One issue I commonly find in scripts I read is a lack of clarity on whose emotional point-of-view the story is being told through. I think that we as writers don’t instinctively realize just how important it is to choose a main character and STAY WITH THEM. I know I didn’t, for a very long time.
By main character, I don’t just mean “most important character” or even “protagonist” – the one who is the central player of the story’s action. I mean that character whose eyes we see the story through. And yes, we NEED such a character, in order to get emotionally invested, and only one of them. Even in a two-hander, like a romantic comedy, where each of the two leads is very central, one of them should be the one we “ride in on” — who we see the other through the emotional perspective of. In PRETTY WOMAN, for example, we’re experiencing what it’s like to be a hooker in a billionaire’s world, not so much what it’s like to be a billionaire with a hooker girlfriend. There are some moments of the latter (I’m thinking of the “dental floss” scene, for example, or when Edward watches Vivian laugh at I LOVE LUCY, or sing in the bathtub), but the person whose PROBLEM WE’RE INVESTED IN is Vivian, by far.
And that is our first job, in any piece of dramatic writing — to get the reader invested in someone’s life situation and growing problem. I said in my last post that most ideas and projects fail at the level of concept. Most pieces of writing fail at the level of making us really understand and care about someone in the first few pages — and then keep us caring. That person who you want us to care about is the main character. The more you cut away to other characters and start to tell things through their point-of-view, the more you’ll limit the reader’s emotional investment and connection. There just isn’t room for two or more people who we experience the story’s events through. (Comment or e-mail me if you want my thoughts on a couple of partial exceptions in two movies I love, JERRY MAGUIRE and THE BIG CHILL.)
I first learned of the distinction between “protagonist” and “main character” from Dramatica, a theory of story (and piece of software for developing and analyzing stories) that I’ve been working with since the beginning of my career. I recently met its co-founder, Chris Huntley, at the Screenwriting Expo and agreed to do a testimonial for him, which I understand will appear (along with an article about my use of Dramatica) in their December 1 e-newsletter. (I can send or post this article if anyone is interested.)
I find myself talking about Dramatica a lot these days with writer clients. After using SAVE THE CAT to clarify concept, genre, and basic beats, the next step is often to get more clear on the main character — who it is, what their personal emotional story is that links with the overall story, and who their “impact character” might be.
“Impact character” is a Dramatica term. The basic tenet to their theory is that a great story tends to have four throughlines: the “objective” story that all the characters care about, which I like to think of as having a central problem and question that won’t be answered until the end — which the writer must be clear about, and which must be developed constantly throughout the script or manuscript. In the “objective” story, there is a “protagonist” and other characters with particular dramatic functions having to do with that story.
One of these characters (usually the protagonist, but not always) is also the “main character” – who we experience the story through the perspective of, as if it were happening to us. So many scripts don’t feel like their events are happening “to us,” and we don’t care enough, because they don’t successfully choose, stick with, and develop this main character point-of-view. Dramatica says that they should have their own “throughline,” a story about their personal arc that has its own beginning, middle and end, that interweaves with the objective story.
In addition, the theory presents two other “throughlines” to make a complete and satisfying story: one is about the “impact character,” and the other is about the relationship between the impact character and main character. The presence of the impact character (who is not the same as the objective story “antagonist,” and is often the love interest) puts pressure on the main character to consider changing in some key way, and vice versa. By the end of the story, one of them will change, and one will not.
Dramatica says that this relationship forces the main character to look past what they think is their problem and solution, to some deeper underlying issue, which gets confronted and resolved in the last act. This doesn’t mean the main character is always the one who “changes” — but they do go through growth and development, as does the impact character (although we don’t experience this through their perspective: we look “at” the impact character, and “through” the main character, emotionally). This relationship accounts for most of the heart and emotional resonance of any story, for the reader, and/or audience.
If you’re interested in knowing more, click here to download a .pdf file of the Dramatica comic book which illustrates their basic theories in a fun way. Or go to their website to read much more, or to order the software.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.