The Problem with Writing a Story about Characters

Characters are not real people.

Some writers struggle with the dual appreciations of Protagonist and Antagonist. Note the use of the word appreciations to describe these two—not characters or players. That’s because the Antagonist of a story is not a real person. Same with the Protagonist. Almost all problems relating to constructing or deconstructing a story lie in thinking of characters as if they’re real people.

They’re not.

A functioning story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Not the Protagonist’s Problem. Or the Antagonist’s Problem. It’s as if the story itself is a real person, with the various characters, plots, themes, and genres within that story depicting the neural pathways and biochemistry of the mind.

A single mind.

A single Storymind.

Stories Are About Problem-Solving

This Storymind concept is the foundation of the Dramatica theory of story—and the foundation of a greater understanding of narrative. For once you start seeing the “characters” in your story as functions and perspectives, you begin to write with greater clarity and purpose.

Your writing becomes less schizophrenic, and less of two minds (or three, or four).

A Discovery of Self

Recently, I received an email from a writer struggling with this notion:

I am having trouble understanding how Dramatica defines the Story Goal, I think. On a Hero's Journey, there's a Call to Action.

This indicates the first misstep.

The Hero’s Journey paradigm is an inside-out understanding of narrative. Its very nature is subjective—meaning the casting of Hero and Elixir and Call to Action, and any number of mythical concepts lie within the eye of the beholder—within the survey of the Author himself.

Subjective viewpoints, by definition, fail to see the entire picture. They contain blind spots and prejudice the viewer into perceiving a world that in reality, doesn’t exist. From their perspective, it is the truth—but it’s not what is truthfully going on within a story.

Dramatica’s Storymind concept is 100% objective. Ideas such as the Protagonist or Antagonist or Main Character or even Story Driver sit in the context of that single mind analogy.

The Author’s prejudices don’t play into the construction of the narrative.

In fact, the struggle most writers encounter with Dramatica is a struggle with self. Their inability to reconcile a particular part of the theory with their own writing often indicates a personal blind spot—an area of narrative they haven't resolved in their own lives.

Dramatica won’t let you hide from yourself.

This can be both illuminating and frightening, depending on your current state of self-awareness. But the end result is always the same—a well considered and structurally sound narrative.

The Protagonist and Antagonist of a story are not real people—they’re functions. Like multiplication or division, they serve a purpose in transforming the potential for conflict into a product. This energy then courses through the electric circuit of a narrative, creating more potential for conflict among the way.

The Downward Spiral of Subjectivity

On a Hero's Journey, there's a Call to Action. This usually stems from a character who desires something, and through actions to acquire this thing, throws the world off balance. Until that character does this action, the main character (usually considered the Protagonist) does not receive a Call to Action, or a reason to begin his Journey.

Call to Actions within Call to Actions within Call to Actions ad infinitum.

Do you see the subjective rabbit hole that is the Hero’s Journey?

When the writer conflates the function of a Protagonist with the subjective point-of-view that is the Main Character, the basis for the narrative drive of a story is as elusive as subjectivity itself.

One ends up building a story on unstable and continually shifting grounds.

The Solid Foundation of Objectivity

A story begins with the introduction of an inequity. This is not unlike the moment we perceive an injustice in our own lives.

As within our mind.

With this inequity introduced, our minds begin a process of problem-solving to remove or resolve that inequity.

As within a story.

The inequity is introduced. Efforts begin to resolve that inequity. And the story ends when the inequity has ceased to become a source of contention.

The analogy of the story/Mind connection is more than theoretical—in practice, it alleviates troublesome resistance and confusion during the writing process.

Real Life Has No Meaning

The confusion continues with the Hero's Journey approach:

Mustn't Character Z first act a certain way before the Character A can decide whether Z's actions ought to be prevented/stopped? Wouldn't that mean that Z's desire is that which creates a Story Goal?

The initial inequity creates the drive for resolution. The Story Goal signifies the type of resolution needed to restore balance.

Thinking in terms of Character Z or Character A will always lead to endless circular arguments because the focus is on a story as a slice of life, rather than a slice of a single mind.

Throughout our lives, we live many narratives. Hundreds of thousands upon billions of trillions of narratives regularly considered within our minds—then either resolved or justified away.

A slice of life “real person” approach seeks to collapse hundreds of narratives into a single “story.” The mere premise of trying to capture real life results in work with infinite meanings, all projected onto the story by each and every Audience member.

Now, some artists embrace this approach, who want to leave the intention and purpose of a story up to the Audience to fill in the blanks. And for them, a collection of many incomplete narratives is just the prescription.

Consider The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, or any other compendium of short stories. The experience is fun, yet save for one or two outliers, the purpose behind the experience is a complete wash.

Sure, one could ascribe all kinds of meaning to the individual stories, e.g., this must be what it must feel like to be a filmmaker in Hollywood (being tossed off a bridge when you’re no longer useful). But that process is one of projection, a method of completing the Author’s work for him, rather than entertaining a new way of approaching the world.

Appreciating the Meaning of a Story

Our minds can’t help but seek out what a story means. A complete narrative storyform answers the question of meaning by addressing all sides of the Authors intended message. Leaving the purpose of a story open to interpretation leaves the individual mind stuck in the default state of constant consideration, no better off than where it was before the experience of watching or reading.

Audiences want to be told a complete argument. That’s why the majority of films and television shows that receive high critical praise always feature a complete storyform—some even more than one.

Seeing characters as functions within a single human mind is the most accurate way to deliver that complete narrative. Seeing them as part of a single argument working its way through the human mind guarantees the integrity of that narrative.

Characters are not real people with real problems—they are facets of a single mind with one problem.

New class begins January 2022!