theory book, we developed the Dramatica Chart of Story Elements (which is not unlike the Periodic Table of Elements in chemistry). Download a free copy of the Dramatica Chart at You can use it to create the chemistry of your characters, plot, theme, and genre.

The Dramatica chart contains all the psychological processes that must exist in a Story Mind. In fact, every human mind shares all of these processes. What makes one mind different from another is not the kinds of mental activities in each, but rather how the activities are interconnected.

Just as in chemistry, various elements might be combined to create an infinite number of compounds, so too the dramatic elements of the Dramatica Chart can be combined to create virtually all valid psychological structures for stories.

At its most simple level, the chart can be seen as having four principal areas (called classes): Universe, Physics, Mind, and Psychology. These represent the only four fundamental kinds of problems that might exist in stories (or in life!)

Universe is an external state

Physics, an external process

Mind is an internal state

Psychology, an internal process.

Essentially, any problem you might confront can be classed as either an external or internal state or process.

Universe then is our external environment. Anything that is a problematic fixed situation falls into this category. For example, being stuck in a well, held captive, or missing a leg are all situational “Universe Class” problems.

Physics is about activities that cause us difficulty. Honey bees dying off across the country, the growth of a militant organization, and cancer are all “Physics Class” problems.

(Note that if having cancer is a problem – such as people being prejudiced against you because you are cancerous – that is a situation or Universe problem because it is a steady or fixed state: a condition. But if it is the spread of the disease that we see as a problem, then it is a Physics-style activity problem. It is important not to assume content in a story falls into a particular class until you determine how that content is actually problematic.)

Mind is the internal equivalent of Universe – a fixed internal state. So, a prejudice, bias, fixation, or fixed attitude would be the source of problems in a “Mind Class” story.

Psychology is the Physics of the mind – an internal process. A “Psychology Class” problem would be someone who makes a series of assumptions leading to difficulties, or someone whose self-image and confidence are eroding. (Again, note that having a negative self-image is a state of “Mind” whereas the erosion of one’s self-image is a process that must be stopped or even reversed, and would therefore be a Psychology problem.)

In stories, as in real life, we cannot solve a problem until we can accurately define it. So, the first value of the Dramatica Chart is to present us with a tool for determining into which of the four fundamental categories of problems our particular issue falls.

Now you may think that the terms, Universe, Physics, Mind, and Psychology, are a little antiseptic, perhaps a bit scientific to be applying to something as intuitive as the writing of stories.

Back when we were naming the concepts in the Dramatica Theory, we were faced with a choice – to either use extremely accurate words that might be a bit off-putting or to use easily accessible words that weren’t quite on the mark. Ultimately we decided that the whole point of the theory was to provide an accurate way of predicting the necessary components of a sound story structure. Therefore, we elected to use the terms that were more accurate, even if they required a little study, rather than to employ a less accurate terminology that could be grasped right away.

Returning to the chart itself, it appears as four towers, each representing one of the four classes and each class having four levels. As we go down the levels from top to bottom we subdivide each kind of problem into smaller and smaller components, thereby refining our understanding of the very particular kind of problem at the core of any given story.

The top level, being the most broad, describes the structural aspects of genre. Genre (in the traditional sense) is largely a storytelling or content-driven realm. But genre is not immune to structure. In fact, as we shall see down the line genre must be built upon a solid structural foundation or it will flounder.

The second level, slightly more refined, deals with the dramatic components that are most associated with plot, especially at act resolution. That’s an odd term, so let’s define it. An act is the largest building block of plot. Each act has a particular kinds of concern that defines all the action that goes on in that act. For example, one act may deal with looking for a lost object, the next act with trying to obtain it, and the last act with bringing it back against steep odds.

“Resolution” is a term we use in Dramatica to describe how big a dramatic component is. The Genre “classes” cover the whole story since each story falls within a particular genre. But the acts change over the course of the story,

shifting from one concern in a given act to another in the next. Therefore, we say that the components of the Dramatica Chart in the second or act level, are of a smaller resolution. Just as the genre level components are called “classes,” the act level components are referred to as “types.” So, we have classes of genres and types of acts.

The third level has the greatest structural impact on a story’s theme. Each of these components is called a Variation, as in “variations of a theme.” The Variations are of an even smaller resolution, and therefore provide more detailed information about the story’s problem.

A story’s thematic conflicts can be mapped in the Variation level. Story-wise, variations are sequence sized. “Sequences” are smaller than acts and are usually comprised of a number of scenes that deal with a particular moral issue or ethical topic.

The fourth and lowest level of the chart provides the greatest resolution on a story’s problem. It is comprised of components called Elements (in reference to their indivisible nature) and has the greatest structural impact on characters.

