What Makes A Great Hero? – Flawed Saviors

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A few weeks ago we took a look at what makes a great villain. That seemed to be a fruitful discussion and since I’m still slightly traumatized from my bad movie series, why not look a what makes a great hero?

While it’s usually the villain that steals the limelight, great stories require a great hero. Not necessarily an unbeatable incredible awesome hero, but some kind of relatable figure with generous amounts of goodwill and personality. Unlike the villain, the hero is person in the story that the audience is supposed to sympathize and agree with. The hero is our window to the world of the story. You are supposed to like them. On some level, you actually wouldn’t mind being them.

However nobody likes always successful, always happy, always perfect people. They are annoying. They bug us with their immaculately cleaned toilets and wrinkle-free clothing. And we know that deep down nobody can be thatperfect. They might hide their flaws with precise, but we know they’re there somewhere.

Thus when it comes to a hero of a story, we want someone flawed. Deeply flawed. We want them to have struggles (because we have struggles and so they should too). Ultimately we want them to succeed but we think it should be a constant challenge. Life is full of constant challenges so naturally we expect the same for a hero. And oddly enough, through seeing them overcome constant challenges we grow to like them even more.

A good hero must have a personal obstacle, some overarching problem that humanizes them and creates sympathy for the character inside the audience. There are really only three main sources of the hero’s obstacle that I can think of:

  • a personal vice
  • alienation
  • unwillingness to be a hero
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    Vice is a moral problem. Alienation is a circumstantial problem. Unwillingness is an internal problem. Usually a hero majors in one of these obstacles. Effectively these different problems humanize the hero and lets us in to their personal journey via the universal experiences of trial and temptation.

    From these three kinds of obstacles emerge three hero archetypes:

  • The Cocky Hero has some kind of vice that prevents them from being wholly ethical or socially acceptable.
  • The Solitary Hero is alienated from those around them for reasons beyond their control
  • The Unwilling Hero does not want to be a hero and is defined by their personal struggle to take up a hero’s mantle.
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    A good hero should fall into one of these categories and really own it. I suppose you could have a cocky solitary unwilling hero, but I doubt they would still qualify as a hero and end up being more an anti-hero. A hero might have multiple issues yet should always focus on one tangible problem at a time. After all, in our own lives we find it hard to tackle more than one major problem at a time.

    Let’s look at some examples.

    The Cocky Hero

    The Cocky Hero carries around an easily detectable flaw. Like in real life, most of the time this flaw cannot be completely erased but only minimized and ultimately compensated for by other virtues. Even though they have good intentions, they are often willing to do ignoble things along the way. The audience may root for them to succeed yet at the same time consider themselves morally above them. A major challenge for the Cocky Hero is too overcome their personal flaws in order to complete their sacred heroic task.

    James Bond

    Obstacle: detachment

    007 is the classic Cocky Hero. He’s arrogant, unconcerned with what his superiors’ think of him, and good at his job. He is Britain’s best spy and he always finishes his mission. But he has a vice: he’s emotionally detached. Bond uses women like toys and although its presented as hyper-masculine spy mojo, few people would really want to live a life of empty one night stands and total interpersonal detachment. Despite his prowess with a gun, Bond is made partially inhuman by his inability to connect deeply with or commit to women.

    James T. Kirk

    Obstacle: risk-taking

    In 2009 J.J. Abrams introduced us to a total revamp of the iconic Captain Kirk. Like Bond, he sleeps around with women but his deeper character flaw is risk-taking. Kirk trusts his gut over sound logic, doesn’t care about Starfleet regulation, and leaps headfirst into situations that put himself and his crew in grave danger. Although we admire his confidence and resourcefulness, his unnecessary brashness proves him to be seriously flawed human being along with the rest of us.

    Korra

    Obstacle: impatience

    The Legend of Korra is an amazing television show anchored by its chipper teenage Avatar-in-training. She is strong-willed and eager to use her powers on behalf of others. It is clear that Korra is both courageous and compassionate. Yet she is held back by a singular character flaw: impatience. Korra tends to rush into battle before she’s fully ready or even knows what she’s getting into. Instead of remaining diligent and devoted to learning air-bending, she takes on life-threatening challenges before she is ready.

