The order in which events unfold in a story is not necessarily the order in which those events occurred to the characters within the story.
In movies, for example, a story might open with a scene in the present, then put up a title card saying, “3 Days Earlier…” and dissolve back to an earlier time to see how things got to this point. As another example, in the classic book, The Bridge at San Louis Rey, five travelers arrive at a bridge at the same time, then the book jumps back to see how they all came to be there.
These are simple instances of a very common practice of jumping around in time in the storytelling to create suspense and generate interest and mystery for your readers. The problem is that mixing up the sequence of events makes it very easy for you, as author, to accidentally leave out essential pieces of the linear logic of the timeline.
When this happens, readers eventually realize that there’s something wrong with the actual order of events, and if it is a serious enough gap it can destroy the readers’ suspension of disbelief and pull them right out of the story emotionally.
You might think, then, it would be a better idea to just write things in their actual order and then mix them up for storytelling later. But, authors often create best when envisioning their stories in the order they plan on unfolding them. Exposition is an integral part of the creative process and forcing oneself to write only in sequential order might very well hobble the Muse and result in writers block.
Fortunately, there is a simple technique you can use to avoid temporal mis-steps than can cause your story to stumble, while still supporting the free form creation of stories in exposition order.
First write your story as usual, then jot down all the major events in your story on index cards in the order they are revealed. Next, rearrange the cards to put the events in character time, rather than exposition time. Finally, follow the order of events to see if you have left out any crucial steps .
With this clear view of the event-order timeline, you can easily find and plug any holes and correct any pacing issues and then apply those changes to your existing storytelling order so that it all flows perfectly in both the character-sequence and the exposition sequence.
Many writers have a misconception that genre is something you “write in” – like a box. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Genre is the overall personality of a story, created through both structural elements and storytelling approaches.
And, like the people we meet in real life, that personality is not revealed all at once but over time as your readers or audience get to know your story, how it behaves, and how it feels.
Genre in Act One
For people and for stories as well, first impressions are very important. In act one, you introduce your story to your reader/audience. The selection of structural dramatics and storytelling techniques you choose to initially employ will set the mood for all that follows.
You may be working with a standard genre, or trying something new and inventive. Either way, it helps involve your reader/audience if you begin with the familiar. In this way, those experiencing your story are eased out of the real world and into the one you have constructed. So, in the first act, you many want to establish a few touch points the reader/audience can hang its hat on.
As we get to know people a little better, our initial impression of the “type” of person they are begins to slowly alter, making them a little more of an individual and a little less of a stereotype. To this end, as the first act progresses, you may want to hint at a few attributes or elements of your story’s personality that begin to drift from the norm in your genre. It is the genre that attracts your readers/audience in the first place but it is the differences that make your story stand out from the crowd.
By the end of the first act, you should have dropped enough elements to give your story a general personality type and also to indicate that a deeper personality waits to be revealed.
As a side note, this deeper personality may in fact be hints at the true personality of your story that were originally hidden behind the first impressions, such as meeting a charismatic charmer who turns out to be a mean-spirited con man. In such a case, drop a little exposition here or there that doesn’t quite fit with your up-front genre. At first, these story point will seem out of place, but later they begin to make sense as your story’s true genre-personality begins to reveal itself more fully.
Genre in Act Two
In the second act, your story’s genre personality develops more specific traits or elements that shift it completely out of the realm of a broad personality type and into the realm of the individual. Your reader/audience comes to expect certain things from your specific story outside of the general expectations for your genre, both in the structural elements and in the style with which they are presented.
If the first impression of your story as developed in act one is a true representation of the underpinnings of your story’s personality, then act two adds details and richness to the overall feel over the story. But if the first impression is a deception, hiding beneath it a different story personality, then act two brings more elements to the surface that reveal the true nature of its real personality.
Genre in Act Three
It is the third act where you will either reveal the final details that make your story’s personality unique as an individual, or will reveal the full extent of its true personality that was masked behind the first impressions of the first act, and hinted at in the second.
Either way, by the end of the third act you want your reader/audience to feel as if the story is an old friend or an old enemy – a person they understand as to who it is by nature, and what it is capable of.
As your story nears its end, you can either re-affirm the personality you have so far revealed, alter it at the last moment, or hint that it may be altered. If you’ve ever seen the end of a science fiction movie where the world is saved, the words “The End” appear, and then a question mark appears, you have experienced a last-minute change in the personality of a story’s genre.
For example, in the original movie “Alien,” there are several red herrings in the end of act three that alternately make it look as if Ripley or the Alien will ultimately triumph. In the conclusion of Alien, the Alien has been apparently vanquished, and Ripley puts herself in suspended animation for the long return home. But the music, which has been written to initially convey a sense that danger is over suddenly takes a subtle turn toward the minor chords and holds them, making us feel that perhaps a hidden danger still lurks. Finally, the music returns to a sustained major chord as the ship disappears in the distance, confirming that indeed, the danger has past.
