The Story Mind: Why Does This Character Belong In This Story?

When I started planning the first Metamor City novel, Making the Cut, I had just recently discovered a theory of storytelling called Dramatica Theory. This theory would come to play a huge role in the way I think about characters and their place in a story.

According to Dramatica Theory, a complete story is an externalized version of the thought process that humans use when we are confronted with a difficult problem. The Main Character of the story has a way of looking at the world that is tested when they are confronted with an alternative point of view; the Impact Character is the individual who gives voice to that alternative view. The Main Character must decide whether to remain steadfast on the path they were following, or change course and adopt the Impact Character’s new perspective. Whether the story has a happy ending or not depends on whether, in the view of the author, the Main Character made the right choice.

While the Main Character and the Impact Character represent the central internal struggle of the story, there is also an external struggle, a goal that characters are attempting to achieve. The Main Character is one of the characters involved in this external plot, and embodies a specific approach to that goal. (Often the Main Character is the Protagonist, the person attempting to achieve the external goal, but this is not always the case.) The Impact Character fills one of these external roles, as well. The other characters also embody different aspects of the Story Mind, the impulses and approaches that we use when we are grappling with a dilemma. Each character serves to give voice to one of these different perspectives, so that the Story Mind eventually has looked at the problem from all sides. You can read more about this on Dramatica’s website, if you’re interested.

In Making the Cut I used Dramatica Theory to build the cast of characters that I would need to ensure that I had a well-rounded story. In point of fact, the novel contains two stories: the story of Brian Sommers, who is favored by the Collective but has to prove his continuing loyalty by fighting the vampires, and Daniel Sharabi, who is disfavored by the Collective and attempts to abandon it and make a life for himself. These two stories interweave throughout the course of the novel, but each of them has its own set of characters embodying the motivations of the Story Mind (sometimes the same characters in both stories, sometimes not). Let’s take a look at Brian’s story and see how the characters fulfill the different motivations of the Story Mind.

“Driver” Characters:

These are the characters who are most directly involved in the external plot of the story. They represent actions moving toward or away from solving the problem that the story embodies.

Protagonist: “Let’s make this happen.” The one who advances toward the goal and rallies the other characters to pursue it. In this story, of course, the Protagonist is Brian, the leader of the cell and the one who ultimately decides on each course of action they take. The Protagonist embodies the mind’s drive to engage with the problem proactively.

Antagonist: “Are you sure you want to do that?” The character trying to stop the Protagonist’s goal from being achieved. Malcolm ard’Valos and William Westerson together fulfill this role. The Antagonist embodies the mind’s impulse to avoid dealing with the problem, to reconsider the path being taken, or to prevent the problem from being solved for self-serving reasons.

Guardian: “Let me make this easier for you.” A support character who advises and counsels the Protagonist and removes barriers and impediments to his success. Brian’s Guardian in this story is Miriam Bakhtavar, who obtains the equipment and connections that he needs in order to carry out his mission. The Guardian embodies the drive to mentor others, to prepare the next generation to take their place as the world’s problem-solvers.

Contagonist: “Forget all this and come away with me.” An innovation of Dramatica Theory, the Contagonist is a kind of anti-Guardian: a character who puts up obstacles, hindrances and/or temptations in the path of the Protagonist. In Brian’s story this role is played by Braddock, who hinders Brian’s mission by taking Miriam out of her support role. The Contagonist represents the distractions and temptations within the mind: procrastination, over-indulgence, and other forms of side-tracking that keep us from being effective in facing our problems.

“Passenger” Characters:

These are characters who do not make major decisions that drive the action, but who provide different perspectives and suggest alternate courses of action. While the driver characters represent actions moving toward or away from solving the problem, the passenger characters represent the mental chatter that goes on in our heads while we are taking those actions.

Sidekick: “Yes, we can!” The Sidekick represents Faith and Support within the Story Mind. Often the Protagonist’s closest ally, the Sidekick represents the belief that everything will work out for the best, and acts to rally the troops to the Protagonist’s side. In Brian’s story, this role is played by Sasha. It’s not an accident that Sasha is the only openly religious member of the team; her faith in God mirrors her faith in her comrades. Sasha supports her family’s efforts even when she doesn’t agree with them, as when she goes out of her way to help Rebecca rescue Daniel.

Skeptic: “Who are you kidding?” The Skeptic is the cynical voice within the Story Mind; he or she points out the flaws in the Protagonist’s plans, the reasons why this or that approach won’t work, and sometimes questions even the Protagonist’s motives. For Brian, the Skeptic is Callie Linder, who stands outside the Collective structure and has a lot more experience with the underworld in which Brian and his cell are now trying to operate.

Logic: “Let’s stop and think about this.” The Logic character represents Reason and Self-Control — the part of the Story Mind that tries to look at things from a dispassionate and pragmatic perspective. Naturally, this is Fiona. (Fiona’s own brokenness, and her path to healing, encompass a subplot that is separate from her role in the Story Mind of Brian’s arc.)

Emotion: “ALL THE FEEELZ!” The Emotion character is Logic’s polar opposite, all Uncontrolled Feelings. Rebecca, who swings wildly between extremes of joy and grief, is the Emotion character in this story. The fact that Rebecca cannot control her own psi-power is a deliberate reflection of the generally uncontrolled nature of her psyche. Even when she turns proactive, going after Daniel in an attempt to save him from his own decisions, Rebecca’s efforts are disorganized and poorly planned, lacking the Reason and Self-Control that Fiona would have brought to the enterprise.

There are many other dimensions to Dramatica Theory, and it can certainly be worthwhile to study them as you get deeper into studying how storytelling works. If you’re new to Dramatica, though, these eight Motivation Archetypes are a great place to get started, especially if you’re still trying to figure out your cast of characters. If you’re not sure where a character fits in your story, think about these eight roles. If a character isn’t filling a role in the Story Mind, or if he’s filling a role that is also filled by another character, you may have a redundant cast member. If one of these eight roles isn’t represented by anyone, you potentially have a hole in your story’s argument.

In future posts I’ll look at some other tools for fleshing out your characters, taking them beyond archetypes and making them more human and more interesting.

Posted by chriswlester