    Tony Stark

    Obstacle: self-reliance

    Tony Stark is highly intelligent, charismatic, and surprisingly ethical in his use of his Iron Man suit. Frequently he is willing to lay his life down for others, the mark of a true hero. However in public he makes clear that of unique intelligence and prides himself above all. Underneath all that hubris, his real issue is self-reliance. Tony believes only he can handle the world’s threats and takes offense at anyone who tries to help him. In other words, he doesn’t play well with others.

    This brand of hero must work on overcoming their vice. If they refuse to change, they become a sort of self-parody eventually. Bond must get out of his hotel bed and get back to work. Kirk must take more measured risks. Korra must learn to have more patience. Tony must compromise and work alongside others.

    Since the Cocky Hero tends to be the most immoral or unsympathetic of the archetypes, it helps if they are really good at other things like saving innocent civilians or water-bending or hand-to-hand combat. Even if we don’t admire their personality at least we can admire their skill and the dedication required to learn that skill. If the hero has to be a jerk, at least let them do important heroic things (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern).

    The Solitary Hero

    The Solitary Hero’s obstacle does not come from a personal vice like the Cocky Hero but rather from an external reality that divides them from the people they love. This alienating force is something the Solitary Hero must live with against their will with little hope of having it removed. They may never get to live a normal life so they must make the best of what they have.

    When this hero archetype is called to action, they usually arrive with a strong level of intensity that others heroes tend to lack. Because they are already isolated from those closest to them, they have less to lose. Often their heroic acts grant them the solace and purpose they were looking for all along.

    Logan

    Obstacle: attachment

    The Wolverine is a tragic figure, able to completely heal from any wound yet unable to form lasting attachments with those around him. His long lifespan not only causes him to outlive everyone he love/s but also forces him to carry around the memories of violence and war from his past. It is no accident that Logan is often found in the wilderness apart from the rest of the X-Men and that he is such a volatile force to reckon with.

    The Hulk

    Obstacle: self-control

    Bruce Banner’s isolation does not stem from attachment but from self-control. Unable to control his transformations and the brutal rage of his alter ego, he must separate himself from others for their own safety. Even after learning to master his emotions, Banner can never really be sure if he can fully tame the mighty Hulk inside of him. When the beast explodes, Banner is helpless to protect people from himself.

    Batman

    Obstacle: identity

    After surviving a traumatic childhood, adult Bruce Wayne rejects his billionaire identity and dons the Batsuit. Effectively Bruce dies and Batman is born. Batman is the real Bruce while Bruce becomes his true mask. This personality split makes it impossible for Bruce to live a normal life or maintain authentic relationships. Fighting crime ultimately consumes Bruce’s entire identity.

    Superman

    Obstacle: belonging

    The last known survivor of his planet, Kal-El is a man apart. Despite being near indestructible and having the power of flight, Superman can never fully belong with the humans he protects. He is alien. He is an orphan. These truths separate him from the rest of us and make his full integration into society nearly impossible.

    Since they are effectively on their own, Solitary Heroes are usually quite capable of handling things by themselves. Logan has adamantium claws. Hulk is an unstoppable juggernaut. Batman is a stealthy ninja. Superman can bend steel. Although they are clothed with immense power, these heroes still lack one of the most basic of human needs: deep loving connections to other people.

    Balancing their need for social connection against their need to use their unique station in life for the greater good, Solitary Heroes are them most tragic of the bunch. Their happiness will always be limited by a constant external reminder that they are, to some degree, all alone.

    The Unwilling Hero

    Unwilling Heroes are distinguished by the fact that they don’t want to be heroes or at the very least are not ready to do what it takes to become one. Their reluctance keeps them from fulfilling the heroic task required of them. Since we as the audience have all sorts of things we don’t want to do, we can easily relate to a hero who suffers from the same dilemma.

    Ideally the Unwilling Hero should still have some admirable qualities about them. They may not want to be a hero, but they should be worthy in other ways. If they are both unwilling and unlikeable, that’s a problem. They just need some time but the seeds of heroism should already have started to sprout and manifest themselves in smaller ways.

