Category Archives: Narrative Science

Fractal Psychology in the Real World

Here is an early article about a new aspect of narrative science I was developing.  It is based on a previous concept from our Dramatica theory of narrative structure called the Storymind.

The Story Mind asserts that every story has a mind of its own, as if it were some sort of mega character with its own psychology and its own personality.  Psychology is the deep structure, just as it is with real people, whereas personality are all the traits and attributes that stand on that foundation and give the story identity, again as with real people.

In the Story Mind theory, characters have two aspects.  First, each represents a facet of the overall mind.  That is their dramatic function, and it is from this function that we derive the archetypes, such as the Protagonist, Antagonist, Reason, and Emotion.

But characters also have their own personal stories as well in which they are complete human beings, each with his or her own psychology.  And so, when we look at an individual character, we can see that the same attributes they use for problem solving within their own minds are fractally represented in the overall Story Mind, each by a different character.

This led to the notion of Fractal Psychology in which when people come together in a group toward a common purpose, they quickly self-organize so that one character becomes the protagonist in the group, another the antagonist, one emerges as the voice of reason and another as the passionate emotion archetype.

Yet beyond that, groups might come together to form larger organizations in which each group becomes an archetype within the larger organization, like departments in a major corporation, each with an identifiable story of its own.

Over the years, this initial concept has continued to evolve in detail and substance.  But the seeds were first planted some five years ago as of this posting, and one of the first articles I wrote about how that theory was evolving is reprinted here:

Fractal Psychology in the Real World

What characters represent in the Story Mind is not their own psychology but rather just the small fragment of that overall entity. Essentially, in the story at large characters are nothing more than automatons – going about their functions as “intelligent agents” controlled from above (by the structure of the story as a whole).

The reason we do not easily see this is because we endow our characters with human qualities so that we might identify with them. In a sense, we must give each character at least a rudimentary psychology of its own in order for the reader or audience to empathize or sympathize with it.

But, that psychology does not drive what the character does in the story – it merely defines its personality. Personality is like subject matter or storytelling; it is not structure and does not give the character any psychology at all when it comes to its objective function in the overall story.

Another reason we do not easily see characters as objective is because of something I call “fractal psychology” (see my video on my Storymind YouTube channel). The concept is that when we gather in groups, we form a larger Story Mind as the underlying organization of that group and each adopt roles in the group that correspond to the objective characters. For example, one of us will take the role of the voice of Reason and another will be the Skeptic.

Just as characters can be subdivided into their component elements, so too, in larger groups, its members will refine their functions and specialize until all the elemental positions are taken. Then, if the group grows larger, something really intriguing happens. Individuals will form smaller story mind groups within the overall group. So, there will be one “click” or “faction” within the group that collectively act as the voice of Reason and another that functions as the Skeptical voice. Within each sub-group (sub-story) are similarly-minded individuals who all share the same basic attitude. BUT – within each sub-group, the individuals will take on other objective roles so that, for example, someone will become the Skeptic within the group that stands for Reason – essentially he or she will function as the Skeptical voice of Reason.

And finally, as the original large overall group encounters other similarly sized groups, each group will take on a function and collectively all the groups will form an even larger mind.

This is Fractal Psychology – a pet theory of mine. It explains why we are all in a constant complex web of interrelationships with our peers, our superiors and our subordinates, sometimes being driven by our own psychologies, but socially always acting as objective characters.

And so, we expect every character to have a psychology when, in fact, stories are not complex enough for that. Stories are about dealing with a single central issue with a single Story Mind and the agents that make it up. In this level of magnitude, the objective characters have no real psychology, and yet the reader or audience will expect it, for they see the story as a slice of real life in which everyone they know, themselves included, has a psychology. We, as storytellers, then humanize our automatons so that we fool the audience, sugar coat the functions to make it appear as if they are fully developed people when they truly are not.

There are, of course, two exceptions to this – the Main Character and the Influence Character. They are special because in addition to their objective functions, they also represent our sense of self and that small “devil’s advocate” voice within us with whom we argue about whether we should stick with the tried and true, even if it appears to be failing, or adopt the new and promising, even though it has never been tested.

So these two exceptional characters need to be fully developed with their own true internal thought processes. But that, alas, is another story……

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Narrative Space in the Real World

In an earlier post I described how the term “narrative space” refers to the breadth and depth of the subject matter from which you will develop a story.  Like a cloud, the subject matter is just the raw material – a nebulous realm in which many story structures might be found.  Think of a story structure as a construct of tinker-toys about the size of a basketball.  And think of a narrative space as your bathtub.  With a tub full of subject matter, you can drop your tinker ball anywhere in it and encircle a different batch of water.  Without changing the structure at all, you can move it just an inch and still change the nature of the particular subject matter you’ll use in making your point.

Now look at it another way.  You have this tub full of subject matter than intrigues you.  You’d love to cram it all into the same story.  But, your ball just isn’t that big.  In other words, you’d need a book the size of an encyclopedia to cover it all, or perhaps a movie 8 days long.  Could it be done, of course!  But should it?  Not if you expect anybody to read it or go see it.

