Excerpted from my FREE 43 part audio program:
Stories have a mind of their own, as if they were a person in their own right in which the structure is the story’s psychology and the storytelling is its personality.
Characters, in addition to acting as real people,, also represent facets of the overall Story mind, such as the Protagonist which stands for our initiative to effect change and the Skeptic archetype which illustrates our doubt.
Yet in our own minds is a sense of self, and this quality is also present in the Story Mind as the Main Character. Every complete story has a Main Character or the readers or audience cannot identify with the story; they cannot experience the story first hand from the inside, rather than just as observers.
This Main Character does not have to be the Protagonist anymore than we only look at the world through our initiative. Sometimes, for example, we might be coming from our doubt or looking at the world in terms of our doubt. In such a story, the Main Character would be the Skeptic, not the Protagonist.
Any of the facets of our minds that are represented as characters might be the Main Character – the one through whose eyes the readers or audience experience the story. And in this way, narratives mirror our minds in which we have a sense of self (“I think therefore I am”) and it might, in any given situation, be centered on any one of our facets.
Yet there is one other special character on a par with the Main Character that is found within ourselves and, therefore, also within narrative: the Influence Character.
The Influence Character represents that “devil’s advocate “ voice within ourselves – the part of ourselves that validates our position by taking the opposing point of view so that we can gain perspective by weighing both sides of an issue. This ensures that, as much as possible, we don’t go bull-headedly along without questioning our own beliefs and conclusions.
In our own minds, we only have one sense of self – one identity. The same is true for narratives, including fictional stories. The Influence Character is not another identity, but our view of who we might become if we change our minds and adopt that opposing philosophical point of view. And so, we examine that other potential “self” to not only understand the other side of the issues, but how that might affect all other aspects or facets of ourselves. In stories, this self-examination of our potential future selves appears as the philosophical conflict and ongoing argument over points of view, act by act.
Ultimately we (or in stories, the Main Character) will either become convinced that this opposing view is a better approach or will remain convinced that our original approach is still the best choice.
No point of view is good or bad in and of itself but only in context. What is right in one situation is wrong in another. Situations, however, are complex, and often are missing complete data. And so we must rely on experience to fill in the expected pattern and to project the likely course it will take. Entertaining the opposite point of view shines a light in the shadows of our initial take on the issues. Psychologically, this greatly enhances our chances for survival.
This is why the inclusion of an Influence Character in any narrative is essential not only to fully representing the totality of our mental process but to provide a balanced look a the issues under examination by the author.
Part 2 of our 113 part video series on story structure
Download this video, audio or view on our web site at http://storymind.com/page104.htm
A real life example that just occurred:
In the kitchen, I began singing the theme song from the 1965 old west comedy “Cat Ballou” starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. Upstairs, Teresa (upon hearing this) inquired why I was singing such an obscure song.
My initial answer was that I had no clue. But, curious now myself, I invoked my subconscious flight recorder. This is a mental process I learned as a child wherein I am able to play back, in reverse, the subconscious elements which led to a conscious thought or unconscious action.
It is a handy skill, though not unique to me. Teresa, for example, is also able to do this, and though I have never actually inquired of anyone else as to whether this is possible for them as well, I assume a great number of people have learned to do it.
In this particular case, just before I started singing that theme, I had been looking at the bottle of medication we are giving to our kitty, Clarice, for an upset stomach. It makes her mouth foam, and we have come to refer to it as her goo.
Also, I was considering posting a picture I took some years ago of our home in the mountains which, due to the dark wood exterior, pine trees, and corn growing in front was very reminiscent of the old west – striking me as such in impression, even though I did not consciously consider this.
And so, I was thinking about “cat goo” in the just prior context of the old west feel of the photograph. My subconscious mind, like everyone’s, is always trying to understand the situation by seeking patterns of comparatives with experience; it is a survival trait that allows us to anticipate trouble and recognize potential benefits.
