Michael Brown

The Paradise Wars and Clark Ransom Thrillers

Dramatica, Part One

This posting is the first in a series on the tools I use to plan a novel.  I use these to enhance my own creativity and organization, as opposed to Dramaticaimposing someone else’s structure. I think all of these tools can help anyone free themselves from anxieties about their own creativity. And playing with all of them is a lot of fun.

I’m going to begin with a several part series on Dramatica.

Dramatica? I guess the best way to explain it is to start with my understanding of the Dramatica phenomenon.  I say phenomenon because it is not only a software program, but also a theory of story, a new vocabulary to discuss story, and some might even say a cult-like group of enthusiasts.

To give proper credit: I am deeply indebted to  Dramatica Software and to The Dramatica Theory of Story as presented by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley.

Ms. Phillips and Mr. Huntley are in no way responsible for my understanding or lack thereof of such theory.  For the real deal, please go to:




Before coming to Dramatica some ten years ago, I had read many books on the craft of writing: on creating believable characters, on point of view, on structure and plotting.  Yet all I read seemed to discuss the external application of an idea, without considering the work’s internal necessities from which these elements — how characters interact, internal tensions driving to resolve themselves, etc. — derived.  So when I heard about Dramatica as a Theory of Story that explained the human need for fiction and hence how fiction had to be created in order to fulfill that need, I became immediately interested.

A complete story, in the Dramatica Theory, is a reflection of the Human Mind seeking equilibrium when thrown out of balance. A reader, when they pick up a story that begins with an inequity–something in the fictional world is thrown out of balance– seeks equilibrium, a restoration of peace and harmony, and they read on.  If they do not achieve that equilibrium by the end of the story, they are unhappy readers.

So how I’ve come to understand Dramatica, is that to achieve the desired equilibrium in the reader’s mind by the time they finish a story, we first need to figure out what are the elements, the forces, that we need to balance.

We can first take the the basic dichotomy we all experience as humans: the subjective vs. the objective.  We all look at the world with this dual perspective.  We stare out at a vista and we can objectively describe the trees, the houses, the roads, the people walking by. This is our objective view, but simultaneously if it’s sunny we feel one way, if rainy another, if preoccupied by the day ahead, thoughts spin.  This inner concomitant dialogue makes up our subjective view.

Readers need to feel that they are getting both an angle on the objective “truth” of the story–what is really happening apart from any of the character’s subjective points of view–and the reader needs to feel that they are emotionally participating in the journey that the story presents.

In order to achieve this, we  need to classify  characters in two  ways.  Objective characters fulfill functions that the reader observes being fulfilled. ( When they fulfill these functions in classically recognized ways, we call them archetypal: a protagonist whose efforts are bent on achieving the story’s goal, an antagonist who opposes those efforts, a sidekick who supports the protagonist, a guide, who serves as mentor, etc.)

Of course, characters are often more complex than archetypal and the same objective character may be both a sidekick and a guide, as in a good parent to the protagonist who also wants to be best buddies.

The other way to classify characters is subjectively. We have two subjective viewpoints to consider:  the Main Character and an Influence or Impact Character.

When we are inside of a character’s skin and experiencing the search to achieve the story goal through their eyes and skin, we are sharing the Main Character’s subjective experience.

However, for a story to feel complete, we need a subjective experience that counters the Main Character’s: an alternate which has an Impact or Influence on the Main Character and makes him/her question the validity of his/her subjective assumptions.

We shouldn’t confuse these two Subjective roles — Main and Influence/Impact–with the Objective roles of Protagonist and Antagonist. Although the same player can fulfill both objective and subjective functions.

Examples  might help.  In Star Wars, as Luke Skywalker seeks to fulfill the Story’s Goal of defeating the Empire, he acts as Protagonist. Also, since we experience the story through his skin,  he is also the Main Character.

However, although objectively the Empire is the Antagonist, the Empire does not provide the subjective alternate viewpoint that forces change within Luke.  Obi-Wan Kenobi is the Impact/Influence Subjective character.  Our own subjective experience of Star Wars is modified by how Obi-Wan’s interdiction to listen to the Force impacts Luke, and cures his self-doubt, calms his brashness, etc. .

In Star Wars, combining Protagonist and Main Character roles, in the same player–Luke Skywalker–gives us the classic “hero.” However, in the Great Gatsby, these roles are split.  Objectively, Jay Gatsby pursues Daisy Buchanan and is Protagonist, but the Main Character is Nick Carraway. It is through Nick’s skin that we experience the story, and since it is Nick who changes by what Jay Gatsby does, Jay is subjectively the Influence or Impact character.

To summarize, borrowing Dramatica’s analogy:  If as readers we pull back from a battle–as if we have a bird’s eye view (think of the great battle scenes in War and Peace)–and observe the general on the hill watching his and the enemy’s troops, we are objectively viewing the characters and their functions.  We are seeing the objective cast of characters.

If, however, we are suddenly in the midst of battle smelling the smoke, feeling the fear, and from our viewpoint trying to understand this battle, we are now sharing the Main Character’s perspective.  If suddenly out of the smoke an enemy charges us and we must decide to stand or flee,   the enemy is occupying the position of the Impact or Influence character.  With Main and Impact we are most concerned with our subjective reactions to their relationship.

The interactions between objective and subjective functions must be developed and carried throughout the course of a novel for the novel to be fulfilling for the reader.

In our next post we’ll discuss, the first steps we need to undertake to weave the subjective and objective functions throughout the story.

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