So, you assess your tub.  You’d really like the rubber duck in your story so you put the ball around that.  But, you’d also like that particular lump of suds – it just intrigues you.  You gently push that little bubbly heap into your ball as well.  In fact, you go all over your basin and pull all the water and floating things you’d specifically like into your ball.  Eventually, you can’t get anything new into the ball without pushing something else out.  That is the story equivalent of the speed of light constant.  I call it the size of mind constant, because it describes the maximum size a story can be and still be held at one time in the mind of your reader or audience.

Of course you can always plop another ball into the same tub to gather in a different collection of subject matter.  Thus, by writing a series of books, penning a television series, or hammering out a bunch of movie sequels, you might be able to get almost all the subject matter that interests you covered in one story or another – just not all in the same story!

(Naturally, you could create an over-arcing story structure in which each of the smaller stories becomes just an element in a bigger structure, but then the read or audience won’t be able to see the subject matter detail in the smaller stories at the same time that they appreciate the subject matter in the over-arcing story – just too many degrees of separation or magnitude from the biggest to the smallest to capture in a single glimpse.)

Some of your tinker balls might actually overlap in the tub, like galaxies colliding, in which they each share some elements of story structure.  Others may carve out sections that are completely separated.  And, some may nudge up against each other just close enough to have a topical point of connection.  In the end, though, you need to decide for any given story what subject matter you will include and what you will exclude.  Or, put inversely, you need to determine where in the tub to drop your ball.

Finally, to the point of this particular posting – narrative space in the real world.  By this I do not mean the practical application of story structure in fiction, but the projection of story structure concepts into the actual, physical world of living, breathing people.  Quite a departure, I know.  But recall that Dramatica is a theory of the story mind.  It holds that every story structure is a model of the mind’s problem-solving processes.  Even more, it goes so far as to contend that story structure represents the underlying structure and dynamics of our own minds upon which our unique experiences fashion our singular personalities.

Hey – too talky…  Let me try that a little more conversationally…  What works in story structure works in understanding everyday life as well.  The story mind is the same as our own minds.  It is a fully functional model of how we think – how we organize things in our own heads.  So it should not come as much of a surprise that the way we organize our stories is all the way we organize our lives.

Everything we do in life is represented in stories, at a structural level.  I’m not talking about whether you like red or blue or whether you play football or go bowling – that’s all just subject matter.  (And when I say “just” subject matter, yes I know that is where the passion lies.  We only care intellectually about structure.  In short, our heads are into structure but our hearts are into the subject matter.  Still, we’re talking about the relationship between structure and subject matter here, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter much anyhow.)

Now one person will organize his life in many story structures.  Your life is your tube and you’ll have lots of balls in it – some bigger (up to the size of mind constant, at times) but mostly smaller structures of various sizes.  You’ll have a structure for your parents and one for your kids.  You’ll have a structure for your job and, within that, one for your boss.  You’ll have a structure for your future, one for each hobby, and one for the concept of hobbies in which each smaller structure is an element in the overall concept.

We don’t think about structure, we think in topics and organize in structure.

So, one person will have many nested and isolated structures all bouncing around in his or her head all the time, shifting around the the subject matter of our lives, driven by the passions of our personalities.  But underneath it all, logistically, organizationally, there is sense in the midst of the chaos when you recognize the structures of your life and don’t try to create a “life story” but more like a “life pageant” of the ongoing progression, collision and evolution of all the little stories that make up your pitiful existence.  Oops…  got a little carried away there with the rhetoric….

Point is, one person has many stories.  And within themselves, they can see all the characters you find in stories – the Reason character who represents our intellect, the Emotional archetype who stands for our passion, the Protagonist who is our initiative, the Antagonist (our reticence), the Sidekick (our confidence) the Skeptic (doubt), the Guardian (conscience), and the Contagonist (temptation).

But here’s the fun part – when we get together in groups, us humans take on the role of characters in the group story.  In short, we organize ourselves as part of a a larger group-story because story structure is how we organize.  Sounds recursive, but when you consider that the whole point of stories is to show us how to deal with situations that reflect (at some tiny or grandiose level) our own lives, add to that the notion that story structure evolved because it represents the way we think, and add to that the fact that of course we try to organize our world they way our heads are organized – well then maybe it isn’t so much recursive as it is fractal.  In fact, when I first thought of this concept, I called it “fractal psychology” – that’s my name for it and I’m sticking to it!  (Check out my videos on fractal psychology on YouTube.)

Every time you join a club, participate in a class, get involved in a political party or show up to work, you are taking a role in a bigger story than yourself, but completely like the way your own mind is organized.  So, one of us will be the voice of Reason, another the Emotional (passionate) perspective.  By each taking a role, we cover all the ways we can possibly think about the issues the group faces, we create a “big giant head” a la the old television show Mork and Mindy and populate its roles.

Now if you join an already existing organization, there might not be the position open to which you are best suited.  And, because of seniority (or lack thereof) you have to take a role that isn’t all that natural to you.  But if you don’t, you won’t have a place at the table.  So, you cram yourself into that position as best you can in the hopes that if somebody else leaves or dies or gets kicked out or whatever, when the musical chairs of reorganization occurs you may be able to snag yourself a better seat.

Though these things are always to some degree in flux (like molecules, heated, agitating and vibrating to one extent or another), there is a general inertia to each story system that holds the group together.  In time, like a person, a group may grow old and die, lose its vibrancy, or simply go to pieces.  And then, the pieces will gather together or be sopped up by other groups (again like solar systems forming from the remnants of a super nova) and the process will begin all over.