It is here in the Element Level that we find the plethora of human traits that make up our motivations or drives. It is the interaction among characters representing these various drives that constitute the scenes of our story. So, we say that the Element Level is at scene resolution.

So, like nested dolls, scenes fall within sequences within acts within a genre. In this manner, the structure of a story can be understood not as a simple sequence as one would find in a tale, but rather as a complex mechanism built of wheels within wheels.

We’ll learn more about the Dramatica Chart and its workings later on, but for now, picture it as a cross between a three dimensional chess set, a Rubik’s Cube, and the Periodic Table of Elements, which can be used to build perfect story structures.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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The Story Mind (Part 3) – A Story Is An Argument

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica

So a tale is a simple linear path that the author promotes as being either a good or bad one to take, depending on the outcome. There’s a certain amount of power in that. It wouldn’t take our early storyteller long to realize that he didn’t have to limit himself to relating events that actually happened. Rather, he might carry things a step farther and create a fictional tale to illustrate the benefits or dangers of following a particular course.

That is the concept behind Fairy Tales and Cautionary Tales – to encourage certain behaviors and inhibit other behaviors based on the author’s belief as to the most efficacious courses of action in life.

But what kind of power could you get as an author if you were able to not merely say, “This conclusion is true for this particular case,” but rather “This conclusion is true for all such similar cases”?

In other words, if you begin “here,” then no matter what path you might take from that given starting point, it wouldn’t be as good (or as bad) as the one I’m promoting. Now, rather than saying that the approach you have described is simply good or bad in and of itself, you are suggesting that of all the approaches that might have been taken, yours is the best (or worst) way to go.

Now that has a lot more power to it because you are telling everyone, “If you find yourself in this situation, exclude any other paths; take only this one,” or, “If you find yourself in this situation, no matter what you do, don’t do this!”

That kind of statement has a lot more power to manipulate an audience. But, because you’ve only shown the one path (even though you are saying it is better than any others) you are making a blanket statement.

An audience simply won’t sit still for a blanket statement. They’ll cry, “Foul!” They will at least question you. So, if our caveman sitting around the fire say, “Hey, this is the best of all possible paths,” the audience is going to say , “What about this other case? What if we tried this, this or this?”

If the author was able to successfully argue his case he would compare all the solutions the audience might suggest to the one he is touting and conclusively show that the promoted path is clearly the best (or worst). Or, a solution might be suggested that proves better than the author’s, in which case his blanket statement loses all credibility.

In a nutshell, for every rebuttal the audience voices, the author can attempt to counter the rebuttal until he has proven his case. Now, he wont’ have to argue every conceivable alternative solution – just the ones the audience brings up. And if he is successful, he’ll eventually exhaust their suggestions or simply tire them out to the point they are willing to accept his conclusions.

But the moment you record a story as a song ballad, a stage play, or a motion picture (for example), then the original author is no longer there to counter any rebuttals the audience might have to his blanket statement.

So if someone in the audience thinks of a potential way to resolve the problem and you haven’t addressed it in your blanket statement, they will feel there is a hole in your argument and that you haven’t made your case.

Therefore, in a recorded art form, you need to include all the other reasonable approaches that might be tried in order to “sell” your approach as the best or the worst. You need to show how each alternative is not as good (or as bad) as the one you are promoting thereby proving that your blanket statement is correct.

In order to do this, you must anticipate all the other ways the audience might consider solving the problem in question. In effect, you have include all the ways anyone might think of solving that problem. Essentially, you have to include all the ways any human mind might go about solving that problem. In so doing, you create a model of the mind’s problem-solving process: the Story Mind.

Now, no caveman ever sat down by a fire and said to himself, “I’m going to create an analogy to the mind’s problem-solving processes.” Yet in the process of successfully telling a story in a recorded art form (thereby showing that a particular solution is better than all other potential ones) the structure of the story becomes a model of psychology as an accidental byproduct.

Once this is understood, you can psychoanalyze your story. And you find that everything that is in the human mind is represented in some tangible form in a story’s structure.

That’s what Dramatica is all about. Once we had that Rosetta Stone, we set ourselves to documenting the psychology of story structure. We developed a model of this structure and described it in our book, Dramatica: A New Theory of Story.   While that book is detailed and complete, it is also written like a scientific paper.  For decades folks have been clamoring for less daunting guide to the theory – something that covers all the key points but in a more conversational tone.  Hence, this book.  Better late than never, eh?

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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The Story Mind (Part 2) – A Tale is a Statement

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica

The Story Mind concept is interesting, but how would such a thing have come to be? After all, there was certainly never a convention where authors from all over the world gathered to devise a story structure based on the psychology of the human mind.

So, if the Story Mind concept is real and valid, how would such a thing come to be? Here’s one possibility….

Imagine the very first storyteller, perhaps a caveman sitting around a campfire. The first communication was not a full-blown story as we know them today. Rather, this caveman may have rubbed his stomach, pointed at his mouth and made a “hungry” sound.

