Functions of Character Within Dramatica Theory

Dramatica is a theory of story structure developed by Screenplay Systems in the early 1990’s. The theory is based around the premise that a complete story imitates the problem-solving processes of the human mind.

A cohesive and plausible story examines each possible solution to a character’s problem. This mirrors the way our minds consider numerous answers when tackling a dilemma or conflict.

Dramatica claims characters within a story represent the different possibilities and points of view the human mind will consider when approaching a problem. The theory also goes a step further to suggest a number of archetypal characters, which embody particular thought processes.

In the Dramatica theory, the term ‘character’ refers not to the person (or animal) itself, but to a specific set of dramatic functions that must be acted out in order for the story to represent a complete problem-solving process. This set of dramatic functions determines the nature and personality of the figure representing them. Dramatica terms this figure a player within the story. ‘Player’ refers to the person delivering the action and ‘character’ describes that person’s traits and function within the story.

The Dramatica theory recognises eight character archetypes, each with their own specific functions to fulfil in order to complete the problem solving process of a story. Some of these archetypes are well known amongst writers and others are exclusive to this particular theory.

The first of Dramatica’s archetypal characters is the Protagonist. The best known and straightforward of the eight archetypes, the Protagonist’s role is to achieve the story’s goal. Indeed, the goal of the story is also the goal of the Protagonist. It is important to note that the Protagonist need not necessarily be the main character. The Shawshank Redemption is a great example of this. Though the audience sees the story through the eyes of main character Andy, the Protagonist and driver of the story is actually Morgan Freeman’s character Red.

Directly opposing the Protagonist is the Antagonist. The Antagonist serves the same function within Dramatica as in any other narrative theory: to prevent the Protagonist from reaching his or her goal. When considering a story as a problem-solving process, the Antagonist represents alternative belief systems and conflicting desires.

The Protagonist and Antagonist represent the basic functions of conflict and desire. However, the mind’s problem-solving process includes a number of elements. To fully represent this process, Dramatica includes six other character archetypes. Just as the Protagonist and Antagonist form an opposing pair, the remaining six character functions can also be grouped together.

The first of these pairs includes the character archetypes Reason and Emotion. Reason and Emotion represent different states of mind one might pass through when facing a problem. A Reason character is logical, realistic and calm. Any decisions they make are logical and thoroughly thought through. As a result of this cool level-headedness, Reason characters often appear heartless and lacking humanity. Within a story, this often means the player struggles to garner the support of others and is therefore unable to achieve their goals.

The polar opposite of the Reason character is the archetype of Emotion. Emotion characters are driven by feelings rather than logic. They are often flighty and chaotic players, quick to empathise with others, but also prone to rage. Within a story, Emotion characters are often disorganised and uncontrollable, which means they end up getting nowhere. Reason and Emotion characters represent the age-old consideration of problem solving: to follow one’s head or follow one’s heart. Just as in real life, neither archetype is necessarily better than they other; they simply represent different points of view.

An example of the conflict between Reason and Emotion characters can be seen in Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano. The character of Stewart is overly analytical and unable to express himself, whilst his opposing player Baines is open, emotional and passionate. (The character of Stewart also fulfils the role of the Antagonist in this film, opposing the story goal and the goal of Protagonist Ada McGrath. This duality will be explored later in the article.)

The next of Dramatica’s archetypal pairs is the Sceptic and Sidekick. The function of these two characters is to represent doubt and support within the mind. The Sceptic is of course, the doubter, who is sure a player’s goals will not be met. The Sceptic represents our pessimistic side; that voice in the back of our minds telling us we will never make it. Conversely, the Sidekick is a faithful supporter.

The Sidekick represents our optimistic mindsets that know we are capable of success. Interestingly, within a story, the Sidekick and Sceptic can be attached to either the Protagonist or Antagonist. The Sidekick can support the Protagonist in something as simple as a Batman and Robin-type relationship. They can also wholeheartedly back the goals of the Antagonist, such as Voldemort’s league of supporters in the Harry Potter series.

Dramatica’s final set of character functions is the Guardian and Contagonist. The Guardian character acts as a teacher, or protector for the Protagonist, helping them towards their goal whenever possible. The Guardian represents the human conscience; the part of our mind helping to keep us on the right path as we find a way through our problems. Directly opposite the Guardian is the Contagonist, an archetype exclusive to the Dramatica theory. Whilst the Guardian tries to keep the Protagonist on his or her correct path, the Contagonist strives to lead him or her astray.

The Contagonist represents temptation; an alluring thought trying to lead us in the wrong direction. The Guardian and Contagonist can also be tied to either the Protagonist or Antagonist. In the 2010 Australian film Animal Kingdom, the criminal family of Protagonist Jay can be seen as Contagonists, whilst in James Cameron’s Titanic, the servant Lovejoy acts as the Guardian to Billy Zane’s Antagonist.

These eight character archetypes represent all the elements of a problem-solving mind. However, as any writer will agree, simply giving each player in a story an archetypal function will lead to implausible and unrealistic characters. Archetypal characters are never at odds with themselves, never second-guess themselves and are quite frankly inhuman.

To counter this, yet still include all eight archetypes, Dramatica suggests the use of complex characters; players in which more than one archetype is combined. The above example of the character Stewart in The Piano illustrates the combination of archetypes to create a more human and believable character.

Dramatica’s character archetypes form a solid basis for the creation of players that will drive a story forward to a satisfying conclusion. This somewhat scientific approach can be used in conjunction with a writer’s creativity to structure engaging narratives in all forms of story telling.

  • Does one have to use all character types? And can charatcers fullfill more than one for example an Antagonist can also be a skeptic?

    Mr. JohnMay 21, 2012 1:15 pm

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