Keep in mind that your reader/audience will need to say goodbye to the story they have come to know. Just as they needed to be introduced to the story’s personality in act one and drawn out of the real world into the fictional one, now they need to be disentangled from the story’s personality and eased back into the real world.
Just as one wraps up a visit with a friend in a gradual withdrawal, so too you must let your reader/audience down gently, always considering that the last moments your reader/audience spends with your story will leave a final impression even more important than the first impression.
Archetypes represent human qualities we all share, such as Reason, Emotion, Faith, Skepticism, Conscience, and Temptation. Stereotypes represent the different kinds of personalities we encounter in life.
In story structure, archetypes, by definition, are characters defined by their plot function, such as the protagonist, who is trying to achieve a goal. The protagonist represents our initiative – the desire to improve things by affecting change. The antagonist represents our reticence to change. The antagonist tries to stop the Protagonist – too keep things as they are. These two human qualities are always at war with each other within ourselves, and by assigning those traits to characters, we can get a more objective external look at that battle and thereby better understand within ourselves when to act and when to hold back.
All of the archetypes have a counterpart whose approaches are opposite one another. For example, there is a Reason character who tries to solve plot problem with logic, while the Emotion archetype hopes to succeed through passion.
Stereotypes, on the other hand, are collections of personality traits, such as a Nerd or a Bully. So you can think of archetypes as the underlying psychology of a character, and stereotypes are the personalities that are built on top of that psychology. In other words, we all share the same building blocks of psychology (archetypes) but we don’t all share the same personalities (stereotypes).
For example, a protagonist could be a bully or a nerd and still be a protagonist. And so could an antagonist or a reason archetype or an emotional archetype. It is the archetypal function that determines what a character will do in the plot and the stereotype personality that determine how they will act while doing it.
In this way, characters very accurately reflect the people we encounter in real life. We understand them by their functions and relate to them through their personalities.
Stereotypes allow us to connect with fictional characters because, quite literally, we’ve seen that type before. Archetypes allow us to understand where these characters are coming from – what their motivations are, and what they are trying to achieve.
Archetypes exist because each represents a facet of our own minds, turned into a character, so we can learn what is the best way to go about solving a problem in our own lives.
By observing how each archetype fares in the effort to resolve the story’s issues (which extend far beyond simply achieving a goal), we come to understand the author’s message about how to achieve satisfaction and fulfillment for ourselves.
Learn more about archetypes and stereotypes in this video clip:
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There are two story lines in every complete story, and you can either run them in parallel or you can hinge them together to form a dramatic triangle.
The first story line is the overall story that follows the effort of the protagonist to achieve a goal in which all the characters are involved.
The second story line is the personal story that follows the struggles of the main character to deal with a personal issue.
When you keep these two story lines separate and parallel, each advances on their own, and yet they still reflect each other.
For example, in the classic book (and the movie adaptation) of To Kill a Mockingbird, the overall story is about Atticus (the lawyer trying to get a black man a fair trial in the 1930s South) who is the protagonist.
But in the personal story we see things through the eyes of Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, who is personally dealing with her fear of the local boogeyman, “Boo” Radley – a mentally challenged member of a family down the street who is never seen and only known by rumor.
In the end, we learn about prejudice externally through what Atticus does, and we learn about prejudice personally through Scout’s prejudgment about Boo, until she is forced to change her mind about him when she comes to know him for who he really is – a caring protector who has actually saved her from others who would do her harm.
If Atticus were the main character, we would simply stand in the shoes of the fellow battling prejudice and feel righteous. But by standing in Scout’s shoes, we buy into her belief in the rumors about Boo, and learn how easy it is to be prejudiced whenever we base our opinions on what we hear, not what we see for ourselves.
In this example in which Atticus is the protagonist, the antagonist is the father of the white girl the black man is accused of raping, who wants the defendant lynched without a trial.
In the personal line, Scout is the main character and Boo himself is the influence character who has been leaving gifts for scout and protecting her all along the way, providing all the clues necessary for her to ultimately re-evaluate him.
Just as the antagonist fights against the protagonist, the influence character pressures the main character to change his or her beliefs.
In To Kill A Mockingbird, keeping both story lines separate has some advantages. For one thing, since the audience identifies with the Main Character, we aren’t standing in Atticus’ shoes feeling all self-righteous about fighting against prejudice. Rather, we stand in Scout’s shoes and learn how easy it is to become prejudice whenever we rely on rumor and other people’s opinions, rather than learning the truth for ourselves.
But, keeping the two story lines separate is a very complex form of structure and isn’t really need for most stories. It requires four special characters: protagonist vs. antagonist and main character vs. influence character.
