On Becoming a Therapist to Your Characters

Making a meaningful connection between Author and Audience

The Dramatica theory of story sets itself apart from all other understandings of narrative structure with its objective appreciation of conflict. Most alternative paradigms encourage the Author to go inside of her characters. Dramatica wants you to take a step back—after all, it’s the only way one can truly gain a greater perspective.

This distancing effect plays two essential parts in the development of the Author. One, it frustrates her, turns her off entirely to Dramatica, and leaves her searching aimlessly around for what happens next in her story. Two, it opens her up a greater appreciation of the source of conflict between characters.

We can’t see our problems from within. If we could, they wouldn’t be problems—we would solve them. That’s why we often turn to a friend, or a professional, to help us understand a solution.

What’s interesting about that is that you almost have to take an especially un-perspective to map out the RS Relationship Story Throughline. When we think in terms of “feelings” (which is a natural thing to do given this is the relationship story we’re talking about), you can’t help but place yourself inside the characters. But with the RS, you have to become the therapist dispassionately telling the couple what’s wrong with their relationship without ever making it about one person.

While positioned and often defined as “the heart of a story,” the Relationship Story Throughline perspective is most definitely a dispassionate, objective-view, of this heart. A Storyheart to complement the Storymind.

A Dramatica storyform is a meta-objective view of conflict—an understanding of inequity as defined by the Author’s intention.

Framing the Conflict

In Dramatica, the Four Throughlines of a complete story correspond with the four perspectives afforded by our minds:

  • The Objective Story is the objective view
  • The Main Character is the subjective view
  • The Obstacle Character is the objective view of the subjective
  • The Relationship Story is the subjective view of the objective

Many writers confuse “the subjective view of the objective” with an emotional first-person view of the conflict. Instead, this view is a subjective appraisal of objective interpersonal relationships.

From this perspective, dynamics and emergent properties take precedence—always from the Author. From here, the Author describes the Storymind’s consciousness—not the individual thoughts and feelings of the characters. It’s subjective because this view is understood from within the system and is therefore prone to misinterpretation.

Understanding the Emergent Properties of the Mind

An emergent property is the outcome of a system not directly associated with the parts of that system. Insects, the mind, and yes—relationships—all exhibit these properties of collaboration and resistance.

A single ant is a rather limited organism, with little ability to reason or accomplish complex tasks. As a whole, however, an ant colony accomplishes astounding tasks, from building hills and dams to finding and moving huge amounts of food. In this context, emergent properties are the changes that occur in ant behavior when individual ants work together.

The crucial relationship in your novel is like a group of ants. Write about the colony, not the ants.1

Dramatica theory is a model of the mind at work. The meaning wrapped up in a storyform (the Premise) functions as an emergent property of this single mind.

Human consciousness is often called an emergent property of the human brain. Like the ants that make up a colony, no single neuron holds complex information like self-awareness, hope or pride. Nonetheless, the sum of all neurons in the nervous system generate complex human emotions like fear and joy, none of which can be attributed to a single neuron.

It sounds like a Dramatica storyform to me. In the same way that the Main Character Throughline is meaningless without the Objective Story Throughline, the Relationship Story Throughline is pointless if merely a “he said/she said” argument between two individuals. When writing the Relationship Story Throughline, write it as an emergent property of a connection.

You’ll be one step ahead of the scientists.

Although the human brain is not yet understood enough to identify the mechanism by which emergence functions, most neurobiologists agree that complex interconnections among the parts give rise to qualities that belong only to the whole.

Our minds often overlook emergence for something more tangible as this recognition of a shared quality relies heavily on perception. Much easier to weigh in with the actuality of objective reality. The properties of a relationship require something much more ephemeral and subjective. Meaning arises from the conflux of objectivity and subjectivity, explaining the need for both in a story.

I think this’ll be my approach from now on with the RS: pretend I’m a therapist doing a counselling session with the two characters and explaining to them why the relationship is in conflict.

Precisely. Stories often provide an avenue for a writer to work out his or her issues in a fictional or fantastic situation. The writing process then becomes a form of personal therapy. The Relationship Story Throughline allows the writer to be one’s therapist, and gain that greater understanding of the interpersonal dynamics at work in our lives.


  1. And if you want to read a fantastic story about a group of ants, check out Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.
Originally published 02-25-2020

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