Character-Based Outlining Using Dramatica



Vision 15


Character-Based Outlining Using Dramatica


Jennifer Dunne

Copyright © 2003, Jennifer Dunne, All Rights Reserved


Dramatica is a comprehensive, all-encompassing program for story analysis and story creation. Supporters of the program think the multitude of options and analytical functions makes it robust enough to be useful in real-world writing applications. Detractors claim it is too confusing and allows would-be writers to spend their time making charts about their story without ever needing to actually write the prose.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. Yes, the program in its entirety is confusing, but writers can use small subsets of its functions to enhance their fiction. Once those subsets are mastered, the writers can move on to more advanced features.

The simplest and most straightforward of Dramatica's principles is the assignment of archetypal character traits to your story's characters. The writer then uses the inherent conflict between those types to power the story's movement, adding depth and complexity to what might otherwise be a straightforward plot.

The first book I ever plotted with Dramatica was my fantasy novel Shadow Prince. It has since gone on to win a number of awards, and I've always thought the underlying structure provided by Dramatica was one of the reasons for its success.

Prior to Shadow Prince, I'd written a number of romances according to the genre rules I'd internalized after a lifetime of reading them. But internalized genre rules were no help when writing a fantasy, because I floundered when I got to the rule that went something on the order of, "The party travels across the countryside, having a series of fantastic adventures." How could I choose adventures that would build to my ultimate showdown between the forces of good and evil, rather than sounding like a fantasy version of "The Perils of Pauline"? My answer was to turn to Dramatica.

The eight archetypes used by Dramatica are divided into the big four and the little four. Each of the big four will have a single character (or group of characters) associated with it. These archetypes are mutually exclusive. The little four may be associated with some of the same characters as the big four, as facets of their personalities, or may be associated with new characters, as their defining character traits. The same character may have two different archetypes from the little four, so long as those archetypes are not in opposition.

The big four character archetypes are the Protagonist (the character who is trying to do something), the Antagonist (the character who is trying to prevent that something), the Contagonist (the character who makes it harder to do that something), and the Guardian (the character who makes it easier to do that something). The Protagonist and Antagonist are in direct conflict, as are the Guardian and Contagonist, but the Contagonist is not necessarily in conflict with the Protagonist.

Consider the television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Buffy is obviously the Protagonist, and the Antagonist is the Big Bad of the season or the episode's featured monster. Giles is the Guardian. Buffy's Mom, and in later seasons, her sister Dawn, are the Contagonists. They made it more difficult for Buffy to defeat the bad guys by forcing her either to sneak around or to use her energies for defense and protection rather than attack.

The little four archetype pairs are Reason/Emotion and Sidekick/Skeptic. Reason is the cold, logical voice of ultimate control, while Emotion is the out-of-control voice of feelings. Sidekicks enthusiastically offer support, while Skeptics steadfastly insist something will never work. Again, using the Buffy example, members of the Scooby Gang, in their various incarnations, have fulfilled these four roles, which is why their meetings so often degenerated into arguments.

To use these contrasts for outlining, decide what conflict each pair of archetypes faces. The Protagonist and Antagonist conflict will be the central question of your story, but all of the others are free for you to choose. In my Shadow Prince, for example, the Contagonist/Guardian conflict was whether or not to save the Contagonist's homeland. The conflict between Reason and Emotion (illustrated as a conflict between control and lack of control) was how to interpret the past. And the Sidekick and Skeptic argued about how much commitment is required to be a successful artist. All of this was on top of the story question of whether or not the heroine would reunite body and spirit. This created four very different conflicts that interwove to give the story depth and interest.

Once you've established your conflicts, you need to illustrate them in scenes. In the first set of scenes, you will introduce your characters by showing them acting in accordance with their archetypes (the Protagonist takes action, the Guardian offers assistance, the Sidekick supports, etc.) and by illustrating their positions on the conflict they share.

The next set of scenes will feature each pair of archetypes squaring off against each other, for their first interaction. That's followed by a second interaction that ups the stakes of the conflict, and a third interaction in which the conflict is decided in one or the other's favor. The final set of scenes resolves what happens to each of the archetypes as a result of winning or losing their conflict.

You don't have to have a strict one-to-one ratio of conflict scenarios and conflicting archetypes. You could, for example, introduce three of your archetypes in one scene, followed by introducing one in the next. If you have one of the big four archetypes also associated with one of the little four archetypes, you can have a three-character scene that illustrates two separate conflicts, perhaps with one being the recurring argument that draws the character's attention away from the issue he or she is trying to focus upon. There can also be scenes in which no conflict is advanced, but some key external plot activity occurs that will enable the next level of conflict.

The possibilities are endless. But with a solid grasp of the archetypal character dynamics, whichever possibilities you choose will create a strong, multidimensional story.


Dramatica Web site:

Shadow Prince, by Jennifer Dunne. New Concepts Publishing. ISBN 1-58608-620-0

Buffy the Vampire Killer, UPN Television, March 1997 through May 2003