A simpler alternative is to have both storylines occur between just two characters: a hero and a villain. A hero is a protagonist who is also the main character, and a villain is an antagonist who is also the influence character.
So, a hero is not only the person trying to achieve the goal, but is also the audience position in the story and the one who is grappling with challenges to their belief system. And, a villain is not only the person trying to prevent the goal from being achieved, but is also the person challenging the main character’s belief system.
While this sounds very efficient in concept, it is also very dangerous. Each of these story lines needs to be fully explored with no gaps or holes if the reader or audience is to buy into it. But, as an author, it is very easy to get so wrapped up in the action or the passion of one of the stories that you skip over parts of the other one in your eagerness to push ahead with the exciting one of the moment.
As a result, there can be significant gaps in each of the two – gaps that undermine the believability of the overall story and make the personal story seem unrealistic and contrived.
The more this happens, the more the complete story begins to feel like a melodrama, where characters jump from one frame of mind to another without motivation, and where events happen after other events without any understanding of why.
Fortunately, there is a better way to arrange the two story lines so each is clearly seen and fully developed, and yet they are tied together in a manner that strengthens the story as a whole. That method is the Dramatic Triangle.
A Dramatic Triangle hinges both story lines together around one character and anchors the other two ends on two different characters. The most common way to do this is to create a hero who is both protagonist and main character, with a separate antagonist and a separate influence character.
In this arrangement, the hero fights against the antagonist in the overall story, and has to defend his belief system against the influence character in the personal story.
A common example would be a hero who has a love interest, who is his influence character. She loves him because of his moral outlook. But, the hero is fighting against the antagonist who, seeing the love interest as a weakness of the hero, kidnaps her.
Now, the hero is torn between two things. To free his love interest, he must adopt the immoral tactics of the antagonist. If he does, he will save her, but lose her love. Tough choice, and the stuff great stories are made of!
A variation of this is for the protagonist to also be the influence character, rather than the main character. Then, he would be fighting against the antagonist in the overall story, but he would also be trying to change the beliefs of the main character, who is the third corner of the triangle.
In this arrangement, we would not be seeing things through the eyes of the protagonist, but through the eyes of the main character. We stand in the shoes of the main character and watch the protagonist/influence character, but be personally challenged to change our beliefs by him.
This arrangement was used in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford as a police detective and Kelly McGillis as Rachel, a young Amish mother with a son who has witnessed a murder when they were traveling.
Ford is the protagonist trying to protect the child, and the murderer is the antagonist trying to kill the child. We see the story through Rachel’s eyes, making her the main character, and Ford is the influence character as he is trying to convince Rachel to leave her Amish community and go with him into the larger world.
This still satisfies the needs of having the two story lines, but provides an unusual reader/audience position in the story at large.
But there are other ways to hinge the two stories together as well. In one version, the antagonist might be the main character, so we see things through the eyes of the character trying to prevent the goal from being achieved.
In another, the antagonist might be the influence character so he battles against the protagonist in one storyline and tries to change the beliefs of the main character in the other.
Which form of the Dramatic Triangle you choose is up to you as the author and the kind of experience you wish to design for your readers or audience. But any of the variations is less prone to melodrama than having both story lines between just two characters and is less complicated and easer to fashion than keeping both storylines separate between two pairs of different characters.
There are four throughlines that must be explored in every story for it to feel to readers or audience that the underlying issues have been fully explored and the message fully supported.
Throughline 1: The Objective Story
The Objective Story is the big picture – the situations and activities in which all the characters are involved. In To Kill A Mockingbird the Objective Story Throughline explores prejudice in a small 1930s southern town where Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white girl . Though he is being brought to trial, many of the town folk think this case should never see trial and the defendant should just be lynched. Defending Tom Robinson is Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer (played by Gregory Peck in the movie version). The father of the ostensibly-raped girl, Bob Ewell, leads a mob to murder Tom Robinson, but Atticus stands firm against them. Enraged, Ewell seeks to hurt Atticus’ children in revenge. This conflict over the goal of getting Robinson a fair trial makes Atticus the protagonist of the story and Bob Ewell the Antagonist.
Throughline 2: The Main Character
The Main Character is the one we identify with: the one whom the story seems to be about at a personal level. In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, is the Main Character, and her throughline describes her personal experiences in the story. We see this story of prejudice through her eyes, a child’s eyes, as she watches her father stand up against both the town and Bob Ewell. It is partly because we stand in her shoes that makes her the Main Character. But also, the main character is the one who must grapple with some internal issue, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Though the story is about the trial and about prejudice, neither Atticus nor Ewell ever come to a point where they question or even change their beliefs. Rather, it feels like that inner consideration revolves around Scout’s impressions of all that happens. In fact, Scout is actually prejudiced, not against blacks but against Boo Radley, the supposed monstrous child-killing boogey man who is locked in the basement of his family’s home on Scout’s street.
