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Friday, July 23, 2010

Introduction to Characters

Dramatica Unplugged

by Melanie Anne Phillips
creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

Section 2 - Characters

2.1 Introduction to Characters

Don’t get me started on characters: I could write about them forever. Not surprising, really, since characters are where story structure and humanity converge. It is the magical interface where mind and matter transmute from one to the other as things sometimes become people, and people sometimes become things.

But what really is a character? Well, like most dramatic elements in the world of story structure, it depends on who you ask. Some say characters are just ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Others say characters represent personality types. And, there are those who see characters as archetypes, personifying human ideals or exemplifying quintessential human qualities.

As usual, Dramatica see things a bit differently. First and foremost Dramatica always seeks to separate story structure from storytelling. We can actually separate characters into those two parts:

1. Those that have structural functions

2. Those that do not

To have a structural function, a character must have some impact on the flow of the plot or the growth of another character or even, perhaps, at least contribute to the thematic message.

If you were to take all of those functional characters out of a story, you’d still have a lot of people in it. In movies, they call them “extras”. In television series they are referred to as walk-ons. In books, they are “color”. But mostly they are just “window dressing” to make the story more interesting.

Each of these non-structural characters isn’t really a character at all – not as we define characters in Dramatica. Rather, we refer to them as players. In truth, every player in a story, be it person, place or thing, is capable of becoming a character. All it needs is a job to do that in some way changes the course of the story. Some may have a small impact, others a huge impact. Either way, if the player contributes in any way to the direction the story will take, it has graduated to become a Character.

So in a more refined sense, a character really isn’t a player at all, but rather occupies a player, much as a spirit might possess a body. The body (or tree or car) is simply a host in which the character resides.

That, of course, then raises the question, “If a character isn’t the physical host, what is it?” I’ll tell you.

In a conceptual sense, every story has a mind of its own, as if it were a single person, not an ensemble. This story mind’s psychology is represented as the story’s structure while its personality is presented in the storytelling.

Just as with characters, there is a structural side to stories and a storytelling side. Characters are found in the structure, players are found in the storytelling. And the combination of character with player creates that almost metaphysical marriage of substance and spirit.

Now, if characters are spirits, how can one every hope to define them? Fortunately, it’s not as ethereal as all that. In the story mind, character represent different facets of a single mind’s psychology.

Why this is so is covered way back in the first chapter of this book called, no surprisingly nor inappropriately, “The Story Mind.” In a nutshell (for those of you who skipped ahead to this chapter on characters as many are wont to do), in the course of hundreds of years of storytelling, the very process of communication between author and audience created a framework upon which to hang the ideas and feelings to be shared.

This framework, as a by product of this communion, established conventions upon forms and organizations that served to facilitate an accurate transmission of meaning between the two parties. And these conventions, as it turns out, are a picture of the very fabric of the common psychological elements of our shared humanity.

Hey, I know it sounds both flowery and scientific at the same time, but that’s because it is describing both story structure and storytelling.

Characters, then, appear in the structure and represent facets of our own psychology – facets we all have, though we all employ them in differing degrees and combinations. The Protagonist, for example, represents our initiative, and that is why the Protagonist is the prime mover of the effort to achieve the story’s goal.

The reason stories hold such universal appeal (beyond the simple thrill of the storytelling) is that we see ourselves in them. We see the aspects and processes of our own minds made tangible, incarnate, and can therefore look into ourselves from the outside and gain a much more objective sense of how we should feel and act in the situations explored by the story.

That characters are common facets of each of our own minds is the quality of story structure that gave rise to the concept of archetypes. But prior to Dramatica, story structure was generally not separated from storytelling and so each of the well-known archetypes (such as those proposed by Jung and later Campbell) are part facet and part expression of that facet; part character and part player.

When we split a character's function apart from its personality, we can far more clearly see what each part contains and how each works.

And so, armed with this basic understanding of the nature of the beast, we are ready to divide some common archetypes into their component parts to learn what makes them tick.

Based on the Dramatica Unplugged Video Program
(click for details)