More than likely he was able to communicate. Why? Because his “audience” would see his motions, hear his sounds, and think (conceptually), “If I did that, what would I mean?”

We all have roughly the same physical make-up, we make the assumption that we also think similarly. Therefore when that early man encoded his feelings into sound and motion, the others in his group could decode his symbolism and arrive back at his meaning.

Buoyed by his success in communication, our caveman expands his technique, moving beyond simple expressions of his immediate state to describe a linear series of experiences. For example, he might relate how to get to a place where there are berries or how to avoid a place where there are bears. He would use sign language to outline his journey and to depict the things and events he encountered along the way.

When our storyteller is able to string together a series of events and experiences he has created a tale. And that, simply put, is the definition of a tale: an unbroken linear progression.

We call this kind of tale a “head-line” because it focuses on a chain of logical connections. But you can also have a “heart-line” – an unbroken progression of feelings. For example, our caveman storyteller might have related a series of emotions he had experienced independently of any logistic path.

Tales can be just a head-line or a heart-line, or can be more complex by combining both. In such a case, the tale begins with a particular situation in which the storyteller relates his feelings at the time. Then, he proceeded to the next step which made him feel differently, and so on until he arrives at a final destination and a concluding emotional state.

In a more complex form, emotions and logic drive each other, fully intertwining both the head-line and hear-line. So, starting from a particular place in a particular mood, driven by that mood, the storyteller acted to arrive at a second point, which then made him feel differently.

The tale might be driven by logic with feelings passively responded to each step, or it might be driven completely by feelings in which each logic progression is a result of one’s mood.

And, in the most complex form of all, logic and feelings take turns in driving the other, so that feelings may cause the journey to start, then a logical event causes a feeling to change and also the next step to occur. Then, feelings change again and alter the course of the journey to a completely illogical step.

In this way, our storyteller can “break” logic with a bridge of feeling, or violate a natural progression of feelings with a logical event that alters the mood. Very powerful techniques wrapped up in a very simple form of communication!
We know that the human heart cannot just jump from one emotion to another without going through essential emotional states in between. However, if you start with any given emotion, you might be able to jump to any one of a number of emotions next, and from any of those jump to others. But you can’t jump to all of them. If you could, then we all just be bobbing about from one feeling to another. There would be no growth and no emotional development.

As an analogy, look at Freud’s psycho-sexual stages of development or consider the seven stages of grief. You have to go through them in a particular order. You can’t skip over any. If you do, there’s an emotional mis-step. It has an untrue feeling to the heart.

A story that has a character that skips an emotional step or jumps to a step he couldn’t really get to from his previous mood it will feel wanky to the audience. It will feel as if the character started developing in a manner the audience or readers can follow with their own hearts. It will pop your audience or readers right out of the story and cause them to see the character as someone with home they simply can’t identify.

So the idea is to create a linearity. But doesn’t that linearity create a formula? Well it would if you could only go from a given emotion to just one particular emotion next. But, from any given emotion there are several you might jump to – not all, but several. And from whichever one you select as storyteller, there are several more you might go to next.

Similarly with logic, from any given situation there might be any one of a number of things that would make sense if they happened next. But you couldn’t have anything happen next because some things would simply be impossible to occur if the initial situation had happened first.

Now you can start from any place and eventually get to anywhere else, but you have to go through the in-betweens. So as long as you have a head-line and/or a heart-line and it is an unbroken chain that doesn’t skip any steps, that constitutes a complete tale.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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The Story Mind (Part 1) – Introducing the Story Mind

Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica


Dramatica is a theory of story structure and a method of developing stories. Since its debut in 1991, hundreds of thousands of writers have studied and applied Dramatica’s concepts on novels, movies and television.

Dramatica Unplugged is a conversational exploration of Dramatica with an emphasis on practical concepts you can instantly apply to improve your story’s structure and your storytelling techniques.

1.1 Introducing the Story Mind

The central concept in Dramatica is called “The Story Mind.” It is what makes Dramatica unique. Dramatica says that every complete story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to deal with an inequity.

That’s quite a mouthful, but all it really means is that a story structure is a model of the mind’s problem solving process. It means that all the dramatic elements of a story are actually psychological aspects of the human mind.

This is not the mind of the author, reader or audience, but of the story itself – a mind created symbolically in the process of communicating across a medium. It is a mind for the audience to look at, understand, and then occupy.

Moreover, characters, plot, theme, and genre are not just a bunch of people doing things with value standards in an overall setting. Rather, characters, plot, theme, and genre are different families of thought that occur in the Story Mind, in fact, in our own minds.

