Finding Your Main Character

The very best way to get to know the most important character of your story is to write something else.

Discovering a character true to your voice is one thing. Making sure that character fits with everything else you want to say is quite another. Thankfully, writers of the 21st century now have a tool to make that process easy and productive.

In the last article The Main Character Playground we discussed a technique for generating new characters from the same set of thematics. Relying on Dramatica's storyform to keep it focused and the Random Gists feature to inspire a new course, we brainstormed a character both familiar and fresh. Step Four continues as we return to try a different take on our original storyform.

Random Gist #2

  • Domain: Being the Last Vampire - Concern: Having Someone's Condition Grow Progressively Worse
  • Issue: Receiving Death Threats from Something vs. Security
  • Problem: Having Low Expectations of a Particular Group
  • Solution: Determining a Resolution for a Particular Group
  • Focus: Lacking a Plausible Theory about Something
  • Response: Having an Intuition about Someone
  • Benchmark: Going On with Something's Everyday Business
  • Signpost 1: Relating a Particular Group's Origins - Signpost 2: Being Focused on Something's Immediate Concerns
  • Signpost 3: Slowing Something - Signpost 4: Being Promised to a Particular Group

What kind of a character would struggle with "Being the Last Vampire" and face "Having Low Expectations of a Particular Group" as their problem? Perhaps an aged Count who has little to no hope for the werewolves taking over his nightly reign of terror. It's a decent start...

Being the Last Vampire and Having Someone's Condition Grow Progressively Worse: Count Vladimir the Vampire refuses to leave his coffin most nights anymore. Having contracted a severe case of acne at age 433, Vlad prefers to stay indoors where his powers of seduction don't have to compete with his rampant ugliness. As the nodules increase and his condition grows progressively worse, one thing becomes perfectly clear: Vlad will be the last vampire.

Again, Dramatica spurs a new creative direction! I had no idea why Vlad was going to be the last vampire, but now I have a reason and the explanation is inherently part of the story's thematics. Wonderful!

Receiving Death Threats from Something vs. Security: To make matters worse, Vlad has started receiving death threats from the Order of Horror--a non-profit organization responsible for maintaining the integrity of nightly terrors. Vlad is a Vampire and thus--ugly or not--must continue to recruit new talent. The Order is not one to be trifled with, especially when they offer such a fantastic pension plan.

Having Low Expectations of a Group: Vlad's disdain of the modern American female and their excessive superficiality drives him into hiding. With such low expectations of his prime demographic, why bother showing up?

Lacking a Plausible Theory About Something and Having an Intuition About Someone: Vlad's friends try to comfort him, but not a single one has a plausible theory about the constant rejection Vlad receives that makes more sense than his foul appearance. His friends challenge him to try anyways, but he refuses. It's hard to give it your all when your intuition tells you otherwise.

Going On With Something's Everyday Business: The more Vlad continues to go on with the everyday business of Castle Bludskull (the upkeep, the finances, etc.) and finds that he has a place where he belongs, the less he cares about his growing acne condition.

Determining a Resolution for a Particular Group: In the end, Vlad has a change of heart. Instead of excessively worrying about his looks, Vlad determines a resolution for all monsters: that they all be welcome in his new Order housed at Castle Bludskull--the Order of the Grey Pimple.

Relating a Particular Group's Origin: The story begins when Vlad fails to impress his latest victim with his family's illustrious history of vampiring (Usually a sure thing). She can't help but stare at the unsightly boil on his cheek.

Being Focused on Something's Immediate Concerns: Vlad quickly loses sight of his personal problems once he receives notice of an imminent foreclosure on Castle Bludskull. He pours all his energy into saving his family's castle.

Slowing Something: Business grinds to a halt as Vlad fails to bring in more customers and his reputation as a friend to the monsters slowly fades away.

Being Promised to a Particular Group: Dedicating himself to the future well-being of all monsters, Vlad sheds his well-worn vampire skin and promises to be a Concierge to the horrific.

Vlad's story turned out to be quite different than I had originally thought. Gone were all references to werewolves and disdain for their lackluster takeover. Instead, Vlad's story became one of accepting one's hidden talents found when forced into a new job.

Hidden Intent

Interestingly enough, this story shares much more with the story of 16-year old Malina than simply the storyform's thematics. Whether mere coincidence or a sign of something deeper within, this idea of finding the silver lining when trapped in an unbearable situation keeps resurfacing. Perhaps it appeals to something deep within me...perhaps it is something I truly want to write about.

Beyond bring a fertile playground for creative brainstorming, these exercises evoke the true writer within. By placing aside thematic intent and concentrated purpose, the Main Character Playground allows a smooth extraction of that interior voice. Patterns of spirit rise to the surface, making it easier to identify a Main Character that truly represents who we are.

Things to Consider

Having found great success with this exercise, I've learned some important things:

Trust the Gists

Occasionally you'll run into the same random Gists for different storyforms. Don't change them! Keeping them the same will force you into working even harder to come up with something unique.

Trust the Gists Again

Other times you'll run across a ridiculous Gist that doesn't fit your current illustration at all. "In a Declining Market" for a story about space aliens and the Alps? Don't change it! "Stealing Fire from the Gods" in a romantic story about two people who never meet? Figure it out. Take the challenge as an opportunity to stretch your dramatic wings.

Illustrate Problems, not Gists

A common mistake dwells in the act of simply copying down the Gist and using it as subject matter. "Being Depressed by Something" becomes "Adelaide gets depressed by sad classical music." "Spur of the Moment" becomes "Chad joins Violet on a trip to the Ozarks." Ok. But why are these problems? Everything in Dramatica revolves around the inequity. Domains, Concerns, Issues and Problems describe the same thing, only seen from a different perspective. Always make sure to illustrate the conflict the Gist creates and you'll have a richer story.

Don't Stop Playing

Sometimes your illustrations will fail. You'll feel it as you go into them as your confidence level will drop to zero and you'll think to yourself, I'm wasting my time with this nonsense. You're not. Keep forging forward and finish the exercise. Know that in failing and flailing, you're growing.

Don't Force Your Story

Thrusting your original story idea onto these playgrounds will only scare away the children of your imagination. Approaching the process with baggage stunts the creative process and returns you right back to where you started. Don't do it. Forget your story (and your ego) and force your mind to go somewhere it's never been before.

Repeat as Needed

Now that you've done the exercise twice, do it again. And again. And continue to do it until you can't do it anymore. Then do two more.

I've always found it takes about seven different trips to the Playground before I'm happy with the results. For some strange reason, the fifth iteration always strikes me as being particularly strong, but only if I continue on and do two more. If I stop at five, or at least know I'm going to stop, that fifth becomes an exercise in "getting it over with" quickly and sloppIly.

Experiment with what works best for you , but do push beyond your limit. The event horizon of your creativity holds the keys to your a brand new universe of writing.

Originality Found

As discussed in the previous article:

By distancing ourselves from that which we hold near and dear, we actually open up opportunities for potentially better storytelling.

It's one thing to have a paradigm of story structure that can be applied to any story, a pattern that many can easily emulate. It's quite another to provide tools that unleash untapped potential and illuminate subconscious desires. When writing a Main Character, there can be no more important task than getting to the heart of who we are and what we want to say and experience. The Playground Exercise, along with Dramatica's Gist feature, rewards Authors with a chance to see within themselves.

Many voice concerns over Dramatica's apparent write-by-numbers approach to storytelling and the restricted nature of some of its vocabulary. Those who never examined the theory beyond a cursory glance would do well to try a visit to the Playground. An immeasurable difference in their words to come awaits.