In the context of the old west, the nearest pattern in my experience that matched “cat goo” was the sound-alike, Cat Ballou, and my subconscious responded by triggering me to start singing the theme song, thereby alerting my conscious mind to the found pattern match.
And so, from this simple example, we can understand a basic process of the mind that we all employ constantly and unbidden as part of our survival instinct. Clearly one might apply this knowledge to perceive in their actions and reactions, initiations and responses, a mechanism that can both explain and, with some training, be directed, much as one might direct a lucid dream through practice.
And in writing, a clever author might present his or her readers or audience with the subconscious elements that lead to a character’s unknowing motivations or afterwards to explain why a character acted as it did.
Some time ago, I wrote a short article describing the four P’s of character: Psychology, Personality, Persona and Perception.
Psychology was described as the underlying structure and dynamics of a character’s given mind set. Personality were the interests and mannerisms of a character that define the specific areas to which its psychology is applied. Persona is the face a character presents to the world – its apparent personality which enhances some things, diminishes other and adds or eliminates traits and attributes that don’t really exist in its actual personality. Finally, Perception is how a character tailors or applies its persona to adapt to or manipulate specific people and/or situations.
My understanding of the four P’s emerged from my work on a new book entitled, The Story Mind, which is intended to document and advance the concept that every narrative operates as a model of the mind’s operating system.
In fiction, this means that characters represent facets of the overall mind of the story itself in addition to being real people in their own right. In the real world, it means that people automatically self-organize into groups structured by narrative in which each participant evolves into a role within the group an a facet of the group mind, becoming the voice of reason, for example. In this manner the problem-solving capacity of the group as a whole is enhanced by having each member specialize in a different aspect of problem solving, rather than simply being a collection of parallel processors all trying to attack the central issue from all sides as general practitioners.
In the ongoing development of the Story Mind book, I have come to focus more and more on the real world implications of narrative theory. In fact, so much new material is emerging that I felt it would be worthwhile to jot down this quick article outlining some of the more intriguing applications.
For some twenty years we have described how a main character in a story who is by nature a do-er, would be an uncomfortable participant in deliberation/decision story in which they are required to soul-search and perhaps superficially adopt an attitude in order to affect the participation of others and even as a requirement to achieve the goal.
Similarly, a main character who is by nature a be-er would be uncomfortable in a story that required them to take action rather than influence others in order to achieve the goal.
Yet new understandings indicate that even archetypal objective characters such as Protagonist, Antagonist, Reason or Emotion, who are not the main character (not the individual grappling with the story’s central message issue or moral) may still suffer internal dissonance in fulfilling their structurally mandated role within the greater Story Mind.
A reluctant Protagonist or an emotionally-driven individual forced to function as the Reason archetype will suffer a growing angst caused by their situational inability to respond in a manner appropriate to their true make-up, their true underlying psychology.
Similarly, an actor in a role in an ongoing television series or long-term stage production may find that the character they portray chafes at their inner self if it is a poor fit. Depending on the magnitude of this dissonance an actor may be unsuccessful in being able to continue to portray their character in the long term – partially due to the internal strain and partly due to their declining ability to show the character to the audience with complete integrity.
Even if an actor in dissonance with their character can overcome their internal angst and continue to portray that fictional psychology, their own blind spots will provide weak spots in their presentation in which inconsistent attributes belonging to the actor may slip into the performance unnoticed, thereby rendering a character that the audience will see as not ringing true. In addition, things a given character would certainly do may never come to the mind of the actor if the fit is too poor.
Conversely, if the fit is close but not exact, continued portrayal may cause the actor to gradually alter their own underlying psychology to match that of the character, losing themselves in the role. In this case, once the role is over, the actor has become the character in real life, at least in a psychological sense, and even during the role the actor may begin to respond more as the character than as themselves. In fact, method acting is all about immersion in a role, but the psychological process of behavioral modification is always at work. In the real world this leads to such scenarios as the Stockholm Syndrome in which a victim comes to side with the perpetrator.
