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Narrative Fueled By Actors

This is the first entry of a series of posts regarding creating narrative in a virtual space. This particular entry discusses some basics of story logic as well as explores the possibilities of how to create actor driven narrative.

Introduction

Narrative is complex. It involves characters, plot structure, actions, consequences, desires, essentially everything which a human being experiences throughout their life, but a bit more shallow and briefer. But what makes a narrative? How can we generate narrative? These are intrinsic questions which must be answered to create a compelling semi autonomous narrative which an audience can interact with. The following is research which was completed with major influences coming from Fundamentals of Story Logic by Theresa Budniakiewicz as well as Greimas, a semiotician. It brings forth concepts which I believe to be pivotal in creating interesting narrative. The main belief, is that the narrative is semi-autonomous with a drama manager existing in the background. Such that it’s possibly 75% autonomous. Additionally we are considering narrative to be actor driven so that it is the actors which are pushing forth the narrative to it’s concluding state. 

Fundamentals of Story Logic

Overview - A wealth of information is contained within Fundamentals of Story Logic. However, not all of it is necessarily applicable to our main goal, creating autonomous story narrative. While the ‘grammar’ portion of the book is important what we should be interested in is the core of the ‘system’ which we wish to create. The most crucial takeaways from Fundamentals of Story Logic are: 

* Actantial Frame

* Practical Syllogism 

* Narrative Énoncé

* Test, Justice, and, Contract

 

Actor Driven Narrative

Overview - After much thought, it is my thought that the most appropriate method in which to approach generating narrative is through actor driven narrative. An Actor-Driven Narrative consists of semi-autonomous characters which are comprised of a vast actor database which includes all that an actor knows. This allows for mechanisms to generate narrative for an actors  based on the knowledge which is known about an actor. Actor Driven Narrative lends itself perfectly to actantial frame and practical syllogism. While it is not exactly clear what would be the best or most efficient approach for generating narrative, the following is why I believe an actor-driven narrative would be the most suitable. 

Why?One of the first questions which should come up, is why actor driven narrative? Why not plot / story driven narrative? The answer to this stems from human nature. It is within our human nature to seek out and learn from other humans - or for the sake of this content - otherwise known as actors. As a child, you are brought up and learn from parents, relatives, friends, teachers, and other influential actors in your life. They provide a strong base for your knowledge and personality. Without these actors one would simply be an empty void, an entity without a cause or desires. Simply put, they would still be an infant, a blank canvas which does not make for an interesting character to interact with. 

What Is An Actor?An actor is simply a character; in more human terms, we are actors. However, in the context of narrative an actor is limited. Rather than having as many different dimensions or parameters as us humans, they are constrained to living in world which is limited both geographically and systematically. 

To make actors a bit more easy to understand, lets relate them to ourselves. What are we? What makes us who we are? 

* My name is Christian, I am sitting in an office in downtown Troy, and I’m quite thirsty. 

* Right now I know I am typing on a keyboard writing about narrative. 

* Why am I typing on a keyboard writing about narrative? 

* I’m doing so because I took an interest in researching semiotics and story narrative. 

As you can see - a very limited version - of the actor whom I am is comprised of four bullet points of information. Some of these bullet points are related, but others are not. In other words, I can have many different ‘bullet points’ of information all pertaining to different categories. These ‘bullet points’ have come about due to interactions I’ve had. Actors, also require a certain amount of depth or dimensionality such that they are interesting to the audience. To create depth or dimensionality, contradictions are created within an actor, more specifically an actor’s personality which is related to an actor’s episodic knowing. These contradictions must stay consistent throughout the entire narrative. If a character / actor is nice throughout the narrative however, at one moment he kicks a cat, this means nothing and the audience is left surprised, shocked, and the depth and dimensionality of the character is lost. An example of a character with dimensionality is Hamlet. His relationship with Ophelia is at first loving and tender, then, callous and even sadistic. Hamlet is also courageous, then cowardly. However, Hamlet teeters between each of these characteristics such that there is depth to his character. Another example of a character with such great dimensionality is Hannibal Lecter who is a sociopathic cannibal that can be brought to tears by beautiful music and behave so tenderly toward Clarice yet takes pleasures in tormenting Miggs and salivates at the thoughts of eating Dr. Chilton patiently explaining the delicate flavor of human brains to a child. These contradictions are what make Dr. Lecter and Hamlet such intriguing characters / actors. We can create interesting characters such as Hannibal and Hamlet by creating a complex and complete actor database with diverse and complex knowings, specifically episodic memory. By pre-encoding episodic memory and associating them with different actions (emotions) character depth / dimensionality is created. This, is not a simple thing, however, it is made possible by having writers that write specific narratives so that we can create / encode actors. This will be explained later on.  