Now the last notion I’ll lay upon you (hallelujah!) is that even groups gather together in groups.  Cities become States become Nations.  Factions become Movements become Parties.  All of humanity is arranged as nested or separated groups, vibrating and evolving and overlapping as they pass through one another in the great subject matter tub of life.  Seems largely like a mess (if you watch the evening news or try to find a job) but beneath it all, very sound, stable, predictable and consistent patterns are a work, all fractally related to that little bitty brain stuffed into each of our puny heads.  A world within and a world without.

Finally, just to poke the bear one more time, go ahead and write your fictions, shoot your movies, and tell your tales.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to try and apply these same Dramatica principals not only to the realms of your creation but to all creation?  What’s the story with your spouse?  Your job?  Your future?  Which of those countries is the Skeptic in this particular international melee?  How does what happens in my town fit in with what happens in my county, and how does it mesh with the next burg over?

You want to think about it.  You know you do.  (That’s just me falling into the role of Contagonist….)

Narrative Analysis – American Student Released by DPRK (North Korea)

American student released from DPRK (North Korea) – What’s the narrative?

Salient narrative facts:

1. The student is in a coma since March due to botulism, according to DPRK sources.

2. The DPRK has launched 16 missiles in the last few weeks, garnering international concerns.

3. The DPRK recently threatened a first strike nuclear attack against the United States to “protect itself.”

4. The student has been in custody for 17 months and his condition was not known.

Narrative assessment:

The release of the American student, especially in a coma from a cause that creates suspicion of foul play or at least lack of expected protections, is not an olive branch but a further provocation designed to additionally fan the flames of American sentiment against the DPRK.

Clearly, the DPRK is trying to provoke some sort of preemptive action on the part of the United States beyond merely tightening sanctions.

Narrative question:

What is the motivation of the DRPK in attempting to provoke preemptive action against it by the United States, and what are their likely reactions to alternative potential actions?

In previous work we have done for the CIA, NSA, NRO and Joint Chiefs of Staff, this would be the starting point for full-scale narrative analysis of potential scenarios including the creation of a motivation map of the DRPK and specifically of KIm Jong-un, as well as a narrative projection of future behavior , leading to a recommendation of the most effective action plans for United States policy officials.

Most of our analyses, ranging from our presence in Afghanistan to psychological deterrents against Chinese cyber incursions, are largely based on open source material, which holds a wealth of narrative data, hidden within the subject matter, invisible to those untrained in the science and methods of narrative analysis and narrative creation.

Contact us for information about narrative analysis and creation services at

Narrative in the Real World and the Mobius Doughnut

In the early 1990s we developed a new theory of narrative called Dramatica.  Since it touched on the psychology of story structure, we believed that it might also be applied to the psychologies of real people as well as fictional ones.

As background for this hypothesis, Dramatica theory holds that every story has a mind of its own. This Story Mind is made up of a personality created by the storytelling style and an underlying psychology represented by the story’s structure.

This one concept alone, if projected onto real people might help us understand an individual, be it a friend, stranger, or perhaps ourselves. But Dramatica also contends that fictional characters are not only personalities in their own rights, but also must play a second role as a facet or aspect of the overall Story Mind. In essence, each character is a complete mental system, but collectively they join together to form a larger mental system that is not unlike a fractal of the dynamics of each individual character.

From this notion, we developed the concept of fractal storyforms, meaning that not only would characters create a Story Mind when they came together, but a group of story structures coming together would create an even larger Story Mind in which each individual story functioned as a character.

In the real world, we hypothesized, when people come together in groups, they automatically slip into roles that represent different attributes we all possess. For example, one person might become the voice of reason in a group, assuming the role of the group’s intellect, just as there is a Reason Archetype in a fictional story. Another character might adopt the position of the group’s passion, speaking up whenever human feelings are the issue, essentially fulfilling the same character function as the Emotion Archetype.

What’s more, if a number of groups band together in a larger organization, automatically they will begin to adopt roles within the larger organization as if they were characters in a mind, thereby extending the phenomenon up one more fractal dimension. In the real world we call this “fractal psychology.”

Naturally it follows that if Story Minds exist in the real world as well as the fictional world, then might we not best understand their elements and mechanisms by applying the same Dramatica model that has proven itself in the analysis of fictional stories?

Recently, an opportunity has emerged for us to explore the application of our methods for analysis of storyforms to actual situations and organizations. At first, the task seemed simple – just analyze the situations as if they were stories. But it quickly became evident that there are substantial differences in the two endeavors.

Most notably, while the narrative space of a story is a closed system, i.e. a book, a movie or a stage play, in the real world the narrative space is open, limitless. So unlike analyses of fiction, in the real world one must first find the storyform before one can analyze it.

Alas, this brings forth another difficulty. There is usually only one story in a fiction narrative space. Sometimes there can be a sub-story hinged to the main story that is almost wholly independent, yet touches at one point, such as a character who appears in both stories.

In such a case, the character is driven most strongly by its own story, yet still plays a function in the larger story. An example is the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV) in which Han Solo’s debt story with Jabba is hinged (but not part of) the main story about the empire and the rebels.