In story structure, these thoughts are made tangible, incarnate, so that the audience members might look into the mechanisms of their own minds, see them from the outside in, and thereby gain an understanding of how to solve similar problems in their own lives.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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Creating Characters from Plot


If you already have a story idea, it is a simple matter to create a whole cast of characters that will grow out of your plot. In this lesson we’re going to lay out a method of developing characters from a thumbnail sketch of what your story is about.

Thumbnail Sketch

 The most concise way to describe the key elements of a story is with a “Thumbnail Sketch.” This is simply a short line or two, less than a paragraph, that gets right to the heart of the matter. You see them all the time in TV Guide listings and in the short descriptions that show up on cable or satellite television program information.

A thumbnail sketch of The Matrix, for example, might read, “A computer hacker discovers that the world we know is really just a huge computer program. He is freed from the program by a group of rebels intent on destroying the system, and ultimately joins them as their most powerful cyber warrior.”

Clearly, there is a lot more to the finished movie than that, but the thumbnail sketch provides enough information to get a good feel for what the story is about. Generally, such a description contains information about the plot, since the audience will choose what they want to watch on the kind of things they expect to happen in a story. If it is an action story, there may be no mention of characters at all as in, “A giant meteor threatens to demolish the earth.” If it is a love story, there may be little plot but several characters, as in, “A young Amish girl falls in love with a traveling salesman. Her father and his chosen match for her oppose the romance, but her free-minded mother and exiled aunt encourage her.”

Whether or not characters are specifically mentioned in a thumbnail sketch, they are always at least inferred. For your own story, then, the first step is to come up with a short description like those used as illustrations above. For the purposes of this lesson, we’ll propose the following hypothetical story to use as an example:

Suppose our story is described as the tribulations of a town Marshall trying to fend off a gang of outlaws who bleed the town dry.

The Expected Characters

The only explicitly called for characters are the Marshall and the gang. So, we’ll list them as required characters of the story. Certainly you could tell a story with just those characters, but it might seem a little under-populated. Realistically, you’d expect the gang to have a leader and the town to have a mayor. The Marshall might have a deputy. And, if the town is being bled dry, then some businessmen and shopkeepers would be in order as well. So the second stage of the process is to step a bit beyond what is actually written and to slightly enlarge the dramatic world described to include secondary and support characters too.
The Usual Characters

Range a little wider now, and list some characters that aren’t necessarily expected, but wouldn’t seem particularly out of place in such a story.


A saloon girl, a bartender, blacksmith, rancher, preacher, school teacher, etc.

Unusual Characters

 Now, let yourself go a bit and list a number of characters that would seem somewhat out of place, but still explainable, in such a story.


A troupe of traveling acrobats, Ulysses S. Grant, a Prussian Duke, a bird watcher.

Adding one or two somewhat unexpected characters to a story can liven up the cast and make it seem original, rather than predictable.

Outlandish Characters

 Finally, pull out all the stops and list some completely inappropriate characters that would take a heap of explaining to your reader/audience if they showed up in your story.


Richard Nixon, Martians, the Ghost of Julius Caesar

Although you’ll likely discard most of these characters, just the process of coming up with them can lead to new ideas and directions for your story.

For example, the town Marshall might become more interesting if he was a history buff, specifically reading about the Roman Empire. In his first run-in with the gang, he is knocked out cold with a concussion. For the rest of the story, he keeps imagining the Ghost of Julius Caesar, giving him unwanted advice.

Casting Call

 Now, you assemble all the characters you have proposed for your story so far, be they Expected, Usual, Unusual, or Outlandish.

The task at hand is to weed out of this list of prospective characters all the ones we are sure we don’t want in our story. At first blush, this might seem easy, but before you make hasty decisions, keep in mind the use we came up with for Caesar’s Ghost. Consider: How might traveling acrobats be employed dramatically? As a place for the marshal to hide in greasepaint when the gang temporarily takes over the town? Or how about if the school teacher befriends them, and then employs their aid in busting the deputy out of jail when he falls under the gang’s control?

How about Ulysses S. Grant showing up on his way to a meeting with the governor, and the gang members must impersonate honest town’s folk until he and his armed cavalry escort have departed? Could make for a very tense or a very funny scene, depending on how you play it.

Try to put each of these characters in juxtaposition with each of the others, at least as a mental exercise, to see if any kind of chemistry boils up between them. In this way, you may find that some of the least likely characters on your initial consideration turn out to be almost indispensable to the development of your story!

A Word About Plot…

 You may not have noticed, but a lot of what we have just done with characters has had the added benefit of developing whole sequences of events, series of interactions, and additional plot lines. In fact, working with characters in this way often does as much for your story’s plot as it does in the creation of characters themselves.

Hence, it is never too early to work with characters. As soon as you have an initial story idea, no matter how lacking in detail or thinly developed it may be, it can pay to work with your characters as a means of adding to your plot!