So in the most basic sense, an actor is the categorical unit that a character becomes a composite of various actions that an actor can take - which in turn are actantial roles in the relationships in which that character is involved. 

Every action unit results in fueling the dramatic beat of a narrative which is the build up of actions which lead to a cumulating intense moment. Therefore, it is essential for all action units to build up the dramatic beat or change the dramatic beat through every actor’s action in order to keep the narrative going. Robert McKee - famous screenwriter and teacher / mentor -  in fact calls a beat the smallest unit of dramatic action that moves the story forward. Façade uses a beat sequencer as a drama manager to ensure that he narrative is kept interesting. Façade contains around 500 global beat goals and there are roughly 200 beats which are at the disposal of the beat sequencer. Within Façade a full story is about 18 beats in duration. This can be used as an example of successful partial actor driven narrative as well as how dramatic beats through actor’s actions should be used. 

What Do Actors Do?Based on this premise, if I were devoid of relationships I would not have any actantial roles or action units. Thus, I would not be an actor, and if I’m not an actor then I wouldn’t exist within narrative. So as we can see, based on these premises and beliefs actor relationships are requirement for actors. However, we should not get held up on literal meaning that actor relationships are a requirement for actors to exist. A single actor can exist by him or her self within a narrative without any other actors; however in the past they must have had actor relationships which thus lead to actantial roles and action units. This can be taken care of through an intensive actor database in which parameters of an actor are defined. Such an operation is much like using a human mid-lifespan and hard coding an actor or by using characters which have been already developed within an existing narrative. An example of this would be if our narrative were to require a politician who is likely to be involved in a sexual scandal, analyzing Bill Clinton in such a way that we can take an ‘imprint’ of his being and use it as the actor’s knowing within the large database of an actor. 

Having established that actors are required to create narrative, this furthers the theory by which narrative is created through the introduction of actors and establishing new actor relationships / actantial roles. Thus, we can theorize that elements such as emotions and feelings are products of actors. Language, is not what is at the core of the narrative, its actors and their ‘form’ of language or the relationships they have established. Theresa points to E. Souriau and his theories of dramatic situations which further establishes this point of view. It can be said that a narrative is built upon sequential dramatic situations or more generally just dramatic situations which occur at some point within the narrative’s timeline. When actors interact with each other, they use these dramatic functions as their actions and combine them simultaneously with other actors. So if John were to speak to Mary at a coffee shop, the basis for such action would be due to the dramatic functions of John. Once interaction occurs between Mary and John, Mary brings into play her own set of dramatic functions and through the interaction of both of these unique dramatic functions new ones are created which Mary and John will take on respectively, thus, the evolution of narrative and actors. However, dramatic functions don’t simply stop at interaction. Once these dramatic functions have taken their course and are completed with they yield dramatic meaning. This, being what resonates with us, the audience as a human function or feeling. Without actors, there would not exist dramatic functions thus an actor’s actions would be inorganic and consequently of confusedly parallel fates. The narrative would break down and the audience would not be able to comprehend an actor’s actions, motives, feelings, and so on. 

How Do Actors Show Feelings? - More importantly how do we express feelings such as emotions and motives through a narrative? This is a question which is usually answered through many topics regarding grammar, interpreting language, and modal logic - and yes, this needs to be done! But, such as I stated previously the core of narrative is not in the language it is in the actors, and the same goes for ‘feelings’. Let us take a medium which is very well established like, cinema, into account. You are watching a film and throughout the film you have been following the story and life of a hero whom is trying to save a little girl who is in trouble. In the end, he saves the little girl at the expense of his life. When he is killed, the audience, us, me, you, we feel something. Now let’s take the same story yet this time the start of the film does not begin with the character development of who the man is and his quest to save the little girl. Instead, the film simply starts with the death of the same man and then plays with time to depict the rest of the narrative. Sure, eventually you will ‘feel’ something, however, at the start of the film you would not feel the same emotion which you felt in the other version of the film. Actors, Thus, feelings are subjective and are interpreted at the will of the audience! The only thing which we can do is introduce characters, actions, and settings in an attempt to receive the response we desire as the authors of the work, however it is ultimately at the discretion of the audience. 

The argument can be made that films such as Fight Club where Edward Norton’s character has a gun shoved inside his mouth in the first scene does provoke an emotional feeling. However, it is one you can not put it into context of a narrative. The why isn’t answered. Once Fight Club continues developing the story behind the first scene the audience is made aware of the context in which the first scene is taking place and new emotions based on new substance and can be formulated rather than the feeling of simple intrigue. The ultimate takeaway however is not whether emotion can be felt during such a scene - it is that emotion is subjective and is enhanced through context. By coming to this belief that emotions are subjective we can get into the notion of empathy and sympathy which the audience feels in narratives. These are feelings which the audience can use to connect themselves with actors in the narrative that in turn creates a stronger personal connection between the audience and the abstract, the abstract being the narrative. 