Naturally, the degree of dissonance and the length of the portrayal are the essential moderating factors which determine if an actor will be successful in playing a given character and whether or not the actor will be altered by the process and to what degree.
Taking all of this into consideration, we can see that fictional characters must illustrate this dissonance within the narrative itself. At the next level, an actor must not only portray that dissonance, but be alert to the actual dissonance which may grown within themselves. And finally, in the real world, we should all take stock, from time to time, whether our Psychology, Personality, Persona and Perception are (individually or in some combination) creating dissonance with and alteration of our essential natures in our own lives, for good or for bad.
For more information on real world narratives, read my article The False Narrative
Melanie Anne Phillips
Not every narrative has an author. Just as art may be in the eye of the beholder, the existence of a narrative may be in the eye of the observer.
We are all pattern makers. This is evident in everything from ink blot tests to seeing figures in constellations, faces in wood grain and images in clouds. The patterns we make and how we come to make them are reflective of the perspectives and processes of our own minds.
We project these patterns on the external world in the attempt to better understand and predict it. Therefore, the patterns we see in the real world tell us as much about ourselves as about our environment.
Fictional narratives are our attempt to document the nature and essence of the way people think, feel, and interact as determined through observation and internal exploration.
Real world narratives are the patterns and systems into which we organize our thoughts, feelings our relationships with others, as evidenced through the patterns and systems we create.
Though one might expect all fictional narratives to be intentional, consider sub-text and patterns of meaning that illuminate the nature of the author, but were unintentional and unseen by the author in the process of creation.
A single work, be it a simple tale, a fully argued story, a song ballad or stage play, may have many multiple narratives operating in the same narrative space simultaneously. Individual readers or audience members may tune into several, many or none of these additional narratives beyond the principal intended ones.
A good example of this would be a story that was taken very seriously by the author, but strikes most of the audience as laughable – a comedy in fact. And, what’s more, the audience may actually believe that the work was intended as a comedy, though that could be diametrically opposed to the intent of the author. What is a passionately argued point of view to the author may appear as simple pandering or propaganda to an audience.
In fact, two different audiences may interpret a given work’s narrative meaning differently, as experienced by stage actors whose performance as a company may be virtually identical from show to show, but is received completely differently by each audience that enters the theater.
Further, contextual changes in the real world may cast a narrative into a different meaning than its initial impact, or may even appear to reflect a different author’s intent.
In the real world, when people gather together for a common interest or purpose, they self-organize into a narrative pattern. For example, we each possess reason and also skepticism. These qualities are part of a palette of human traits we bring to bear in the making of narrative patterns.
When we assemble, we tend to specialize with each individual focusing on applying one of our problem solving methods, rather than having a collection of people all acting as general practitioners. In this way, each specialist is able to delve deeper into the method they fulfill as they do not have to consider the others more than superficially.
An automatic byproduct of specialization is that each individual comes to represent a different aspect of the mind so that, as a group, they form a representation of a single mind in which each attribute has been made tangible and incarnate in one of the members.
It is this self-organizing principal and this externally projected model of the mind that was observed, documented and refined by hundreds of generations of storytellings until they became fixed in the conventions of narrative structure.
To the point of this article, since there is seldom, if ever, a conscious decision among the members of a newly formed group to organize themselves into a model of the mind the narrative patterns they form are authorless.
Certainly, the study and application of narrative is a popular endeavor of any larger organization these days, and justifiably so. But the understanding of narrative is as a story, not as a self-organizing principal of society based on replication of internal patterns of psychology in an individual.
Let us then consider that when several narrative groups come together toward a common interest or purpose, the groups themselves will self-organize into a larger narrative – a fractal of the structural/dynamic patterns of each individual group. Each group, then, become a character in the larger narrative, just as each individual in a single group is a character within that narrative. This fractal replication may continue infinitely up one fractal dimension to the next until the very nations of the earth are acting a characters within a single global narrative. I call this fractal psychology.