Study Exercises: Squeezing Characters out of the Thumbnail Sketch

1. Open a TV Listing Guide or view some descriptions on your cable or satellite guide.

2. Pick 3 descriptions from movies you know and list the explicitly called for characters.

3. Base on your knowledge of each story, list the usual characters, unusual characters, and outlandish characters (if any).

4. Pick 3 descriptions from movies you don’t know and list the explicitly called for characters.

5. Use your imagination to devise usual characters, unusual characters, and outlandish characters for each story.

6. Watch each of the three movies you hadn’t seen and see how your proposed characters compare to what was actually done.

7. Consider that you might write your own story based on the description with the characters you created and have it be so different from the actual movie that it has become your own story! (This is also a handy trick for coming up with your own original story ideas based on the hundreds of descriptions available each week. More than likely, your creative concepts will be nothing like the movie the description was portraying!)

Writing Exercises: Creating Characters

1. Write a thumbnail sketch for a story you wish to develop.

2. List the explicitly described characters.

3. Come up with some additional supporting “usual” characters.

4. Be a bit creative and propose some unusual characters.

5. Let yourself loose and devise some outlandish characters.

6. Imagine each of the characters interacting with each of the others and determine which characters to employ in your story.

7. Use the scenarios created by your character interactions to expand your story’s plot.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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Creating Characters from Scratch

 Where Do Characters Come From?

When we speak of characters from a structural standpoint, there are very specific guidelines that determine what is a character and what is not. But when we think of characters in every day life, they are simply anything that has a personality, from your Great Aunt Bertha (though some might argue the point) to the car that never starts when you’re really late.

Looking back through time, it is easy to understand how early humans would assume that other humans like themselves would have similar feelings, thoughts, and drives. Even other species exhibit emotions and make decisions, as when one confronts a bear face to face and watches it decide whether to take you on or find easier pickings (a personal experience from my recent hike on the John Muir trail!)

But even the weather seems to have a personality by virtue of its capricious nature. That’s why they call the wind Mariah, why there is a god of Thunder, and why the Spanish say Hace Color, when it is hot, which literally means, “It makes heat.”

So while, structurally, to be a character an entity must intend to alter the course of events, in the realm of storytelling a character is anything that possesses human emotions. In short, structural characters must have heads, storytelling characters must have hearts. When you put the two together you have entities who involve themselves in the plot, and involve us in themselves.

Where Can We Get Some?

When writing a story, then, from whence can we get our characters? Well, for the moment lets assume we have no plot. In fact, we have no theme, no genre – we don’t even have any particular subject matter we want to talk about. Nothing. We have absolutely nothing and we want to create some characters out of “think” air.

Try starting with a name. Not a name like “Joe” or “Sally” but something that opens the door to further development like “Muttering Murdock” or “Susan the Stilt.” Often coming up with a nickname or even a derogatory name one child might call another is a great way to establish a character’s heart.

What can we say about Muttering Murdock? The best way to develop a character (or for that matter, any aspect of your story) is to start with loose thread and then ask questions. So, for ol’ Muttering Murdock, the name is the loose end just hanging out there for us to pull. We might ask, “Why does Murdock Mutter?” (That’s obvious, of course!) But what else might we ask? Is Murdock a human being? Is Murdock male or female? How old is Murdock? What attributes describe Murdock’s physical traits? How smart is Murdock? Does Murdock have any talents? What about hobbies, education, religious affiliation? And so on, and so on….
We don’t need to know the answers to these questions, we just have to ask them.

Why Does Murdock Mutter?

Next you want to shift modes. Take each question, one at a time, and think up all the different answers you can for each one. For example:

Why does Murdock Mutter?

1. Because he has a physical deformity for the lips.

2. Because he talks to himself, lost in his own world due to the untimely death of his parents, right in front of his eyes.

3. Because he feels he can’t hold his own with anyone face to face, so he makes all his comments so low that no one can hear, giving him the last word in his own mind.

4. Because he is lost in thought about truly deep and complex issues, so he is merely talking to himself. No one ever knows that he is a genius because he never speaks clearly enough to be understood.

You get the idea. You just pull out all the stops and be creative. See, that’s the key. If you try to come up with a character from scratch, well good luck. But if you pick an arbitrary name, it can’t help but generate a number of questions. If you aren’t trying to come up with the one perfect answer to each question, you can let your Muse roam far and wide. Without constraints, you’ll be amazed at the odd variety of potential answers she brings back!

Aging Murdock

Let’s try another question from our Murdock list:

How old is Murdock?

1. 18

2. 5

3. 86

4. 37

That was easy, wasn’t it. But now, think of Murdock in your mind…. Picture Murdock as an 18 year old, a 5 year old, an 86 year old, and at 37. Changes the whole image, doesn’t it! You see, with a name like Muttering Murdock, we can’t help but come up with a mental image right off the bat. It’s like telling someone, “Whatever you do, don’t picture a pink elephant in your mind.” Very hard not to.