    Neo

    Obstacle: confidence

    Despite gaining the faith and trust of Morpheus, Neo doesn’t feel like a hero. He doesn’t see any evidence that he is the One that was prophesied. The Oracle doesn’t give him much reassurance either. He has no confidence in himself yet through his devotion to Morpheus and timely courage, he finally proves himself the hero he never thought he was.

    Frodo Baggins

    Obstacle: physical strength

    As the only volunteer to carry the One Ring into Mordor, Frodo becomes the de facto guardian of Middle Earth. However he is hobbit, small in size and inexperienced in combat. He is physically too weak to even make the arduous journey. But as the Fellowship crumbles, his moral resolve allows him to push through his physical limitations toward his destination.

    Katniss Everdeen

    Obstacle: power

    Katniss is at the mercy of a corrupt regime, forced to fight for her life. She has no control over her situation and yet refuses to kill other tributes except in the case of self-defense. She is powerless to change her situation. By choosing to maintain an ethical stand in spite of her lethal environment, Katniss manages to emerge the deadly Hunger Games as a national hero and a symbol of a mounting resistance.

    Luke Skywalker

    Obstacle: training

    Luke is not interested in joining Obi-Wan and taking up his father’s lightsaber. After his family’s murder, he finally does decide to join him but he is over eager to enter the fight. Obi-Wan reminds Luke that he is no Jedi. Impatient to complete his training, Luke is not prepared to fully learn the ways of the Force and thus stands no chance against Darth Vader. It takes him two whole movies before he is finally ready to be the hero that he needs to be.

    Just because Unwilling Heroes are unwilling does not mean that they can put off their responsibility forever. Even if the situation is beyond their control they do not stand around and do nothing. Perhaps they try to find another way to solve their problem, like Luke becoming a pilot instead of a Jedi or Neo entering the Matrix for a quick rescue. Despite their aversion to being heroes eventually their circumstances, experience, and inner qualities collude to transform them into great heroes.

    Flawed Saviors

    Heroes of all kinds must be relatable and giving them an obvious flaw is the fastest and best way to do that. However they also have to be likable. If a hero has too many flaws, they become unpleasant. If a hero’s flaws are too cliche, they become bland. Ultimately a good hero needs to have a consistent personality that is also balanced by their unique flaws and limitations as well as personal growth.

    We should like heroes and admire them on one level, but yet also be aware of their flaws. We should see them as equal to us in human failing and weakness. In some cases, we might even see ourselves as morally superior. Hey if I treat people better than Bond or Batman, that makes me feel pretty good, right?

    But lest we forget, a hero must not exist as a theoretical possibility or live in the realm of good intentions. They must vanquish evil and save other humans. At the very least they must actively care about others and work toward their wellbeing.

    A hero absolutely cannot be idle, even if they are wrongheaded and misguided at times. What they do defines them. Not a cape or a reputation or an idea, but their actual behavior. Their actual deeds. We will forgive a multitude of crimes and misdemeanors for a hero who is simply willing to act.

    In part two, we’ll look at the other half of a great hero: great character motivation.

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    Evaluating the Importance of Influence Characters

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    Everyone intuitively gets that a story has a main character, but what often gets overlooked is a special little story element known as the Influence Character. In contrast to the Main Character, the Influence Character is not the lens through which the audience experiences the story. Instead, the Influence Character challenges and prods the Main Character to consider another path, thereby also forcing the audience to rethink their point of view. The tension between these two characters creates much of story’s overall dramatic tension.

    In Dramatica theory (an overly complicated but sometimes useful narrative framework) this secondary character, the Influence Character, provides an opposing alternative worldview from that of the main character. Through the interactions between the Main character and the Influence character, the story is allowed to develop and exercise its major themes. It is the influence character who forces the main character to grow and even change course, creating the gut-punching drama needed for a great story.

    One familiar example given in the book is Star Wars.

    Star Wars: The Story of Two Methods

    The overall story of Star Wars is the rebels trying to topple the evil Empire. The main character story is Luke’s personal journey to become a Jedi and fight the empire. The influence character is Obi-Wan Kenobi, a wisened Jedi, who pushes Luke to learn the ways of the force.