As each individual, group or group of groups operates, there are many free agents in the social petri dish who form the analog medium in which each narrative resonates. Just as there may be two colonies of bacteria in a single dish or growth medium, there may be two social narratives in the same social venue or environment.
These multiple authorless narratives may stand alone and separate so that they do not interfere with or influence each other, or they may touch edges, overwhelm one another, combine, join together as members of a larger narrative, cancel each other out, or pass through each other like colliding galaxies traveling from here to there and sharing the same space, but never or rarely having any direct interaction or collision among their members.
Narratives, like galaxies or atoms are mostly open space. Though they may rarely interact directly, each element of a narrative possesses some degree of the equivalent of gravitational pull and momentum so that, both as it components and as a whole, a narrative extends beyond its borders to exert social influence even where it has no actual connection.
Further, each element of a narrative may, in fact, be a member of another or several other narratives, so that each of us has many stories in our lives built around each individual relationship and function, be it as a parent, employee or club member.
It is the complex influences of the multiple magnitude overlapping narratives in any given social space the creates complex interference patterns as they operate, much like several stones dropped into a pond a the same time.
Some of these influences create standing waves of various durations: peaks, the shorter being thought of as memes and the longer being thought of as social conventions. Similarly, there are troughs which become temporary social dead zones or transient restrictions of law, and in longer form fossilize into taboos.
But most important of all, because we (as both individuals and collectively as groups) create patterns, even from chaos (as in clouds and constellations), we seek to impose narrative forms on the peaks and troughs to find meaning that will provide understanding and prediction – a natural survival technique.
Though truly chaotic, the conjunction of the undulating influences of multiple narratives in a social space does create momentary truths that effectively represent the collection impact of all operating systems within the space, though the accuracy and duration of these truths varies. And so, meta-narrative forms may be perceived that, though they have no author, still provide an organizing matrix for immediate decisions.
In addition, the manner in which the nature of an imposed narrative changes in the endless flux of the multi-narrative influences in the medium of the social environment may indicate collective inertia and collective acceleration, deceleration, sharpening or defocusing of narrative elements, not to mention the overall course and course-changes of the imposed narrative pattern.
And , since the human mind, and therefore the narrative mind, possess both a binary logical understanding derived from our neural networks and a passionate drive derived from the analog standing wave undulations of our own biochemistry projected into the personal interactions within the open space of a social group narrative group, narratives are imposed/perceived upon chaos both in reason and emotion and call us to action both in our individual and collective heads and hearts.
Finally, as we all (individuals and groups) have a conscious mind as well as memory, sub-conscious and pre-conscious filters, narratives may be imposed at any or all of these levels of consideration, and therefore acted upon both in calculated and responsive manners, both cognitively and affectively.
And so, the very fabric of culture truly has no author, for it is neither intended nor directed. Yet ultimately, the broadest of these perceived narrative patterns are far beyond our ability to grasp in their entirety, and are therefore felt to possess universal truth, while the perpetrator of these trans-human authorless narratives is assumed to be a deity.
Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged“
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica
In summary, then, in our own minds we have a sense of who we are. In stories, that “sense of self”, essentially the identity or ego of the story, is represented by the Main Character. As readers or audience we tend to identify with that part of the Story Mind, either in empathy or sympathy, because it is the essence of the story’s humanity.
And just as within ourselves we sometimes must consider changing our point of view or our sense of what is right or wrong about a particular issue, so too does the Story Mind grapple with the possibility of change.
Our own survival instinct insists that we don’t recklessly abandon and old tried and true approach in favor of a new untested one without first engaging in some exploration of what such a change might mean in our lives.
After all, if we simply adopted a new mind set on a whim, we will have already changed and our allegiances would be to some other value standard, which may turn out to be contrary to our own interests.
So, essentially we have it out with ourselves. We think about how our world looks to us at present, then imagine what it might look like if we altered some aspect of our outlook or personal code.
We think about how that other belief system – what does it hold, how does it work, what can we learn from it – while still maintaining the belief system we have. Only then, if we are convinced it is a better way to look at the world, we’ll jump over and adopt it.