In this example, Han’s character would never allow him to march into the detention area to rescue the princess EXCEPT that his need for money for his sub-story provides enough sideways motivation for him to act out of character and do something that puts him at more risk. A useful tool for writers, but a complication for analysts of real-world situations.

Further, some fiction narrative spaces can contain more than one complete story, like raisins in rice pudding. For example, in Woody Alan’s movie, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” there is a crime story and a misdemeanor story, each with complete and different structures and different characters that do not affect or interact with the other story. The movie is designed to force the audience to compare the two stories side by side and arrive at a more conundrum.

In the real world, this means that any number of independent stories may co-exist in the same narrative space. One may even conjecture that some real world stories may be sub-sets of others, or perhaps even overlap each other containing some unique and some shared story points.

In short, single storyforms in fiction are idealizations in which there is a single central problem. The unfolding of the story is an argument about the best way to try and solve such a problem. But in real minds and real situations, many problems are constantly emerging, playing themselves out, and passing through each other, like stars in galaxies in collision. Add to this the fractal nature of nested storyforms and you end up with a veritable mess.

And so, the task of identifying and separating a single storyform in the real world, much less the one best suited to answer the questions at hand becomes a daunting proposition.

Decades ago, when we were first trying to model Dramatica’s conceptual structure in some tangible form, we experimented with several physical constructs to represent the elements and their attendant dynamics.

Nowadays, we are all familiar with the recognizable four-tower model representing the four Classes of stories and looking like an odd blending of a three-dimensional chess set and a Rubik’s cube. But how many are actually aware of why Dramatica ended up being presented in this form?

The real story, as it were is that in the very beginning, we began with lists of elements that we observed in story. Then we realized some were higher-level appreciations and others lower-level, like members of a family that all share the same higher-level family name as well as their own. Or, like families of chemical elements in which Fluorine and Chlorine are different elements but have properties similar enough to be in the same chemical family.

But how to build a model of that which satisfied all of the mechanisms that “chemically” connected the elements?

One of the first attempts I made was to get a toroid (a doughnut-shaped piece of Styrofoam about a foot across) and then to wrap a thin metallic foil tape around it in a helix. The foil wrapped around the circumference four times by the time it passed through all four quadrants and returned to the point of origin. This represented one of the four classes.

Three more foil tapes of different colors were added, spaced so that they also wrapped around the toroid in a four-loop spiral without overlapping the others. Each was slightly staggered, so that the beginning of the next color was at the ending of the last color, creating a continuously wrapping “quad-helix” around the toroid until the end of thye very last of the four colored foils connected back to the beginning of the very first, creating, essentially and endless loop.

This was useful because you could see the relationships among elements of different classes when written equally spaced along each of the four colors. But, it was hardly practical to ship a Dramatica Steering Wheel with each software box, it who could use the thing anyway? Besides, this was just an approximation. In fact, to be wholly correct, the toroid would have had to have been wrapped by a mobius strip to include the progressive shift of dynamics in a structure which we came to refer to (in verbal shorthand) as an “inverse with a twist.” Hence, the need for a mobius doughnut.

After that, we shifted to a much more doable visualization of the very same elements and mechanics as a pyramid for each Class of story (for each of the four towers you see today).

To illustrate that each pyramid represented a point of view that the peak that fanned out into a perspective of the “Truth” at the base, we decided to put two pyramids together at the base so they formed a crystal – real new age visualization, that!

This worked much better, but we came to realize that because both points of view were looking not at different sides of the same coin but at the same side from different places, then we ran into problems because the common base that was the interface between them couldn’t be itself and also its mirror image at the same time. And besides, there were four classes, so how could they all share the same interface in a three dimensional model?

We were pretty frustrated. So, we took a clue from Crick and Watson when they were trying to be the first to discover the molecular structure of DNA. At first, they were using X-ray micrographs of DNA to try and see the structure. From that method, DNA appears to be a crystal, just as our model could. And, as we all now know, DNA is a double-helix, while our temporal component is a quad-helix.

We figured with that kind of correlation we were probably on the right track. But, since all that was still too complex for writers, we ended up simply making four towers, sub-divided into smaller and smaller components to illustrate all the familial relationships among the story points. And when we flattened it down to a two-dimensional grid, we presented this alternative view as the Dramatica Table of Story Elements that tens of thousands of writers use today.

And here we were now, twenty years later, looking at an open-system narrative space in the real world, once more trying to visualize a storyform. But not the same as in the closed system of fiction – an inverse version of that. But worse. Because the in fiction, analysis is a closed set and creation is an open set, but in the real world analysis AND creation are BOTH open sets. So, it wasn’t just an inverse, but an inverse with a twist AGAIN! Durn concept keeps coming ‘round to haunt us.

Okay, let’s take that toroid again and stick it in the middle of the real-world narrative space. We have to make it a mobius doughnut in our minds because this doughnut is a very special doughnut because to see the storyform inside, you have to turn the doughnut inside out.

And here, then, is the real problem. You can see the data inside until you turn it inside out, but you can’t turn it inside out because it is genus one with no opening on the surface. You see, if you take an inner tube and take off the valve, you can actually (or at least theoretically) pull the entire inner tube through the valve hole until the inside is on the outside and vice versa. But without a hole, in a true doughnut, there’s no loose thread, no handle, no place to get a grip or begin the process of inversion.