    Luke wants to do something with his life: get off dust-covered Tatooine bowl and join the Rebel Alliance. He is young and headstrong, wanting to become a Jedi quickly so he can fight. Kenobi is a retired Jedi, wanting Luke to complete his training but also wanting Luke to slow down and invest the years of quiet meditation and self-restraint it takes to become a Jedi. Although they both have the same goal (stopping Vader and overthrowing the Empire) their relationship exhibits two possible means of getting there: brash enthusiasm or slow deliberate preparation. Over the course of the movie, Kenobi tempers Luke’s eagerness through his constant reminders that defeating Vader will require acquiring the patience and persistence needed to wield the Force.

    The Influence Character model works pretty well with Star Wars, but does it hold up with other stories? I can’t really say. And speaking of Star Wars, the Luke-Kenobi relationship is only a small fraction of the great drama of the movie. Is Kenobi really that unique and special of an influence character? That’s a tough question to answer.

    What other movies out there can help us test this concept of the influence character? Any movie that has two central characters who are at odds with one another but forced to work together is a probably a good candidate. Some examples that come to mind are Toy Story (Woody and Buzz), Star Trek 2009 (Kirk and Spock), and The Matrix (Neo and Morpheus).

    Toy Story: The Story of Two Attitudes

    Woody, our main character, wants to be Andy’s favorite toy believing himself both special and the de facto leader of the rest of the toys. The arrival of Buzz Lightyear, a naive but loyal space ranger, upsets Woody’s world. Woody believes that Andy has a special connection to his cowboy and is happiest when playing with him. Buzz innocuously replaces Woody as Andy’s favorite, simply letting Andy make his own decisions and playing along.

    In his jealousy Woody does the unthinkable, pushing Buzz out the window and accidentally stranding himself as well. For the rest of the film Woody and Buzz learn that they share the same goal of making Andy happy and fulfilling their duty as faithful toys. In their adventures outside the house the two learn from each other and eventually forge a deep friendship and mutual respect in spite of their different approaches. Ultimately Woody changes through the influence of Buzz and decides to focus on being the best possible toy for Andy even if that means he is no longer the favorite.

    This works well with the influence character theory. Woody and Buzz, who both share the mission of making their owner Andy happy, disagree on the method and yet manage to become friends and learn from one another in the process.

    Star Trek (2009): The Story of Two Approaches

    The central relationship of Star Trek is eerily similar to Toy Story. Kirk is an arrogant emotion-driven cadet while Spock is a calculating logic-driven commander. Both are the best Starfleet has to offer but their vastly different approaches lead them to butt heads almost immediately. When a decisive crisis befalls them, the pair spar openly. The human goes with his gut, the Vulcan sticks to his rational assessment. Officially in charge, Spock ejects Kirk from the Enterprise leaving Kirk to find his way back to ship. This is great drama, two beloved fan-favorite colleagues forced into a situation where they cannot get along.

    When Kirk finally gets back on the ship, he manages to tap into Spock’s inner emotional turmoil thus proving that underneath the Vulcan’s stoic demeanor lies the same primal instincts that make Kirk such an effective captain. Ultimately Spock rejects this approach but gains a new appreciation for Kirk’s innate leadership and decides to defer to his moral authority. This relationship is expanded further in Star Trek Into Darkness.

    In this story, the Nero threat and destruction of planet Vulcan are all just background stuff, an excuse to test the bonds between these two dissimilar characters who play off each other so well but just don’t know it yet.

    The Matrix: The Story of Two Worldviews

    Neo, our Main Character, has his life changed forever when he meets a mysterious man named Morpheus. Under his influence, Neo decides to leave the Matrix and discovers a new reality he could never have imagined. However Morpheus is convinced that Neo is the One (an anagram for Neo) while Neo is certain that he is just an ordinary guy, not at all what Morpheus is looking for. Morpheus is defined by his faith in the One. In contrast, Neo is defined by personal experience and the self-knowledge that he is really quite ordinary. Their two incompatible worldviews form the central dramatic relationship of the movie.

    This all comes to a climax when Neo, still not believing himself the One, goes back into the Matrix to rescue Morpheus from certain death, thus becoming the One he never thought he would be.