At that moment we have changed at least some small aspect of what we call our “selves”. We have changed who we are in our own heads.
In stories, it is the Obstacle or Influence character who represents this new person we might become. Functionally, this character might be very like the Main Character (and in practice often is) except in regard to the central message issue of the story regarding which these two characters are diametrically opposed.
The subjective story – the throughline in which the Main Character and Obstacle character duke it out over opposing belief systems – represents our inner struggle wherein we play devil’s advocate with ourselves, pitting who we are against who we might become.
In the end, we elect (or are emotionally compelled) to change or not. But whether change will prove to be a positive choice will remain to be seen, as sometime we change for the good and sometimes we change for the worse.
And finally we arrive back at the Objective view. It is the one view we can never have of ourselves, yet though we can apply that view to others, we are then hobbled in another way for we can never really know what is going on inside their minds.
Stories seem almost miraculous to us because they present us with all four points of view in regard to a single central issue. In a sense, the author provides us with a God’s Eye View of the Story Mind, enabling us to see the Big Picture even while we passionately share the Main Character’s inner view.
The point being that the author is professing to have some special knowledge or experience that allows him or her to understand what is really going on, regardless of how it might feel to the man on the street.
The promise of a story is that it may tell us that when we are faced with a particular kind of problem and the situation feels a particular way, whether or not we should accept that or ignore it to act as we always have or to abandon our proven methods and embrace new ones from here on out.
Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…
Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged“
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica
Now that we’re familiar with some of the elements of structure with a nod toward storytelling techniques, it might be a good time to consider how we might create and maximize the meaning of our story for our readers or audience.
All meaning comes from perspective – putting things in context. Perspective is created by the combination of what you are looking at, and where you are looking from. Change the object of your intention and perspective is altered. Shift your point of view and perspective shifts as well.
The Dramatica story structure chart is a map of a story’s perspective that describes how your readers or audience will be positioned in regard to the issues you wish to explore.
The chart is divided into four different sections, each one representing a different kind of topic. The first section deals with stories about fixed situations, such as being stuck in a collapsed mine or struggling with a disability. The second area is for stories about activities like trying to win a race or the effort to discover a lost civilization. The third covers stories about fixed attitudes, mindsets, fixations or prejudices. And the final part deals with changing attitudes, manners of thinking, and emotional progressions such as slipping into a depression.
Each of these topic categories is called a “class” of topics, and each has a name. The area that covers situations is called the “Universe Class” because it centers on a fixed external state of things. The part dealing with activities is called the “Physics Class” because it is about external processes. The third section of topics is the “Mind Class” because it is about fixed internal states. The final realm is the “Psychology Class” since it focuses on internal processes.
Simply put, there are two external classes and two internal classes. Similarly, two of the classes deal with states and two with processes. As you can see, the Dramatica chart maps virtually every kind of consideration you might want to explore in a story, for there isn’t any story issue that doesn’t fall into a category as either an external or internal state or process.
But, what we wish to talk about in our story – what we are looking at – is only half of what creates the perspective that contains meaning. To complete the structure of our story we need to add points of view to the topics under consideration.
Just as there are four classes of topics, there are also four points of view. They are the Objective, Subjective, Main Character, and Obstacle Character. The Objective view explores your story’s topics as would a general on a hill watching a battle in the valley down below. Though he cares about the conflict below him, he is not directly participating and also sees a bird’s eye view of the broad strategies involved. Essentially, the Objective view encompasses the “Big Picture” of the grand schemes in your story – from the outside looking in.
But what about the personal view – what things look like from the inside looking out. For that, we have to imagine that we zoom down from the hill into the shoes of one of the soldiers on the field of batter. We experience what he experiences, we feel what he feels, we see things through his eyes. This is the most personal point of view in a story, and it is that of the Main Character – the character with home the reader/audience most identifies – the one whom the passion of the story seems to be about or to revolve around.