The mobius strip aspect indicates that it would only lay flat upon the toroid if we had one more dimension than three in which to build such a visualization. But, we don’t – not for practical purposes.

And so, we bashed our heads against the wall for some time until after many days of conjecture, we realized that the key was not in finding the best storyform in the real-world narrative space by objective standards, but the best storyform by subjective standards.

In a world of infinite overlapping structures, none is more important than any other until you impose importance upon it. Essentially, as the singer/composer Don MacLean said, “The more you pay, the more its worth.”

As an analog, consider the story creation process in fiction. It is an open system for the subject matter of interest to the author has no limits. Theoretically, this makes it impossible to pick the best story structure because it cannot be objectively determined.

But in practice, who the hell is objective? Rather, authors come to the story creation process because of their subjective interest in the subject matter. Many years ago I used to teach authors that we all get excited by the subject matter, but in truth, all of those bits of information can’t possibly live together in peaceful coexistence in the same story structure. The job of the structuring author is to pick the most important subject matter first, boil it down to story points in the structure and then continuing picking until you hit the point where something you want won’t fit into the structure. This is when the Dramatica Story Engine in the software is doing its job by telling the author, “if you include that extra piece, you’re weakening your own structure – working against yourself.”

So, when Dramatica doesn’t match what you want to do at the lower levels, its not broken. In fact, that what it was designed to do – save you from yourself (save your subjective self from making a big objective mistake!)

Now if we apply that same principal to the open-system real world narrative space, then (using the inverse with a twist) analysis should work the same way. And durned if it doesn’t.

You can’t find a story form in the real world, you have to impose one, just like an author does in creating a fiction. Essentially, what is it you want to know? What question do you want to answer, what process do you want to explore?

In practice, you simply look at the narrative space and decide what you want to know first. Then you turn a data point into a story point that will explore that for you. Then you pick the next piece and the next. You continue picking pieces until you’ve fully populated a storyform.

Of course, in the real world, you’ll never get to a complete storyform before you run out of visible data points. But thanks to the Story Engine, by the time you’ve run out of data that belongs in your subjectively defined story structure, Dramatica will suggest the kinds of data that “should” be out there in the gaps.

If you are writing a fictional story about real events, these gaps will be filled by your own creation. But in an analysis of real world data, these gaps are already filled – you just haven’t observed that data yet, but its out there somewhere, hiding for now.

Therefore, Dramatica is able to tell you more about the real world than you can see for yourself.

In summary then, in both fiction and the real world, no storyform is better than any other until you have a preference for one. In either case, you need to look to the subject matter and build a storyform that best represents the subject matter you’d like to explore.

In short, when building storyforms in the real world, forget all the pyramids and towers and mobius doughnuts – all you have to do is make the one you want.

And in conclusion, it took us weeks of work and took me six pages to describe find and describe logically something every writer worth his or her salt knows intuitively:

Build the story you want to tell.

And Dramatica? It just keeps you honest when your own preference for the subject matter gets the better of making sense.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Originally published in 2011

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al Awlaki, the “Uncanny Valley” and Writing Empathetic Characters

Here’s an article about real world narrative I published shortly after al Awlaki, an American recruiter for terrorism, was killed in a raid:

Recently, al Awlaki (the infamous “American” Al Qaeda) was killed by American forces. He was viewed as a great threat because of his ability to speak to the domestic population of the United States in their own language and culture and to inspire terrorist acts by those susceptible to his message of jihad.

While these allegations are certainly true, they alone do not explain the intensity with which Awlaki was both feared and despised. In fact, there is another quality he possessed that amplified the trepidation and derision he precipitated: he fell into the “Uncanny Valley.”

“Uncanny Valley” is a term generally used to define any non-human entity whose attributes are just human enough to be disturbing. For example psychological test have been run that chart an empathy line against robots whose features range from fully mechanical to completely human in appearance. At first, the results were predictable: the more human the robot appeared, the more empathetic people were to it.

But, as the human qualities reached a point where they became “almost human” there was a sudden drop-off in empathy as steep as a cliff. In fact, the reaction to such an entity reached a point where it plummeted below zero empathy into the realm of negative empathy, documented as “revulsion.”

The same test was also run using stuffed animals and the results were essentially the same – our empathy increases as human likeness increases until a sharp break point is reached where additional increases quickly reverse the trend. Once the line hits bottom and as human similarity continue to increase, eventually empathy rises again into the positive, and ultimately reaches maximum when the non-human entity appears absolutely identical to a human, even though one knows it really is not.

Now this aspect of human psychology has tremendous implication for writers, especially in the creation and development of characters. While it has been explored directly in such works as the I, Robot novels by Asimov (and especially well handled in the movie, Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams) it is always at work in the relationship between an audience and the fictional entities that populate the stories it reads and watches.

Let me propose that the Uncanny Valley not only pertains to the visual qualities of non-human entities, but to how we intuitively sense their humanity, almost as if we were automatically and subconsciously performing a Turing Test on every person we meet.