    Those three examples fit the bill nicely, but I’m concerned that the Influence Character is not easily producible. What about movies that aren’t focused on two buddy characters? One examples that come to mind are The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

    The Hobbit: The Story of Two Influence Characters

    Clearly the Main Character in this story is Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit. But who is the Influence Character? The two obvious ones are Gandalf and Thorin, but both seem to represent opposite views and have quite a different relationship with the young hobbit. For the first hour of the movie, Bilbo’s struggle is that he does not belong out in the wild on adventures and such. He firmly believes himself a homebody. Through Gandalf’s influence and prodding, finally Bilbo takes a chance by signing the contract and joining the company of dwarves.

    For the first section of the movie, the influence character is clearly Gandalf. The playful relationship between hobbit and wizard is really all about convincing Bilbo to leave home behind and go on the adventure. It is Gandalf who brings down the domestic destruction upon the hobbit hole, inviting ravenous dwarves in to pillage the pantry and scuff up his home. However once Bilbo accepts Gandalf’s charge the Influence Character almost immediately switches to Thorin, the friction between Bilbo and Gandalf having been resolved.

    Thorin interestingly now plays on Bilbo’s hesitation at joining in the first place. Bilbo never wanted to leave home, took a concerted risk in coming, and now must deal with Thorin’s constant reminders of his inadequate preparation for the quest at hand. This new Influence Character seems to confirms Bilbo’s greatest fears: he never should have come. The rest of the movie deals with the relationship between hobbit and dwarf-king as they work to resolve their irreconcilable attitudes on Bilbo’s place in the company.

    An Unexpected Journey seems to employ two different Influence Characters, Gandalf and Thorin, at different times to great effect. (Notice how at the end of the movie Gandalf and Bilbo’s relationship remains unchanged since leaving the shire. Perhaps it’s best to never have two Influence Characters both active at once.)

    Traditional Approach vs. Non-Traditional Approach

    Many stories will have clear and straightforward Influence Characters as in the movies we discussed above. They fit the bill perfectly, and the relationship between the Main Character and the Influence Character becomes the central emotional axis of the entire story. Some examples of traditional influence characters in movies:

    Skyfall: M influences Bond to serve his country

    Oblivion: Victoria influences Jack Harper to stay home

    Revenge of the Sith: Obi-Wan influences Anakin to resist the dark side

    Inception: Ariadne influences Cobb to confront his inner demons

    The Amazing Spider-Man: Captain Stacy influences Peter to weigh the illegal actions of Spider-Man

    The Dark Knight Rises: Bane influences Bruce to give up hope for Gotham

    The Dark Knight: The Joker influences Batman to reject his ethical restraints

    Avatar: Neytiri influences Jake to fully embrace Navi’i culture

    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Clementine influences Joel by erasing her memories of their relationship.

    The Sixth Sense: Cole influences Dr. Malcolm to believe in ghosts.

    Back to the Future: Doc Brown influences Marty to fix the timeline.

    Those are traditional examples of the Influence Character at work. But what about movies that don’t work quite as well?

    Iron Man 3: Is it Harley or Pepper or the Mandarin, I don’t know. The best candidate is probably the Mandarin but it’s a little unclear since their interactions are limited. More likely is that the functions of the influence character are split up between those three characters each representing an opposite worldview from Tony in different areas. The Mandarin influences Tony’s approach to military stuff, Pepper influences his approach to relationships, and the kid Harley influences his approach to dealing with his psychological wounds.

    Contagion: The real main character of Contagion is the disease itself. It evolves throughout the film following a typical character arc. The epidemiologists influence the disease by searching for a cure.

    Pacific Rim: Pentecost influences Raleigh to fight dispassionately, Mako influences Raleigh to fight passionately. Two influence characters who both influence Raleigh to fight.

    Jurassic Park: The rampaging dinosaurs influence the humans by exposing their hubris.

    The Avengers: Nick Fury influences the Avengers to assemble.

    Lincoln: No idea who the influence character is, perhaps Mary Todd or even the entrenched idea of slavery itself.