Throughline 3: The Influence Character
The Influence Character is not the antagonist but the character who most influences the Main Character’s outlook and feelings. In To Kill A Mockingbird Boo Radley is the Influence Character to Scout. The rumors surrounding this man, fueled by the town’s ignorance and fear, makes Scout concerned for her safety, even though she’s never seen him, and along with most everyone else, she holds him in derision. Yet it is Boo’s influence on Scout over the course of the story that ultimately brings her to a point of change in her own personal prejudice.
Throughline 4: The Subjective Story
The Subjective Story is the tale of how the Influence Character and Main Character impact each other’s beliefs over the course of the story. One will be forced by their interactions to grow even more steadfast their their beliefs. The other will be pressured by that steadfastness ultimately to change and adopt the outlook of the other. This is the heart of a story’s message. In To Kill A Mockingbird the Subjective Story centers on the relationship between Scout and Boo Radley. This throughline explores Scout’s prejudice against Boo solely by virtue of hearsay. Boo has been constantly active in Scout’s life, protecting her from the background, ultimately saving her and her brother from Bob Ewell. When Scout finally realizes this she changes in her feelings toward him, thereby strongly supporting the story’s message that it is very easy for anyone to fall into prejudice if we judge people by what we hear, rather than what we have determined from our own first-hand experience.
To further illustrate how these four throughlines work together to create and support a story’s message, watch the following video clip recorded at one of my seminars on story structure:
By understanding how the structure of fiction relates to the real world, we can better fashion our stories and perhaps even convey something to our readers or audience that they can use in life.
We all sense that stories have some sort of structure because we see the same dramatic patterns over and over again. If there were no structure at all, there would be no patterns.
But where do these patterns come from and what do they mean? Are they unique to fiction or are they reflective of real life, just as characters are clearly reflective of real people, yet not quite the same?
In the case of characters it is easy to see that while they bear resemblance to folks we’ve met, they are also highly idealized, often accentuating a single attribute above all others that defines them as a personality type or even an archetype. From this, we can speculate that while fiction is similar to what we experience every day, it isn’t exactly the same thing.
In this article I’d like to share with you some of the insights into the relationship of story structure to real life that I have uncovered in my quarter century as a teacher of creative writing. (Oh, and being the co-creator of the Dramatica theory of narrative structure doesn’t hurt either.)
To begin, let’s first look back at the origin of stories and what some notable people have said about their nature. Consider an age before stories: a time when the concept of creating a fictional representation of the real world simply hadn’t occurred to anyone yet. Communication would be a simple representation of things and events that actually happened – a way of sharing information or obtaining help or even garnering sympathy, love, or respect.
But as we all know, it wouldn’t take long for someone to realize they could leverage more of what they want and avoid more or what they don’t by fudging the facts, or even relating an outright fabrication.
Of course, fiction didn’t really happen after people starting relating truthful tales. Since we all like to put our best foot forward by nature (even if it is made up a bit), fictional stories developed concurrently, right along with the actual ones. And so the ranks of the reporters of real events and the purporters of unreal ones grew right along side each other.
At the same time, those bent on understanding life and sharing what they learn might create fictional stories that summed up the lessons they’d learned from personal experience. Others might simply want to describe how things worked in the real world without including a lesson, moral or message at all. And others might see the advantage of leveraging untrue stories to paint their enemy in a bad light, get people to behave as they wanted them to, or to elevate themselves to a position of power.
No matter what the reason they were created, it was soon discovered that to be effective fictional stories had to include certain moments (we call them story points now) that formed the lynch pins of a web of logic and passion that could convince an audience to buy into the story: to take it either as the truth or as a true insight into life and how to live it. Hearts and minds were swayed.
Now any storyteller worth his salt is going to notice when the same story points keep showing up in all the most successful stories. And they are also going to notice when stories fail when they don’t include certain basic story points.
Eventually a whole cadre of story points turned up that became the conventions of storytelling – things like having a goal and requirements for the goal, a main character that the reader or audience can identify with, a whole slew of heroes and villains and variations of the same, acts, and scenes, and beats, the leap of faith, character arc, archetypes, genres, messages, themes, and on and on.
And yet, though most everyone, even folks who aren’t writers, are aware of most of these, nobody really knew how they fit together or, as per the subject of this article, exactly how they related to the real world.
This is not to say that many notable attempts have been made over the centuries to understand and document what story structure is. Aristotle, for example, offered a landmark investigation into the nature of dramatics in his classic book, Poetics.From it, we ended up with the concept of a three-act structure drawing on his assessment that “for everything there is a beginning and an end, and therefore there must also be a middle.”