I believe we are. I believe we are prepared to accept something totally alien as a risk of unknown potential, while any creature we can identify as of human essence is a known quantity and, therefore, a predictable risk at worst. But some one or some thing that is just off-kilter enough is loose-canon when it comes to threat. We might find ourselves lulled into complacency only to be set-upon when our guard is down.

For example, we are afraid of an earthquake or tornado because it is random and chaotic. We are afraid of bears in a different way because they share our emotions and we understand what they might do. But a Terminator or a demonic spirit is far more terrifying for while we are able to frame it as an entity in our minds, we are unable to fathom its motivations or to predict its behavior, which are often contrary to humanity.

In contrast, consider animated cartoons in which cars, cattle, or cantaloupes may all engender empathy from an audience because they are carefully (albeit intuitively) crafted to fall far enough from human-looking to avoid the Uncanny Valley on one side, and close enough to human in spirit to avoid the Uncanny Valley on the other.

Many of the disfigured humans of fiction are often drawn to revolt us in appearance while connecting to us in their humanity. And, of course, many characters are written to illustrate that even the most beautiful can have revolting souls.

Now for the sake of a mental exercise, consider how this holds true in real life. For example, most of us find the Elephant Man uncomfortable to look at, yet empathize deeply with his heart. But what of those in our own live who have been badly burned or born with physical defects? What must that life be like when you are constantly reminded, subliminally, that others shun you as non-human? There are lessons here for our spiritual growth and stories to be told.

Let’s shift gears, for a moment, and go to the opposite extreme – the science of mind, the neurology of psychology. If you go to Wikipedia and look up Uncanny Valley you’ll find graph that shows the sudden dip and re-rise of the empathy line.

I was immediately struck by how similar that line is to the “action potential” of a neuron in the brain. After a neuron fires, it is chemically inhibited from firing again immediately. Rather, the “action potential” goes from maximum, down a steep cliff during the actual firing to a negative action potential until the forces that lead to the ability to fire recharge.

I’m going to make a leap here and share with you an aspect of the psychology behind Dramatica – a theory we call Mental Relativity. As part of the theory we propose (because of what we have observed in our model of story structure) that dynamics in the electro-chemical operations of the brain are reflected, almost as fractals, in the high-level dynamics of psychological processes. Simply put, psychology exhibits sympathetic vibrations of the patterns of physical brain function.

Now, I realize there are no studies (to my knowledge) that explore this, but is absolutely is a prediction of the Mental Relativity theory. But why would this be? Consider one potential explanation…

It is one of our most essential survival tools to be able to recognize objects, patterns, edges, what is part of something and what is not. The same curve we see in neurons or in the Uncanny Valley actually is just a reflection of our ability to define the limit of things.

We use this to see a rock in our path or to determine if figure coming through the mist is a friend or foe. It is what allows us to describe the nature of an object or a person and the scope of an argument or a story.

And so, with an aspect of our minds that is so foundational and all pervasive, a wise author would give it heed when building characters to be attractive or off-putting, a wise person would think twice about from whom they turn away (and why), and as for al Awlaki, well, he was American enough to connect with those who felt isolated, but just a little bit too non-American to avoid our ire.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Why Characters Misunderstand Each Other

This article was originally written as part of an early draft of our book on the Dramatica theory of narrative which was never published.  It seeks to describe how characters come to misunderstand each other, and how this can lead to conflict.

I’m reprinting it here due to the really useful concepts it brings to light, but bear in mind that many of the terms have evolved since then and many of the notions have been significantly refined over the years.

Here’s the gist, and then the article:

All of our understandings of each other are based on the narratives we create to get a grip on what someone’s intent is, and what their future behavior is likely to be.  Basically, we want to know what they mean by what they say, and what they are likely to do.

But trying to  grasp someone else’s meaning is an interpretive art.  And in addition, we all have our own blinders on – our own expectations based on a history of interactions, both with the specific individual with whom we are communicating and with other people, both similar and no so much, gathered over the course of our lives.

In the article that follows, I use the word “justification” to describe how those past experiences add up to expectations, pre-judgments and even blind spots that keep us from seeing what’s really going on or even warp it to convince us things are quite different – even opposite – of what someone really intended or intended to do.

Here is the original text:

What is Justification? Justification is a state of mind wherein the Subjective view differs from the Objective view. Okay, fine. But how about in plain English!!!! Very well, when someone sees things differently than they are, they are Justifying. This can happen either because the mind draws a wrong conclusion or assumes, or because things actually change in a way that is no longer consistent with a held view.

All of this comes down to cause and effect. For example, suppose you have a family with a husband, wife and young son. Here is a sample backstory of how the little boy might develop a justification that could plague him in later life….

The husband works at a produce stand. Every Friday he gets paid. Also every Friday a new shipment of fresh beets comes in. So, every Friday night, he comes home with the beets and the paycheck. The paycheck is never quite enough to cover the bills and this is eating the wife alive. Still, she knows her husband works hard, so she tries to keep her feelings to herself and devotes her attention to cooking the beets.

Nevertheless, she cannot hold out for long, and every Friday evening at some point while they eat, she and her husband get in an argument. Of course, like most people who are trying to hold back the REAL cause of her feelings, she picks on other issues, so the arguments are all different

This short description lays out a series of cause and effect relationships that establish a justification. With this potential we have wound up the spring of our dramatic mechanism. And now we are ready to begin our story to see how that tension unwinds.