The mind is a creative instrument just waiting to be played. It has to be to survive. The world is a jumble of objects, energies, and entities. Our minds must make sense of it all. And to do this, we quite automatically seek patterns. When a pattern is incomplete, we fill it in out of personal experience until we find a better match.

So, when you first heard the name, “Muttering Murdock,” you probably pictured someone who was in your mind already a certain gender, a certain age, and a certain race. You may have even seen Murdock’s face, or Murdock’s size, shape, hair color, or even imagined Murdock’s voice!

Give Murdock a Job!

Now ask one more question about Murdock – What is his or her vocation? Try out a number of alternatives: a school teacher, a mercenary, a priest, a cop, a sanitary engineer, a pre-school drop-out, a retired linesman. Every potential occupation again alters our mental image of Murdock and makes us feel just a little bit differently about that character.

Interesting thing, though. We haven’t even asked ourselves what kind of a person Murdock is. Is this character funny? Is he or she a practical joker? Does he or she socialize, or is the character a loner? Is Murdock quick to temper or long suffering? Forgiving, or carry a grudge? Thoughtful or a snap judge? Dogmatic or pragmatic? Pleasant or slimy of spirit?

Again, each question leads to a number of possible answers. By trying them in different combinations, we can create any number of interesting people with which to populate a story.

As we said at the beginning of the Murdock example, this is just one way to create characters if you don’t even have a story idea yet. But there are more! In our next lesson we’ll explore more of these methods.

Study Exercises: Reverse Engineering Characters

1. Pick a favorite book, movie, or stage play. Make a list of all the principal characters.

2. For each character, list all the key bits of information the author reveals about that character, as if you were writing a dossier.

3. Do a personality study of each character, as if you were a criminal profiler or a psychologist.

4. For each item you have noted in your dossier and profile, create a question that would have resulted in that item as an answer. In other words, play the TV game Jeopardy. Take an item you wrote about a character like, “Hagrid is a large man, so big he must be part giant.” Then, create a question to which that item would be an answer, for example, “What is this character’s physical size?”

5. Arrange all the questions you have reverse engineered in an organized list to be used in the Writing Exercises.

Writing Exercises: Creating Characters

1. Arbitrarily create a character name.

2. Use your list of questions from the Study exercises to ask information about this character.

3. Come up with at least three different answers for each of the questions.

4. Pick one answer for each question to create a character profile.

5. Read over the list and get a feel for your new character. Then, swap out some of the answers (character attributes) that you included in the profile for alternative answers you originally didn’t use.

6. Keep swapping out attributes until you arrive at a character you really have a feel for.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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The Dramatics of “Sweet Spots”

Got a new kitten two days ago. Vet said that it needed two vaccinations – Distemper and Leukemia. The used to give them two weeks apart so they wouldn’t interfere with each other. But, they discovered they also didn’t interfere if you gave them both at the same time. But if they were given at different times closer than two weeks together, they’d interfere.

Imagine that! Two processes, one for the Distemper vaccination reaction and the other for Leukemia. Two processes that need to be separated or simultaneous or they interfere…. Nodal points in time the same way we get standing waves in space. Peaks and valleys and slopes of different steepness all around.

Consider harmonics in music or in vibrations. Two different frequencies and combine as fractional harmonics at different points – sevenths, fifths, thirds, and others can create dissonance. It is why music can pass through discordant moments on the way to another conjunction that satisfies, or why a song that ends discordantly creates an unsettled mood.

Think of dramatics – rising tension, trials one must overcome, tragic endings vs. triumphant ones. Embrace the chemistry of characters as processes that mesh in repetitive undulations or clash in perpetual static.

In the real world, such oscillations can lead to bridges that shimmy until they collapse. In electronics, the relationship between the components of a circuit and the metal box that holds them can create a phantom capacitor between the two, which in turn becomes part of the circuit and even appears in the schematic as such.

Now, consider that just as a tennis racket (a spatial construct) have a sweet spot, so too can a narrative (a temporal construct) have a sweet spot. Sweet spots in time… what would they be?

They would be story points. Specifically, dynamic story points.

In Dramatica, story points (such as Goal, Main Character Problem, and Benchmark) are all spatial story points – sweet spots in space that represent the harmonic conjunction of point of view and item being observed. Consider – the Dramatica chart is a periodic table of story elements, but not story points. Each element is an item that might be examined, such as Memory or Hope or Conscience.

These elements are not objects but processes. For example, “Hope” is not really a thing but rather the process of “Hoping.” And so we see that the Dramatica chart categorizes these processes of the mind into families and sub-families, just like the periodic table of elements in Chemistry or Physics.