Of course these days we write one-act plays, three-act movies, and five or seven act television episodes. We know they work, but a lot of writers still have no clue why.
Others have taken a serious stab at explaining what story structure is and where it comes from including Jung’s archetypes, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Chris Volger’s refinement of Campbell in his book, The Hero’s Journey.
Though each of these explanations of story structure (and many others) provide some really good insight, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, it has been difficult to pull all the story points together and fashion a complete description of what story structure is that covers all the bases and doesn’t have exceptions. Nonetheless, they are useful guidelines, though some are more like recipes that work only for certain kinds of stories, rather than a system equally good for any kind of story.
Armed with this short history, here’s what I have to contribute to the understanding of what story structure is and how it relates to everyday life:
Everyone one of us shares certain basic human attributes such as the ability to reason, a healthy skepticism, and sense of conscience and temptation. In our own lives, we use the full complement of these traits to try and chart our best course in an uncertain world.
When we get together in groups, however, it isn’t long before someone emerges as the voice of Reason for the organization, and another becomes the resident Skeptic, and yet another will speak as the Conscience. Eventually any group that is large enough will self-organize so that all fundamental human attributes will be represented by a different individual in the group.
As students of the human animal, storytellers would see these personality types defining themselves over and over again whenever a group is formed. If they were to tell stories that rang true, they needed to ensure that each of these attributes was represented by a different character in their stories. So, in a sense, the group begins to function as if it were an individual with its own complement of traits. And since the very same types needed to appear in every complete story, they became the archetypes. Simple as that.
Further, each of us has a sense of identity (“I think therefore I am”). Similarly, within the group-mind, one individual will rise to represent the identity of the group, such as Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or a presidential candidate embodying the identity of his entire party.
In the real world, we get a sense of belonging by defining the nature of our group as in “I am a Californian” or “I am an author.” Though the nature of each individual in the group can vary widely, we are drawn into a comradeship when we define our tribe, our profession, our gender, or our generation.
Storytellers would see that each group had an individual who embodied the group – the one with whom all members of the group could identify. And that individual became the main character in the conventions of storytelling.
I could go story point by story point to show how each of these elements of fiction has a counterpart in real social organization, but you get the idea. Yet that is only part of how story structure relates to the real world. Though I won’t try to prove it here, it turns out that the way story points interact in fiction to create dramatic tension mirrors the way the way people interact in groups that creates social tension.
Further, the group (be it fictional or real) has its own agenda and quite a bit of inertia, and the main character (or group identity) has his or her own personal agenda so the two are frequently in conflict. In fiction, the core of all dramatic tension is created by the demands of the group chafing against the personal needs of the main character. Yeah, that’s a pretty big bite. You might want to chew on that one for a while before you decide if you want to swallow it or not, but it is quite a concept that would explain quite a bit.
But again, I’m just sharing what I’ve learned in twenty five years of studying story structure. I’m not trying to prove it, just to share it.
Bottom line is that the structure of stories is an idealized model of what goes on in the real world. That’s why we find value in stories: they resonate with us, with our own lives. On the one hand, they are familiar, one the other, it is like stepping into someone else’s life. We are immersed into the fabric of a voyeuristic journey and emerge changed by it, carrying the passions and understandings of what we just experienced into our own lives in which we now think, feel, and behave differently as a result of merging with the identity of the main character.
That’s a pretty good place to stop for now. If you’d like to more, browse this blog, check out my books on story development, try my StoryWeaver software for building your story’s world, or our Dramatica software for structuring it.
Thanks for your time, and may the Muse be with you.
In the classes I teach on story structure I often point to Clarice Starling (Jody Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs as a great example of a Success/Bad story in which the goal (save the senator’s daughter from Buffalo Bill) is achieved, but the personal angst of not being able to save that spring lamb remains, as evidenced by Lecter’s final conversation with Starling over the phone in which he asks, “Are the lambs still screaming?” Starling’s silence in response plus the somber soundtrack music (even though this is her graduation from the academy) indicate she is still holding on to that angst.
We usually leave it there, having served our purpose of illustrating what Success/Bad means. Sometimes we go on to say that the reason she is trying to save all these people today – the reason she got into law enforcement (besides the fact her father was a sheriff) was because she can’t let go of that one lamb she couldn’t save and keeps trying to make up for it.
But now I’m thinking that while that may be true in an objective sense, nobody would carry that weight in their heart and act out that way for those reasons alone. You’d see it, you’d understand it and move on.
Rather, I think the reason she does what she does is not to make up for that lamb but to avoid having to carry another similar sense of loss in the future. So every extraordinary effort – even to the extent of putting herself at risk of death – is to keep from adding one more victim to the pain or failure she already carries.