The Story Begins: The young boy, now a grown adult with a wife and child of his own, sits down to dinner with his family. He begins to get belligerent and antagonistic. His wife does not know what she has done wrong. In fact, later, he himself cannot say why he was so upset. WE know it is because his wife served beets.

It is easy to see that from the young boy’s knowledge of the situation when he was a child, the only visible common element between his parent’s arguments and his environment was the serving of beets. They never argued about the money directly, and that would probably have been beyond his ken anyway.

Obviously, it is not stupidity that leads to misconceptions, but lack of information. The problem is, we have no way of knowing if we have enough information or not, for we cannot determine how much we do not know. It is a human trait, and one of the Subjective Characters as well, to see repetitive proximities between two items or between an item and a process and assume a causal relationship.

But why is this so important to story? Because that is why stories exist in the first place! Stories exist to show us a greater Objective truth that is beyond our limited Subjective view. They exist to show us that if we feel something is a certain way, even based on extensive experience, it is possible that it really is not that way at all.

For the Pivotal Character, it will be shown that the way she believed things to be really IS the way they are in spite of evidence to the contrary. The message here is that our understanding is sometimes not limited by past misconceptions, but by lack of information in the present. “Keeping the faith” describes the feeling very well. Even in the face of major contradiction, holding on to one’s views and dismissing the apparent reality as an illusion or falsehood.

For the Primary Character, it will be shown that things are really different than believed and the only solution is to alter one’s beliefs. This message is that we must update our understanding in the light of new evidence or information. “Changing one’s faith” is the issue here.

In fact, that is what stories are all about: Faith. Not just having it, but also learning if it is valid or not. That is why either Character, Pivotal or Primary, must make a Leap of faith in order to succeed. At the climax of a story, the need to make a decision between remaining steadfast in one’s faith or altering it is presented to both Pivotal and Primary Characters. EACH must make the choice. And each will succeed or fail.

The reason it is a Leap of Faith is because we are always stuck with our limited Subjective view. We cannot know for sure if the fact that evidence is mounting that change would be a better course represents the pangs of Conscience or the tugging of Temptation. We must simply decide based on our own internal beliefs.

If we decide with the best available evidence and trust our feelings we will succeed, right? Not necessarily. Success or failure is just the author’s way of saying she agrees or disagrees with the choice made. Just like real life stories we hear every day of good an noble people undeservedly dying or losing it all, a Character can make the good and noble choice and fail. This is the nature of a true Dilemma: that no matter what you do, you lose. Of course, most of us read stories not to show us that there is no fairness in the impartial Universe (which we see all too much of in real life) but to convince ourselves that if we are true to the quest and hold the “proper” faith, we will be rewarded. It really all depends on what you want to do to your audience.

A story in which the Main Character is Pivotal will have dynamics that lead the audience to expect that remaining Steadfast will solve the problem and bring success. Conversely, a story in which the Main Character is Primary will have differently dynamics that lead the audience to expect that Changing will solve the problem and bring success. However, in order to make a statement about real life outside of the story, the Author may violate this expectation for propaganda or shock purposes.

For example, if, in Star Wars, Luke had made the same choice and turned off his targeting computer (trusting in the force), dropped his bombs, and missed the target, Darth blows him up and the Death Star obliterates the rebels… how would we feel? Sure you could write it that way, but would you want to? Perhaps! Suppose you made Star Wars as a government sponsored entertainment in a fascist regime. That might very WELL be the way you would want to end it!

The point being, that to create a feeling of “completion” in an audience, if the Main Character is Pivotal, she MUST succeed by remaining Steadfast, and a Primary Main Character MUST change.

Now, let’s take this sprawling embryonic understanding of Justification and apply it specifically to story structure.

The Dramatica Model is built on the process of noting that an inequity exists, then comparing all possible elements of Mind to Universe until the actual nature of the inequity is located, then making a Leap of Faith to change approach or remain steadfast.

At the most basic level, we have Mind and we have Universe, as indicated in the introduction to this book. An inequity is not caused solely by one or the other but by the difference between the two. So, an inequity is neither in Mind nor Universe, but between them.

However, based on their past experiences (assumed causal relationships in backstory) a given Subjective Character will choose either Mind or Universe as the place to attempt to resolve the inequity. In other words, she decides that she likes one area the way it is, and would rather change the other. As soon as this decision is made, the inequity becomes a problem because it is seen in one world or the other. i.e.: “There is a problem with my situation I have to work out.” or “I have to work out a personal problem”.

Doesn’t a Character simply see that the problem is really just an inequity between Mind and Universe? Sure, but what good does that do them? It is simply not efficient to try to change both at the same time and meet halfway. Harking back to our introductory example of Jane who wanted a $300 jacket: Suppose Jane decided to try and change her mind about wanting the jacket even while going out and getting a job to earn the money to buy it. Obviously, this would be a poor plan, almost as if she were working against herself, and in effect she would be. This is because it is a binary situation: either she has a jacket or she does not, and, either she wants a jacket or she does not. If she worked both ends at the same time, she might put in all kinds of effort and end up having the jacket not wanting it. THAT would hardly do! No, to be efficient, a Character will consciously or responsively pick one area or the other in which to attempt to solve the problem, using the other area as the measuring stick of progress.