The third point of view is from the inside looking in – much like one soldier encountering another in the midst of all the dramatic explosions. This represents the way we all look within ourselves to consider our options, other outlooks we might adopt, whether or not we should change our point of view. So this is the
view of the Main Character looking at the Obstacle Character – representing that alternative paradigm we might change to embrace.
Finally, there is the Subjective view of the argument we make with ourselves about the pros and cons of sticking to our guns or changing our minds. This is represented by the personal skirmish between the Main and Obstacle characters in the midst of the overall battle as seen by the general from the Objective view. In essence, the four points of view are equivalent to I, You, We and They – the four angles we have on ourselves and our fellow human beings. Main Character is “I” – our sense of self or identity in our own minds. Obstacle Character is “You” – perhaps the future “I” – another way for being we might become. Subjective is “We” – our examination of the relationship of our now and futures selves – the difference between who we are and who we might become. Objective is “They” – all the other aspects of ourselves that are not under pressure of possibly changing, represented by all the characters in our story other than Main and Obstacle.
Now that we have outlined the four topic categories and the four points of view, what remains is to combine them to create your story’s perspectives. In fact, all four topic categories must be explored in your story for it to feel complete. What sets one story apart from another begins by the author’s decision as to which point of view will be used to explore which topic category.
When the points of view are matched to a corresponding topic realm, four principal perspectives are created for your story. And each perspective is a different angle on the truth at the heart of your story – a different approach to discovering and solving the problem issue that creates all the difficulties in your story. This match of angle and object is called a “Domain.” So, your story will have four Domains of perspective – the Objective Domain, Subjective Domain, Main Character Domain, and Obstacle Character Domain.
Within each domain we’ll need to dig deeper and to see in greater detail in order to uncover the true heart of your story’s problems. To this end, each domain is divided into smaller and smaller parts – wheels within wheels in the mechanics of your story’s structure. For example, in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, Scrooge is a “Mind Domain” character because he is driven by a fixed attitude of selfishness. The ghosts are “Universe Domain” character because they are stuck in a fixed situation – their own ethereal condition that cannot directly effect the world of men.
One magnitude of detail deeper in the Dramatica chart we find that the overall Class of Universe is sub-divided into four smaller aspects: Past, Present, Future, and Progress. And how appropriate (or predictive) that the ghosts of “A Christmas Carol” are Past, Present, and Future. And what about “Progress”? Why it is the ghost of Marley who argues to Scrooge that he forges his chain link by link, extending it day by day with every selfish act. His message is one of
Progress which is why it makes the collective argument of all four ghosts feel complete.
In conclusion, one must establish perspective in order to create meaning and therefore message. The Dramatica chart provides a map of topic categories to which we can apply the four essential points of view and thereby full develop our story perspectives.
Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…
Excerpted from the Book “Dramatica Unplugged“
By Melanie Anne Phillips, Co-creator of Dramatica
We’ve been focusing on structure for a while now, so let’s take a quick breather and consider storytelling for a moment.
You probably know someone who can take a bad joke and tell it so well that you are rolling on the floor. And you probably know someone who can’t tell a joke to save their life, even if the joke itself is hilarious.
If you start with a joke that just isn’t funny, even the best delivery in the world won’t improve the humor of the punch line, but getting there may have been a hoot. Conversely, if the joke is outstanding, a terrible delivery will rob the experience of its levity even though you still see what was supposed to be funny. Stories work the same way. Even a perfect structure will lay there dead if poorly told. But a good storyteller will keep a reader/audience riveted, even if they clearly see how flawed the structure really is.
Point being, structure is not the Story God. It is a means to an end. It is far better to break structure and go with your Muse than to shackle yourself to the nuts and bolts of story mechanics at the expense of inspired storytelling.
Naturally, the best stories are those that have sound structure and passionate storytelling. But if you find the two diverge, it is always better to err to the side of passion.
Remember the cardinal rule of storytelling – Never bore your audience.
Also from Melanie Anne Phillips…