It would seem, then, counter-intuitive to put oneself in a profession where the risk of failure in the exact same subject matter area as your angst. But consider – most of us need to pay penance when we feel we have screwed up. The risk of hurting herself emotionally even more by her choice of profession, therefore, is part of her penance for the first lamb she lost, while the extra-human effort she puts into each case is the attempt to avoid adding another instance to the pain she already carries.
Pretty screwed up, really, but in actuality the only way a mind, a heart, can make up for failing another in a way that can’t be fixed is to try to help others in a similar way. Yet then the risk of failure is omnipresent, so we give up a life of our own to excel enough to avoid another failure.
It is a never ending cycle of emotional self-flagellation: trying to make up for the failure by putting oneself in the situation most likely to create a repeat, then devoting one’s life to trying to avoid the failure and thereby punishing oneself for the original failure.
Of course, the only way out of this vicious circle is to accept the original failure, call it a clean slate, and move on. But who can easily do that, and how?
Those are the questions for which readers and audience yearn for answers. They hope that the author possesses some special insight based on personal experience or extensive observation. Stories work at a passionate level because, even in the most outlandish sci-fi situations, the human heart beats along side our own. And the more you draw your characters from the issues we face every day (“We envy what we see every day” – Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling), the more your readers or audience will embrace them and make the passion of your story their own.
What is an Influence Character? It is the one who has an opposite philosophy, morality, or personal code to that of the Main Character. Over the course of a story, the Influence Character continually pressures the Main Character’s core beliefs, eventually bringing them to a point they must confront the possibility that their beliefs may be wrong.
Ultimately, the Main Character either changes his or her view to adopt the Influence Character’s outlook or holds steadfast in his or her view, believing that is the only way to resolve their personal problems. This war over opposing moralities is the heart of your story’s message and the arguments and interactions between the Main Character and the Influence Character provide the spine to your story’s heart line.
To get a better feel for the Influence Character, let’s look at how they are employed in some well-known stories.
In A Christmas Carol, the ghosts (collectively) carry the message of that moral philosophy opposite to that of Scrooge. Like runners in a relay race, Marley’s ghost, followed by Past, Present, and Future, advance the argument that scrooge must change. By the end of the story, he is convinced and his very nature is altered.
Without the ghosts the story would just be about Scrooge learning on his own that maybe there’s a better way, but much of the passion of the story and the power of the message would be lost.
Message in A Christmas Carol:
Have compassion and generosity for the less fortunate.
In the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV), the Influence Character is Obi Wan who pressures Luke to reach his potential and eventually brings Luke to a point of change and trust in his new-found abilities with the force.
Obi Wan’s Influence is very subtle and gradual and culminates with his disembodied voice saying to Luke just before Luke turns off the targeting computer, “Use the force, Luke. Let go.” And Luke is able to destroy the death star only because he turns off the targeting computer and relies on his new Jedi skills.
Message in Star Wars (Episode IV):
Trust in yourself.
In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is the Influence Character who forces Clarice Starling to confront her personal demons (the slaughtering of the spring lambs) that led her to try and save others with a job in law enforcement – “Tell me, Clarice, are the lambs still screaming?” Clarice does not change for she cannot let go of her pain – “You know I can’t do that doctor Lecter” and so she remains steadfast in her belief system.
Lecter is the Influence Character but the Antagonist is Jamie Gumm – the man who kidnaps the women including the senator’s daughter whom Clarice is trying to save. And so, we can see that the philosophic argument is independent of the effort to achieve the story’s goal.
Message in The Silence of the Lambs: Let it go, or be forever driven by pain.
In The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones (Federal Marshall Gerard) is the Influence Character, and does not care if his target is guilty or innocent: Kimble: “I didn’t kill my wife!” Gerard: “I don’t care!” But Kimble does care. In fact, he endangers himself and risks his freedom to help others whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In the end, it is Kimble’s steadfastness that convinces Gerard that Kimble is innocent. And in the process, Gerard (the Influence Character) is changed. This is a great example that in the war of belief systems between the Main Character and the Influence character, one will ultimately change to adopt the view of the other. If the Main Character changes, it is because the Influence Character remained steadfast, and if the Influence Character changes, it is because the Main Character remained steadfast. Which way the Main Character goes, and how it turns out for them is the essence of the story’s message.
Message in The Fugitive: No matter what the risk, continue to help others.
So, as you can see, without an Influence Character there will be no story-long passionate argument regarding which way of seeing the world is the better way, and therefore there is no clear message to the reader or audience.
As we have seen with Hannibal Lecter, the Influence Character is not necessarily the Antagonist. The Antagonist is trying to prevent the Protagonist from achieving his or her goal. The Influence Character is trying to convince the Main Character to change his or her world view, belief system, or outlook.
Similarly, the Protagonist is not necessarily the Main Character. The Protagonist is trying to achieve the goal. The Main Character is trying to grapple with a personal issue, and is also the character through whose eyes the reader or audience sees the story – in short, we identify with him or her.