So, if a Main Character picks the Universe in which to attempt a solution, she is a “Do-er” and it is an Action oriented story. If a Main Character picks the Mind in which to attempt a solution, she is a “Be-er” and it is a Decision oriented story. Each story has both Action and Decision, for they are how we compare Mind against Universe in looking for the inequity. But an Action story has a focus on exploring the physical side and measuring progress by the mental, where as a Decision story focuses on the mental side and measures progress by the physical.

Whether a story is Action or Decision has nothing to do with the Main Character being Pivotal or primary. As we have seen, James Bond has been both. And in the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, Indy must change from his disbelief of the power of the ark and its supernatural aspects in order to succeed by avoiding the fate that befalls the Nazis – “Close your eyes, Marian; don’t look at it!”

Action or Decision simply describes the nature of the problem solving process, not whether a character should remained steadfast or change. And regardless of which focus the story has, a Pivotal Character story has dynamics indicating that remaining steadfast is the proper course. That mean that in an Action story, a Pivotal Character will have chosen to solve the problem in the Universe and must maintain that approach in the face of all obstacles in order to succeed. In a Decision story, a Pivotal Character will have chosen to solve the problem in the Mind, and must maintain that approach to succeed. On the other hand, a Primary Character, regardless of which world she selects to solve the problem, will discover she chose the wrong one, and must change to the other to find the solution.

A simple way of looking at this is to see that a Pivotal Character must work at finding the solution, and if diligent will find it where she is looking. She simply has to work at it. In Dramatica, when a Pivotal Character is the Main Character, we call it a Work Story (which can be either Action or Decision)

A Primary Character works just as hard as the Pivotal to find the solution, but in the end discovers that the problem simply cannot be solved in the world she chose. She must now change and give up her steadfast refusal to change her “fixed” world in order to overcome the log jam and solve the problem. Dramatica calls this a Dilemma story, since it is literally impossible to solve the problem in the manner originally decided upon.

From the Subjective view, both Pivotal and Primary work at solving the problem. Also, each is confronted with evidence suggesting that they must change. This evidence is manifested in increasingly growing obstacles they both must overcome. So what makes the audience want one character to remain steadfast and the other to change?

The Objective view.

Remember, we have two views of the Story Mind. The Subjective is the limited view in which the audience, in empathy with the Main Character, simply does not have enough information to decide whether or not to change. But then, unlike the Main Character, the audience is privy to the Objective view which clearly shows (by the climax) which would be the proper choice. To create a sense of equity in the audience, if the Main Character’s Subjective Choice is in line with the Objective View, they must succeed. But if a propaganda or shock value is intended, an author may choose to have either the proper choice fail or the improper choice succeed.

This then provides a short explanation of the driving force behind the unfolding of a story, and the function of the Subjective Characters. Taken with the earlier chapters on the Objective Characters, we now have a solid basic understanding of the essential structures and dynamics that create and govern Characters.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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Group Identity – A Society’s Sense of Self

Here’s a little essay on how narrative can determine whether a group, culture, or society will hang together or fall apart…

When you see a society as a group mind, you can see that it must have an identity, just as we do: “I think therefore I am.”  In stories, this identity is the main character – the sense of self of the story mind.  Think of “corporate identity” of being a fan of a television show who goes to a convention about the show and connects with all the other fans.  As individuals, we get a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, that reflects a part of who we are and binds us all together.

When we say we are Democrats or Republicans, we are not saying that is all we are, or that the group identity for our part is the totality of our being, but rather that a portion of ourselves as individuals is represented by that group identity and, in that regard “we are all alike” and at the same time, we are NOT like members of the other party.

Every tribe, every sports team, needs a corporate identity or there is no glue to hold it together as it is just a collection of individuals (This IS the United States used to be These ARE the United States).  Of late, we are struggling with our common identity as Americans because the gap between the two party’s agendas has become so wide that we no longer feel like Americans when the other party is in power, or perhaps better put: we feel they are not Americans and we are foreigners in our own country (“Dude, Where’s my Country?”)

Often what helps focus a grow a group identity is a figure head – an avatar for the sense of self of the group mind, such as Steve Jobs with Apple or a religious or ethnic martyr like William Wallace (“Braveheart”) or Jesus Christ himself.  In the case of Apple, the corporation chose to end the avatar of Jobs when he died and tried to have Apple itself become its own main character, with little success.  In contrast, Kentucky Friend Chicken maintains the avatar of Colonel Sanders, just as Disney did for may years, and still to a small extent today.

We took on a narrative consulting job for a sports team once that had all the most expensive and best players in terms of stats, but couldn’t win in the clutch.  We analyzed the narrative and discovered the problem was so simple it is hard to see:  The players were asking “What can I do for my team?” rather than asking “What can WE do AS a team?”  As long as they saw themselves as individuals contributing to the greater good, no team identity could form.  So our narrative prescription was to instill a sense of all being contributors, rather than each contributing his best ability.  This would lead individual members to accept being benched or put in a less important order of play for the good of the group, and they would then begin to click as a team and to win.

So, for a society – ANY society – to become cohesive and to stand strong, it must develop a group identity, and that “brand” must be personified by a personality, real or fictitious.

Melanie Anne Phillips

Learn more about Narrative Science