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From a lowly farm boy to a Jedi knight in STAR WARS or a bumbling high school chemistry teacher to a psychotic drug lord in BREAKING BAD, characters experience change. This change, known as a ‘character arc’, can be measured on different levels. The meter stick I use as a writer and teacher is causal layered analysis (CLA) as pioneered by futurist and academic, Sohail Inayatullah. CLA is comprised of four levels of understanding, which when employed can help people identify guiding narratives that affect behavior, performance and future outcomes.

At the first level of CLA there is the litany. This is the surface level event. In scriptwriting the unit of measurement for any film is action. Each action is a note on sheet music that when combined composes a musical piece. So, the first layer of observing character is viewing what actions the character takes. In situation A, a character kills a man. In B, a character kisses a woman. In C, character cries, so on and so forth. These are all actions written into a script to make up the story of the film. The guiding question at this level is: what? i.e. what happens?

But, what lies beneath the action taking. Let’s take the elevator down, guided by the question of why? Why did the character take that action? The first layer down from litany in CLA is the systemic layer. What system is in place to create the litany. For character this is the layer of decision. He or she must make conscious decisions. Ideally these decisions are made in cases of dilemma where the character is forced to chose between two deviant paths. Whatever choice they make plays out in their actions.

As a storyteller or dungeon master (for those of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s) our job is to place characters in ever more complex dilemmas. This will force a character to make harder decisions and take more drastic actions. Its a bit like being in a lab and experimenting with the way subjects react to various stimuli or diverse environments. When placed in container A, the rat does X. When placed in that container B, the rat does Y. But what guides the decisions of these lab rats or story heroes?


Taking the elevator down another level we reach what in CLA world be the level of worldview. Surely, there are many factors, which influence the decision making process. i.e. mood, emotion, intuition, etc. But, most importantly is ‘value’. What values does a character hold that will enable him/her to make a certain decision? If it is money, the character would decide to take a job over a relationship. If it is love (as in romantic or familial love) they may turn down the job offer if it will create problems in their relationship. The decision they make and action they take tells us something about what it is the character values.

The final question which brings the elevator to the bottom floor is: who? The fourth layer of CLA is that of myth/metaphor. This is the deepest layer of character. True character or deep character as Robert Mckee calls it. Who is this person under pressure? I mean, who are they REALLY? Only when their values are challenged through conflict and dilemma can we really know. And this is the function of plot, to challenge character. You think you’re this person? Really? Well, under these circumstance are you really that person? Think again.

Professor Inayatullah considers metaphors as the vehicles of deep myths. The great thing about vehicles is that they tell a story in and of themselves and are understood a priori. The moment you hear Merlin, the wizard you understand certain qualities associated like: “magic, mastery, wisdom, guidance, etc.” When the good wizard is the archetype of a character, we know that they will value wisdom, truth, compassion over all else and act accordingly. The same goes for the ruler, the guardian, the trickster, the lover, etc. Someone can identify themselves as Indian Jones, which means that they value adventure, risk, knowledge, bravery, etc. Or someone can identify themselves with “the Jewish mother”, which means they value family, food, children, safety, tradition, etc.” The role of the plot in any well told story is to challenge the inner narrative of the character. There is ongoing war between internal selves, which fight for dominance. The crisis and climax, which will be discussed in a subsequent post, is usually when one self triumphs over another.

Professor Inayatullah’s work with CLA is to get people to identify what story guides their behavior and empower people to change that archetype or story if it does not serve them. As storytellers, our job is to do something quite similar. By putting a protagonist is situations of dilemma, we expose the complexity of their universe and force small amounts of change through decision and action.

photo by Ralph Rama Huber

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