Often, the Main Character is the same “person” in a story who is also the Protagonist. In this case, we create a stereotypical hero in which the reader/audience position is with the same character who is leading the charge to achieve the goal.
There is nothing wrong with that combination, but it is like always making the story about the quarterback in a game of football but never telling the story of one of the linemen or the water boy or the coach or the quarterback’s wife. So, if you want a typical hero, make your Protagonist also your Main Character. But if you want to tell a story where the Main Character is allowing us to look at the Protagonist from the outside and to observe him, then you enable a story such as To Kill A Mockingbird in which Atticus is the Protagonist who is trying to defend the black man wrongly accused of rape in a 1930s town in the South but the Main Character is his young daughter Scout, who gives us a child’s-eye view of prejudice.
If you have a hero who is both Protagonist and Main Character, it can be dangerous to have your Antagonist be the Influence Character because then both the philosophic argument and the struggle over the goal is between the same two characters, mixing the conflicts together and muddying the message for your readers or audience.
In addition, as an author, you can get so wrapped up in the combined passionate lines between these two characters that you don’t fully connect the story points of either argument, leaving gaps that will be seen (or at least felt) by your readers or audience as holes in your story. If those gaps aren’t filled, you essentially have a melodrama in which you don’t make either argument completely yet profess your message at the end as if you did.
Often, authors avoid this problem by creating a dramatic triangle in which one of those two stereotypes (hero and villain) is split into the two parts and the other one remains combined.
For example, in the movie, Witness, with Harrison Ford, he plays the Protagonist – a cop trying to protect the only witness to a murder: the young son of an Amish Woman, played by Kelly McGillis, who is the Main Character.
So here, the Protagonist and the Main Character are two different people. Ford (as Protagonist) strives to protect the boy against the crooked cop who wants the boy killed (the Antagonist). That’s the Goal.
McGillis (as Main Character) shows us the story through her eyes – the most passionate view – as she grapples with a personal decision to remain with her people (the Amish) or to move away with her son for a new life out “among the English” in the big city. That’s the message argument.
Initially, McGillis is determined to stay, but as Ford remains in her community, showing his human side and participating in activities such as barn raising, she begins to fall in love with him and is tempted to change her mind and make a life with him on the outside. Ford, therefore, is the Influence character as well as the Protagonist, as it is his influence that draws her to a point of decision about leaving.
And so, a dramatic triangle is created by making Ford both Protagonist and Influence Character with the other two points of the triangle being the Main Character of Kelly McGillis, and the Antagonist who is trying to kill the boy.
Both the plot line toward the goal and the heart line toward the message are separate and easily followed, yet both hinge on Ford, making him the most central character, even though he isn’t the Main Character.
And so the message is made:
Sometimes it is better to stay in the safety of your extended family than to leave to explore the larger world, no matter how tempting it is.
In summary, without an influence character your story will lose the entire passionate argument leading up to the point of choice in which your story’s message should be made. Without an argument, any perspective you are trying to convey will come across as moralizing that is tagged on rather than integral to the growth of your Main Character.
So how do you add an Influence character and message to your story? Here are a few quick steps:
1. Write down a single sentence that describes the moral or message you want your story to convey.
2. Describe the two sides of that issue such as “Greed vs. Generosity” or “Campassion vs. Self-Interest.”
3. Outline how your Main Character is locked into a viewpoint on one side of that issue.
4. If you already have an Influence character, outline how it is locked into the opposing viewpoint.
5. If you don’t yet have an Influence character but have other characters in mind, briefly describe the core belief system of each.
6. If one of your characters is in direct philosophic opposition to your Main Character, select it as your Influence Character.
7. If none of your existing characters fits the bill, you’ll either need to choose one who can be reworked to represent the opposing point of view to that of the Main Character or you will need to develop a new character specifically for that job.
8. Once you have your Influence Character, Find as many places in your plot as you can to smoothly bring your Main and Influence Characters into conflict over their opposed philosophies, whether it be as advice from one to the other, as an argument, or just by example – having the Main Character see the Influence Character act in a different manner than he or she would in that situation.
9. Over the course of your story, bring your Main Character to a point where he or she must choose either to stick by their guns and hold to their original outlook, believing that their troubles will be resolved if they just remain steadfast long enough, or choose the Influence Character’s alternative view, believing that it holds a better chance to resolve the Main Character’s personal issue.
10. In the end, your Main Character may grow in their resolve to remain steadfast or grow to a point of change. But regardless of how they go, their choice may be right or wrong for resolving their personal issue. This provides you with many ways to prove your message:
Change is good, Change is bad, Steadfast is Good, Steadfast is Bad. Any of these are legitimate; it just depends on the flavor of the message you are trying to send.