The thing is that actors allow us, the audience to recognize a situation and analyze the motivation, feelings, and such other things long before the major conflict has been stated. The actions which lead to the build up of a major conflict,  are also dramatic beats. They serve to allow us to see the set-up of human relationships into a sharp, artistic foregrounding, full of excitement that something is about to happen. Such a theory would then suggest that if actors are created in the appropriate manner they will provide everything we need of them. By assigning actors particular personalities or perhaps going a step further possibly human imprints actors would perform actions which we the authors would want of them and their personalities or personas would define which actions they perform and don’t perform. This provides further evidence and grounds for a system which its core is driven by actors and a large database which represent their persona. 

Aside: The main point trying to be made here is that emotions no matter what the character does on screen are subjective. Therefore the worry of how to portray emotions shouldn’t exist as emotions will be represented through user’s actions.

Actor Knowledge

For an actor driven narrative to prove successful it is necessary for actors to have ‘states’ and knowledge particular to them. The solution is closer to home than one might think. What we must do when thinking about is simply think of ourselves as actors are constrained humans. In my opinion there are four types of : 

* Declarative Knolwedge (Descriptive, Propositional Knowledge) 

* Working Memory / Knowledge

* Metacognition

* Episodic Memory

One could make the argument that we could simply group all knowings into one vast knowing however, this would not make it easier to implement and thus with four categorial units of knowing it would be simpler for mechanisms such as the questioner to query specific information from the actor. 

Declarative Knowledge - This is simply an actor’s knowing of facts In more simpler terms, what does the actor know? This is simple in the sense that it can define what the actor has knowledge of speaking about. Do not get too hung up on the terminology as declaritive knowing is rather vast and diverse. This includes an actor’s knowledge of math, science, geography, mechanics, ingenuity, politics, sociology, psychology, etc. Declarative knowing would be used in situations such as querying an actor if they are knowledgeable enough to partake in discussion, take on particular roles within the narrative, use their academic knowing to overcome a problem using ingenuity, etc. An example of declarative knowledge would be knowing what the boiling temperature is at sea level. 

Aside: Once again, the development of a backstory as well as a story comes into play as declarative knowledge of an actor would be defined based on the interactions, environments, and experience a particular actor should be ‘ready’ for. A backstory or story which takes place in the Himilayas will have actors choosing different declarative knowledge than one set at a Starbucks.

Working Memory -  This is a theoretical construct within cognitive psychology which refers to structures and processes for temporarily storing and manipulating information. This area of knowing is another diverse and vast source of information that can have several categories such as the phone number of a friend which you were just told, the color of a girl’s eyes which you just met at a night club, or where the police station is. It is generally considered to have a limited capacity. Miller, introduced the “magical number seven” in which he noticed that the attention span of adults is limited to around seven elements which are called chunks. Chunking is a strategy for making more efficient use of short term memory, and chunks indicate long term memory structures which can be used as units of perception and meaning. Furthermore, the ‘span’ of working memory is dependent on chunks within a category. For example span is lower for long words than short words. Working Memory works in cooperation with declarative as there are times when Working Memory will invoke declarative knowing to provide a more comprehensive knowing to an actor and the narrative than Working Memory can provide at the time. 

Metacognition - The definition of metacognition is quite confusing. It is the cognition about cognition. It is a regulatory mechanism. For more information regarding metacognition please refer to Sun’s Clarion model of metacognition published in 2003. Alternatively, the Motivational and Metacognitive control in CLARION is also a helpful read. (http://www.sts.rpi.edu/~rsun/folder-files/sun-wgbook2007.pdf).  

Episodic Memory - This is the type of knowing which defines who we are as a person or actor in this matter. It can be said that through our experiences, we become who we are. Therefore, episodic knowing is an actor’s personality. Episodic knowing is used to remember events within an actor’s lifetime such as parties, weddings, tragic events, etc. This knowledge is generally in cognitive science declared to be learned by the actor, however, this is not how it will be done so in an actor driven narrative due to the inherent problem that having the actors gain episodic knowledge (personality) would be boring and prove to be not an exciting narrative thus, episodic knowing must be pre-encoded within the actor’s database. Having pre-encoded is possible to conceive and this is fine, and once the episodic knowing is running, the actor exists, there would be additions to the episodic memory that will alter, modify, allow the actor to grow and make choices based on modifications to the environment and other actors. Not only is the memory of an event stored within episodic knowing, the emotions which were associated with that event are also stored thus, that we can query similar events in the future to decide what an actor should or would do in specific scenarios. 

This blog shall be followed up by Creating An Interesting Actor Driven Narrative. 

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