    Man of Steel: Jor-El influences Kal-El to inspire humanity, Pa Kent influences Clark to conceal his identity, General Zod influences Kal-El to reveal himself. Lois and Martha Kent do stuff too. That’s a lot of Influence Characters and perhaps one explanation for its poor critical reception.

    So What Did We Learn?

    Some movies fit the model perfectly. Other movies are a bit harder to cram into the model. However even the ones that fit quite well also have a lot of other things going on in the movie: tertiary characters, subplots, external forces that come from outside the Influence Character relationships, and more.

    I don’t think the Influence Character is absolutely necessary for every story. Obviously you could create a working story without one single character who represents a diametrically opposite view from the main character. However when it works, it does seem to work pretty well. Movies that mishandle the resolution of the Influence Character relationship tend to suffer as a result (e.g. Bane in the Dark Knight Rises or Superman’s dads in Man of Steel).

    A lot of stories have what appear to be multiple Influence Characters broken up to represent different aspects of the Main Character’s worldview. That appears to be okay as long as you follow through correctly, but it seems much more difficult to pull off.

    Some other observations that we didn’t have time for but deserve to be mentioned:

    • Many superhero movies tend to fall into the trap of relying only on the villain for the influence character when they could be exploring the interesting counter-perspectives of other characters.
    • Romantic movies usually feature the two lovers who serve as Main and Influence Characters respectively.
    • Buddy films about two unlikely partners or friends are the same way.
    • Stories that tend to happen in the mind of one person or that are about a person wrestling with their own opinions could potentially have the same person be both main character and influence character ala Fight Club.
    • This is just a jumping in point to the the concept of the Influence Character. I’m sure some of the Dramatica people and other narrative experts have much better things to say.

    Bottom line: The Influence Character is a useful tool in telling stories but not a hard and fast rule that every story must obey. You would be wise to implement a well-defined Influence Character (or some other outside force) that provides a strong counter-perspective for the main character in your story. If you are going to have multiple Influence Characters, make sure they have a clear analog in a different aspect of the Main Character’s worldview (as in Iron Man 3).

    Now’s it your turn to help me in the comments:

    • What other Influence Characters do you recognize from film, tv, or books?
    • Are there any movies that have NO Influence Character whatsoever?
    • How would you explain the Influence Character(s) of a complicated multi-part narrative like The Lord of the Rings?

    Coming Up Next on Story Punch!

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    One way in which I hope to differentiate Story Punch from the multitude of other movie and storytelling blogs out there is through sheer brute force. In other words, by featuring long form articles that present a fuller perspective than a quick 500 word movie review can normally provide. It’s called film analysis, baby!

    However this comes with a catch. Longer articles require more time to write, proofread, and edit. This means some articles are going to be in the crockpot for a while. Don’t worry, I’m still planning on getting new stuff up every week but the long meaty stuff is going to have to brew for a bit.

    Just to give a little sneak peak of what I have in store for this month, here’s what I’m currently working on:

    A Universal Theory of Bad Movies

    What makes bad movies worse than the average movie? What special qualities do they possess that the rest don’t? It’s pretty simple really. The answer will be revealed in this groundbreaking earthshattering worldrattling mega-article.

    The One-Word Themes of Christopher Nolan

    Christopher Nolan is a talented filmmaker who has won critical acceptance, popular acclaim, and box office gold. Each of his recent films seem to revolve around a one-word theme, usually some primal human emotion with a negative consequence. Let’s explore Nolan’s dark protagonists and their films’ corresponding themes.

    Evaluating the Importance of Influence Characters

    Dramatica theory claims that the main character of any fully formed story requires a dynamic relationship with an important influence character. This secondary character represents the opposite of the main character’s worldview and through their relationship the story develops its major themes. What are influence characters? Are they really out there? We’ll go through many recent and popular examples in copious detail.

    What Is A Story Punch? A Definitive Explanation

    I’ve alluded to the title of this blog a little bit, but what exactly is a Story Punch? Why would you name a blog after it? We’ve been covering a lot of movies since they are readily accessible but it’s about time to go deeper into the storytelling principles that this blog hopes to explore. Movies are just one launchpad for learning to tell better stories.