11. Don’t forget that if your Main Character Changes, your Influence Character will remain Steadfast, and vice versa. The idea is that one philosophy will trump the other so that both character will, in the end, share the same philosophy. And then you show your readers or audience if that’s was the right choice by showing how it all turns out at a personal level.
12. Keep in mind that whether or not the goal is achieved in a story has no bearing on whether of not the Main Character resolves his or her personal issue. So, you can have a happy ending in which success is matched with happiness, a tragedy in which failure is matched with personal anguish, or a bitter-sweet ending in which success is achieved but with personal anguish or failure is the result of the effort to achieve the goal but with the Main Character finding peace or joy in the end.
Now you know the nuts and bolts of the role and function of the Influence Character, but what does that feel like in a actual stories? To provide some insight into how it all plays out, here’s a video clip to illustrate the nature of Influence Character and its relationship to the Main Character in regard to the message issue:
I hope you have found this article useful and, if so, that you might try the StoryWeaver story development software I created or the Dramatica story structuring software I co-created. Try them risk-free.
Posted inCharacters|Comments Off on Your Influence Character is the Heart of Your Story
From a structural standpoint, characters are just cogs in the machine. They have a job to do in the story as a protagonist, antagonist or any one of the functional roles that must be filled for the story to make sense and move forward.
But characters are much more than that! They also need to be real people with their own lives, fears and desires or the readers or audience won’t be able to identify with them. So characters have two jobs to do in every story – one professional and the other personal.
To illustrate characters’ professional lives, first imagine that you stepped back from your story far enough that you could no longer identify your characters by their personalities, but just by the dramatic role they are playing in the structure of the story.
Like a general on a hill watching a battle, you could only see each character by its function in the battle: There’s the guy leading the charge – that’s the Protagonist. His opponent is the Antagonist. There’s the strategist, working out the battle plan – he’s the Reason archetype. One soldier is shouting mindlessly at the pathos and carnage – he’s the Emotion archetype.
The structure of stories deals with this big picture in which characters are no more than cogs in the machine of story. But at that level of appreciation, your readers or audience can’t invest emotionally in your characters, nor can they identify with them.
To overcome this, each character must be fully developed as a complete human being in their personal lives. When developing characters at this level, you need to stand in their shoes, see what they see, think what they think, feel what they feel. You need to make them real, and express them passionately through each of their individual personal points of view.
Taken together these two jobs create the complex juxtaposition of dramatics that make stories so appealing and provide an appreciation of characters that matches what we all experience in real life. We are a part of a company at work, or of a club or a class. But we are also individuals with a unique combination of likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, dreams and goals.
The Protagonist is one of the most misunderstood characters in a story’s structure.It is often assumed that this character is a typical “Hero” who is a good guy, the central character in the story, and the Main Character (the one through with whom the reader identifies).
In fact, the Protagonist is not any of these things, though all of these attributes may be added to what the Protagonist really is.By definition, the Protagonist is nothing more than the Prime Mover or Driver of the effort to achieve the goal. That’s it. He or she is just the archetypal character who keeps pushing for the goal – that and nothing more.
So, sometimes the Protagonist is not a story’s Central character (the most memorable or charismatic character in the story). Being the Central character simply means he or is is the most prominent to the reader.For example, Fagin in “Oliver Twist” is perhaps the most prominent, but he is certainly not the Protagonist. And Darth Maul is an extremely charismatic character in Star Wars, but was not at all the Protagonist. Clearly, the actual Protagonist may in fact be less interesting than than the Central character, and may even be almost a background character if achieving the goal is not really the focus of the story but just the reason for the chase.
Similarly, the Protagonist is often not the Main Character of the story either. The Main character is the one the reader identifies with – the character we are most connected to emotionally – the one whom the passionate outcome of the story revolves around. It is the Main character who grapples with some personal issue they will ultimately try to overcome by the end of the story by making a choice in a leap of faith.
For an example of a story in which the Protagonist is NOT the Main character consider To Kill A Mockingbird, in which we experience the story through young Scout’s eyes, and yet, it is her father (lawyer, Atticus Finch) who is the protagonist, trying to defend a young black man wrongly accused of rape.
As you can see, while there are many attributes often given to the character who is the Protagonist, these don’t really have to be bundled together unless you are trying to create a stereotypical hero.
Just as in our own lives, we are the Main Character, but may not be the Protagonist on every single project or job in which we are involved, nor are we always the most prominent member of our team, department, or social group.
While it is fun to read books and go to movies in which we identify with heroes, stories that recognize all of those traits don’t have to be given to just one character help us to learn how to be heroic in our own lives.
So in developing your Protagonist, give the guy a break and see if you can’t distribute some of those other jobs to other characters to make them more interesting and your Protagonist more reflective of real life.
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