The Story Mind (Part 6) – Audience Reach

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

Who is your audience? And for that matter, does a single story structure affect all audience members equally? Let’s find out….

In Dramatica, there are some story points that deal directly with the structure and others that pertain to the collective impact of a number of story points. Audience Reach is one of these combined dramatics. It is also called an Audience Story

Point because it is concerned with the kind of reach the story has into the audience.

Specifically, it describes whether your readers/audience will empathize or sympathize with your Main Character. Empathy is when your readers/audience identify with your Main Character. Sympathy is when they care about your main character but feel more as if they are standing right behind the character, rather than in its shoes.

When audience members empathize, they suspend their disbelief and emotionally occupy the Main Character’s position in the story. When audience members sympathize, it seems to them as if the emotional maelstrom of the story revolves around the Main Character, making him or her the Central character of the story.

Audience Reach is determined by the effects of two story points: Story Limit and Main Character Mental Sex. Limit describes the story dynamics that force the story to a conclusion. Mental Sex describes whether your Main Character thinks like a man or a woman.

Story Limit has two variations – Time Lock and Option Lock. Time Lock stories are like the motion picture “48 Hours” in which a police detective has exactly two days before he has to return to jail a convict who is the key to solving another crime. When the time is up, the story reaches its conclusion.

Option Lock stories are similar to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” in which a transformed prince must make someone love him before the last petal falls from an enchanted rose or he will remain a beast forever. When the last petal falls, the conclusion is reached.

Main Character Mental Sex also has two variations – Male and Female. Mental Sex does not refer to the physical gender of the Main Character but only to its mental gender. (Because none of us truly know how the opposite sex thinks, authors often can’t help but write all of their characters as thinking in their own sex, regardless of the character’s physical gender.)

Examples can be seen in the motion picture “Aliens” in which the Main Character (Ripley) was actually written for a man and changed only the character’s dialog when the role was cast with Sigourney Weaver. Alternatively, in the movie “The Hunt for Red October”, Jack Ryan is a female mental sex Main Character as he solves problems intuitively and emotionally, rather than by observation and logic. As one might expect, male and female readers/audience members empathize or sympathize with a Main Character for different reasons.

For men, they will empathize with Male Mental Sex Main Characters and sympathize with Female Mental Sex Main Characters, regardless of which limit is

invoked – time lock or option lock. Conversely, women will empathize in an option lock but only sympathize in a time lock, regardless of what mental sex the Main Character possesses.

Why the difference? Well, the reasons are in the physiology of the brain, and too deep to go into here. If you are really interested, you’ll find a complete description of what causes the mental differences between mean and women later in this program in a lesson devoted specifically to mental sex.

Still, for a quick visual, imagine a plain old clock face. Imagine that men’s minds sit at noon, and women at 9 o’clock. Thinking clockwise, men see women as being three quarters of an hour away. Women see men as only being one quarter of an hour away. This serves to illustrate that the sexes really aren’t opposite, but are more accurately sideways to each other.

When men and women converse, they are often speaking apples and oranges and are not really in conflict or disagreement. They simply don’t have a means of seeing things the way the other sex does. So, it is not surprising that men’s empathies might be drawn to those who think like them (also at noon on the clock) while women (seeing men as just one quarter hour away) would be more affected by the situation in which the main character finds itself. For women, and option lock is more like the way they think – trying to balance all the elements at once, just as in their own lives. But time locks (to women) are just deadlines and seem imposed from the outside rather than open to some degree of control.

Okay, let’s put that behind and see what we can do with this information.

If you want to create a story in which both men and women empathize with the Main Character, then you will want to limit your story with an option lock but employ a Male Mental Sex Main Character. On the other hand, if you want to explore a despicable Main Character, you may not want to disturb your readers/audience by making them empathize with such a cad. In such a case, you can ensure your readers/audience will only sympathize by writing a Female Mental Sex Main Character in a time lock story. The danger is that since nobody empathizes, nobody really gets into the story and it doesn’t sell very well.

Naturally, the other two combinations can also exist – Men Empathize (Male Mental Sex) and women Sympathize (Time Lock) or Women Empathize (Option Lock) and men only sympathize (Female Mental Sex).

You can predict whether a book or movie will attract more men or women, just by seeing who empathizes. Hollywood tends to favor Male Mental Sex / Option Lock stories most often. This has the entire audience empathizing, and therefore (since far more mixed mental sex couples go to movies that single individuals or same mental sex couples) it ensures the largest percentage of the audience is personally involved in the movie, thereby increasing its box office (all artistic merit aside).

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The Story Mind (Part 5) – The Grand Argument Story

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

Over the years a number of my students have asked how the Dramatica chart can possibly describe the fullness of the human experience, especially since we, as a species, seem to have an unlimited supply of issues?