    Stay Tuned

    So that’s what is coming up next. Leave a comment or suggestion for any of these upcoming articles or perhaps an idea you would be interested in hearing about. Thanks for reading!

    Are Stories Arbitrary?

    Are stories arbitrary?

    There are no objective stories. There are available facts, pre-processed within the particular context they were first learned and all but impossible to fully divorce from the stories in which they were initially found. The same set of facts can be arranged to create many different competing stories, each arguing for interpretive supremacy over the situation.

    How does one then come to terms with this unseemly flexibility of storymaking? Is it fundamentally dishonest to assign any one comprehensive grid of meaning to naked facts at hand? If stories can dress them up any way they want, facts don’t stand a chance.

    Ambiguity of meaning need not be totally paralyzing to our ability to tell meaningful stories. Meaning is not so much created by our sheer skills of interpretation as much as recognized. It is much more work to force a story to lie against its own observable data than it is to let it speak the obvious truth. Any lawyer in court would rather represent an innocent man with a clean alibi than to strenuously reinterpret and spin the evidence on behalf of a conspicuous murderer. Stories can lie, but not easily or without sincere effort.

    Assigning meaning to the facts of a story is not to whitewash the canvas for sake of convenience. Just as a painter draws from his palette of colors, selecting which shades and tones to feature and ignoring others for the purpose of clarity, the storyteller must choose which facts form the essential spine of their story. Just as the resulting painting portrays its chosen subject with exactness and unity from only a few of the near infinity colors available, the story must be both highly selective and intelligently focused. Extraneous irrelevant details are detours that the medium of story cannot afford. When the painter is finished, anyone can look at the finished work to see if it accurately reflects the object of its focus. A painting of China by someone who has never seen or known China will not impress China upon its viewers. A story comprised of facts twisted and coerced against their nature into service of an unfamiliar meaning will not remain effective, at least not for very long.

    The non-arbitrary meaning of story is discovered, not made from crude manipulation. False meanings usually ring false, lacking the intended inspiration for which their creators had hoped. True meanings ring true, carrying with them a powerful agent of change. This is usually evidenced by the storyteller. It is an aura they carry around them. They sincerely believe in the meaning and they sincerely believe it is not merely their self-imposed interpretation. Of course, that does that prove it to be so, but it is a place from which to start.

    Dramatica Doesn’t Make Sense To Me, But I Wish It Did

    I got pretty frustrated today, almost to the point of crying.

    It was over something quite silly, but important to me nonetheless.

    The last few days I’ve been trying to understand this Theory of Story called Dramatica. I really started to get into it and see how different characters blend different archetypes and how every story can be understood in terms of its specific thematic components blah blah blah.

    Anyway I was really hoping that by understanding Dramatica I would have the tools to assess and restructure any story. However last night I hit a huge wall and so far have not been able to get through it. The theory is just too dense, too undercommunicated, too stricken of helpful examples.

    I can’t get my my head around it.

    The main problem is the presentation of the “chessboard”, a huge three dimensional grid with interlocking components not unlike a Rubix Cube. There end up being 64 “elements” that intertwine with the 4 different main story threads and it doesn’t make any sense without pre-knowledge of how it all works together.

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    In order to get Dramatica, you have to essentially memorize these 64 elements (plus the top level layers) which don’t always mean what you would assume they do.

    People claim it takes years to master this theory. Supposedly it is versatile enough to describe every possible story by boiling stories down to their most generic parts. It could be good/useful/significant if it weren’t so ethereal to pin down. Perhaps where it shines the most is its ability to identify weak story structure and make suggestions on how to fix it.

    Sadly there’s too much good in the theory to completely write it off, but too much complexity to know whether it’s truly worth “years” of investment. Plus, I’ve read the book so what is there left but for me to keep re-reading it in the hopes of getting it next time?

    What I could really need is better examples to explain the confusing terminology, a better understanding of how all the puzzle pieces of theory fit together, and more working films/stories actually explained by the theory without having to scour the humungous Dramatica dictionary.

    It’s a beautiful theory overshadowed by needless confusion and complexity. Maybe my breakthrough will come in time or maybe not. Surely Dramatica has a perfect little box to describe my ambivalence.