But when one of these items is seen as a Goal (such as a Goal of Memory, which might be trying to remember or trying to forget) suddenly we are looking at it from a particular point of view – as the story’s Goal. This contextualizes the process element by combining its nature with how it is being perceived. This blending of object and observer, item under study and pint of view – this creates perspective. And perspective is a nodal point – a spatial sweet spot.

Think now of Dramatica’s story dynamics – Change or Steadfast, Linear or Holistic, Start or Stop, Action or Decision to name a few. These are nodal points in the temporal flow: sweet spots in time. Each represents a point at which the processes and forces in the progression of a narrative combine in conjunction and define the nature and direction of the resultant vector of the dramatics. Each define a wave form and together define the complex wave form of a narrative’s dynamic fabric.

Now turn to Dramatica’s Signposts and Journeys – these are the nodal points between space and time. In other words, these are the sweet spots between structure and dynamics, between structural and dynamic story points – between spatial and temporal narrative sweet spots.

Looking forward – we know that there must be as many temporal or dynamic story points as there are spatial or structural story points. We just haven’t identified them all yet, save the eight that are currently in the Dramatica model. (Eight are the minimum requirement to align structure and dynamics so that the spatial structure and temporal progression of a story can be tied to one another – meaning tied to the order of events – change the order of events and the meaning changes, change the meaning and the order of events must change, just like a given pattern of a Rubik’s Cube require a certain sequence of moves to achieve it.

Therefore, these dynamic or temporal story points – these nodal points in the confluence of processes – these nexuses of convergent waveforms – these sweet spots in time – are out there, waiting to be discovered. This is part and parcel of my ongoing work in identifying and documenting the process elements in a model of narrative dynamics – the other side of the Dramatica coin – the side that represents the passion of story, rather than its logic, the ebb and flow of dramatics, rather than their structure – the waves to Dramatica’s particles, with the entire combined model forming the predictive interface between the two.

Much like signposts and journeys enable the translation of narrative meaning to narrative sequence, such a model would hold insight into the relationship between time and space, the smallest sub-atomic particles and the world of quantum theory across that bridge from matter to probability.

All made possible because of a new kitten in conjunction with a random bit of information about the functioning of vaccinations.

And that, children, is how new theory is created.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonist drives the plot forward.

Antagonist tries to stop him.

The Protagonist is the Prime Mover of the effort to achieve the Story’s Goal. The Antagonist is the Chief Obstacle to that effort. In a sense, Protagonist is the irresistible force and Antagonist is the immovable object.

Often, a Protagonist is cast as the hero – trying to accomplish something for good purposes through unflinching dedication to the task.  Similarly, the Antagonist is frequently cast as the villain – trying to prevent the Protagonist from achieving that task for evil purposes.

But good and evil are not part of what a Protagonist or Antagonist is. They are just qualities our culture often associates with the achiever and the stopper.

For example, consider where good and evil reside in a typical James Bond movie.  Usually, it is the bad guy who hatches a plan and then sets off to realize it.  And it is Bond who must try to stop the bad guy and set things right.

In this example, the villain is actually the Protagonist trying to achieve the goal (albeit an evil one) whereas Bond is the Antagonist trying to prevent a disaster.

So if, for a moment, we remove the preconception of a Protagonist being good and an Antagonist being bad, we might ask ourselves, where exactly do these two characters come from and how do they work dramatically in story structure?

In our own minds, we survey our environment and consider whether or not we could improve things by taking action to change them. The struggle between the Protagonist and Antagonist represents this inner argument: is it better to leave things the way they are or to try and rearrange them?

The Protagonist represents our Initiative, the motivation to change the status quo. The Antagonist embodies our Reticence to change the status quo. These are perhaps our two most obvious human traits – the drive to alter our environment and the drive to keep things the way they are. That is likely why the Archetypes that represent them are usually the two most visible in a story.

Functionally, the character you choose as your Protagonist will exhibit unswerving commitment to effecting change. No matter what the obstacles, no matter what the price, the Protagonist will charge forward and try to convince everyone else to follow.

Without a Protagonist, your story would have no directed thrust. It would likely meander through a series of events without any sense of compelling inevitability. When the climax arrives, it would likely be weak, not seen as the culmination and moment of truth so much as simply the end.

This is not to say that the Protagonist won’t be misled or even temporarily convinced to stop trying, but like a smoldering fire the Protagonist is a self-starter. Eventually, he or she will ignite again and once more resume the drive toward the goal.

Still, do not feel obligated to fashion a Protagonist whose storytelling qualities make it the most forceful character. The Protagonist does not have to be the most powerful personality. Rather, it will simply be the character who keeps pressing forward, even if in a gentle manner until all the obstacles to success are either overcome or slowly eroded.