The quick answer is that even in chemistry there are a limited number of elements yet they combine to create the vast variety of materials in our world. Similarly, we only have a limited number of kinds of issues; they just manifest themselves in different combinations.

But there’s an even better (or at least a more technical) explanation how the vast panorama of our hearts and minds can be captured in a chart of finite size. Bear with me on this, and fasten your mental seat belts….

It is a well-known psychological fact that short-term memory can hold seven items (+ or – 2). We have seven days in a week, seven is considered a magic or lucky number, phone numbers are seven digits (minus the area code).

Why is seven so important? And more important still, what does this have to do with story and the size of the Dramatica Chart? As described above, the Dramatica Chart is built from eight items – the four external dimensions and the four internal ones. And that’s about as big a thought as the mind can hold at one time.

As an illustration, try this thought experiment. Picture a piece of twine. Easy to do. Now, picture that twine twisted along its length like a candy-cane. Again, pretty easy. Next, imagine that twisted twine again twisted into a spiral shape like a slinky. In your mind’s eye, you can probably still see the twists on the twine itself, even while you are also seeing the length of twine wrapped into that spiral shape.

Now, take that slinky-line twine, and spiral the spiral. You know, like you used to do as a kid. You take a slinky, stretch it out, then wrap it around your leg in a spiral. At this point, though it take a bit of work, you can probably still see the candy-cane twists along the body of the twine, even while simultaneously observing the slinky shape of the overall length of the twine and the bigger spiral as it wraps around your leg.

Finally, remove your leg from the center of the largest spirals and assume the twine holds its shape. Try to go one more level and twist the spiraled spiral into a larger spiral, even while maintaining the candy cane twists on the twine itself.

If you are like most people, you’ve reached your limit. You can focus on any part of this construct and see it clearly, as well as the twists one level larger and one level smaller. But to try and picture a three dimensional object that is twisting at four different levels – well that’s seven things to consider and is the limit of short- term memory.

Go any larger and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who could see the smallest twist all the way to the largest at the same time. Theoretically, it is not possible for a mind that exists in a three dimensional brain to go that far.

Why? Well, we have four dimensions in the external world and four dimensions in the inner world. (They really all exist in our minds, but we have four kinds of external measurements we can take to see how things are – Mass, Energy, Space, and Time – and four internal measurements available – Knowledge, Thought, Ability, and Desire.

This gives us eight places to look. But, at any given moment, our mind – the seat of our consciousness – has to be somewhere. So, our “self” sits on one of these areas to look at the other seven. That gives us one place to be and seven slots we can fill with information. And that is why our short-term memory is just seven items.

Getting back to the Dramatica Chart, because it provides all eight dimensions, it can produce with it as much detail as we can hold in our minds at one time without losing track of the big picture.

Recall our discussion of how a story structure needed to include all the ways the audience might consider to solve the story’s problem in order to prove to their satisfaction that the author’s purported solution is the best of the worst. What is to keep the audience from coming up with an infinite number of alternatives? Simply, for any given problem, the capacity of the audience mind is limited by the same seven dimensions (plus one to stand on) factor. If you satisfy all the potential solutions within those eight dimensions, you satisfy the audience because anything larger or small that goes beyond that scope would seem unreasonable or not pertinent.

In Dramatica Theory we call this limit, the Size of Mind Constant. And, we call any story that covers all the reasonable ways in which a given problem might be solved a Grand Argument Story.

Author’s arguments may be insufficient or may be overstated, but a Grand Argument story is one in which the argument is just big enough and no bigger than necessary to cover all reasonable alternatives as defined by the size of mind constant.

And that limit? Well, that’s what determines that the Dramatica Chart is four towers, each with four levels.

So leaving theory behind (for quite a while we hope) all you need to do as an author is explore your story’s problem to full extent of the Dramatica Chart and your argument will be exactly the right size to convince any audience.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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Introducing the Story Mind

Watch the entire 113 part  series free on our web site…

Transcript of the soundtrack from this video:

Dramatica Unplugged

Class One: Introduction

1.1 Introducing the Story Mind

Let’s look at the central concept in Dramatica: the Story Mind. It’s 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 what it really means is that every complete story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process. In fact, it says that all the elements of the story are actually elements of a single human mind –  not the author’s mind, not the audience’s mind but a mind created symbolically in the process of communicating across a medium to reach an audience. It is a mind for the audience to look at, understand and then occupy. That’s the story’s structure itself.

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 go on in a Story Mind, in fact that go on in our own minds, made tangible, made incarnate, so that the audience might look into the mechanisms of their own minds – see them from the outside looking in – and thereby get a better understanding of the problem solving process, so when a particular kind of problem comes up in their lives, they’ll have a better idea how to deal with it.

Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…

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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 Storymind.com. 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.

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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

Prologue

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

Introduction

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.

Example:

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.

Example:

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.

Example:

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

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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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