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?
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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.