When creating your own stories, sometimes you will know exactly what your goal is right off the bat. In such cases, the choice of Protagonist is usually an easy one. You simply pick the character whose storytelling interests and nature are best suited to the objective.

Other times, you may begin with only a setting and a cast of interesting characters but have no idea what the goal of the story will be. By trying out the role of Protagonist on each of your characters, you can determine what kind of a goal the nature of each character might suggest.

By working out an appropriate goal for each character as if it were the Protagonist, you’ll have a choice of goals. And once you have chosen one as the story goal, each of your other characters now has a clear motivation of their own – a tangible end-game they are hoping to achieve for themselves as a result of their part in the effort to achieve the overall story goal.

What, now, of the Antagonist? We have all heard the idioms, Let sleeping dogs lie, Leave well enough alone, and If it works – don’t fix it. All of these express that very same human quality embodied by the Antagonist: Reticence.

To be clear, Reticence does not mean that the Antagonist is afraid of change. While that may be true, it may instead be that the Antagonist is simply comfortable with the way things are or may even be ecstatic about them. Or, he or she may not care about the way things are but hate the way they would become if the goal were achieved.

Functionally, the character you choose as your Antagonist will try anything and everything to prevent the goal from being achieved. No matter what the cost, any price would not seem as bad to this character as the conditions he or she would endure if the goal comes to be. The Antagonist will never cease in its efforts and will marshal every resource (both human and material) to see that the Protagonist fails in his efforts.

Without an Antagonist, your story would have no concerted force directed against the Protagonist. Obstacles would seem arbitrary and inconsequential. When the climax arrives, it would likely feel insignificant, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In choosing one of your characters as the Antagonist, don’t be trapped into only selecting a mean-spirited one. As described earlier, it may well be that the Protagonist is the Bad Guy and the Antagonist is the Good Guy. Or, both may be Good or both Bad.

The important thing is that the Antagonist must be in a position in the plot to place obstacles in the path of the Protagonist. Since the drive of the Protagonist is measured by the size of the obstacles he or she must overcome, it is usually a good idea to pick the character who can bring to bear the greatest obstacles.

In summary, while you may find it easier to write by thinking in terms of good guys and bad guys or heroes and villains, be sure to step back every once in a while and consider the underlying dramatic functions represented by the Protagonist and Antagonist regardless of noble or ill intent.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Fire Your Protagonist!

Many authors start with a Protagonist and then build a cast of characters around him or her. But as a story develops, it may turn out that one of the other characters becomes more suited for that role. Sticking with the original Protagonist causes the story to become mis-centered, and it fails to take on a life of its own.

To see if this has happened to your story, try the following:

Take each of your characters, one by one, and try them out as the Protagonist. Give each a job interview. You ask them, “What would the story’s goal be if you were the Protagonist? What would you be working toward? What would you hope to achieve? How would you rally the other characters around your efforts?”

More than likely, you will find one character who seems just a little more driven – a character whose goal seems far more important to him or her than any of the others’ goals, and one that not only affects this character but all the other principal characters as well. That character should be your Protagonist, and it may not be the character you originally cast in that role. If it isn’t, fire your Protagonist and hire the new one!

Sure, you’ve become attached to the original character, but if he or she is no longer right for the job, well, business is business. You have to think about what is best for the entire company of players in your story without playing favorites.

Of course, with a new Protagonist, you’ll need to re-center your story and possibly to change the nature of the previously stated goal. But in so doing, your story will gain a renewed sense of purpose as this new character takes the helm.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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The Main Character Element of the Hero Stereotype

Of all four attributes of the hero, his role as the Main Character is perhaps the most intriguing. As described in an earlier writing tip, the Main Character represents the audience position in the story, and is the character with whom the audience most empathizes, the one whom the story seems to be about.

In the Story Mind, the Main Character represents our sense of self, the ego or identity of the story as a whole. So, always writing about heroic characters who are both Main Character and Protagonist is a lot like telling a story about football from only the Quarterback’s point of view and never from that of any of the other players.

In real life we are always the Main Character in our personal story, but we are not always the Prime Mover out of every one we know. Rather, we are usually supporting characters in the larger Goal, such as in a business, club, or church group, only occasionally being the driving force, leader, or initiator who others follow.

When we assign the attribute of Protagonist to one of the characters in our story but the role of Main Character to another, we open up a wealth of variations that better reflect the audience’s real life experiences. Such arrangements seem far less stereotypical and far more personal.

A Good example of this can be found in both the book and movie version of the classic story, To Kill A Mockingbird. This story is about Atticus, an open-minded lawyer in a small Southern town in the 1930s and his young daughter, Scout, who is trying to understand what is going on around her.

Atticus is the Protagonist as he tries to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl.

Scout is the Main Character because we see this story about prejudice through her eyes – a child’s eyes.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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