Rob's Pile of Transformers: Manic Ramblings


Manic Ramblings and Delirious Ranting
re: What Defines a Character?
originally posted summer '98; revised Aug. '99


 What *is* a character? 

 Nothing, in a sense. You can't go out and touch a character, 
or talk to them, or photograph them. There's not single solid 
entity that you can say *is* Optimus Prime, Megatron, Tracks, 
Brawn, Starscream, Skyfire, or any of the rest. So how can 
we define them? How can we say 
a particular story or bit of writing *is* or *is not* a particular 
character? 

A character is a description, a set of traits, both physical and 
mental.  Yet those traits can change vastly, even within a 
relatively short period of time, and still be the same person. If 
I suddenly change into a flame-baiting troll, I'm still Rob 
Powers... if hip-shaking Elvis suddenly becomes Vegas 
lounge-singer Elvis, he's still Elvis... if Brawn gets  killed by a 
shot to the shoulder, he's still Brawn... despite the fact that 
these things go against what the reader has come to expect 
of such characters. 

 A character is a nonexistent entity that one or more authors 
guide through a story. The entity consists of both a fiction 
body and a fictional personality, both of which may change. 
Neither entirely defines the character. It is difficult to say 
without a doubt what a person is --I think I'm here, in my body 
and all, but if I chopped off my finger, my arm, would I be any 
less "me"? Is the missing limb still me? If I get a lobotomy and 
forget how to write, I'm still me... though not necessarily the 
*same* me. Intro philosophy classes go into great depth to 
prove that it's hard to define precisely what a person is. And 
likewise for fictional characters. You can define a character 
as a set of traits, but those traits can still be changed. Yet it is 
only in the context of a story that changes to a character's 
personality have meaning; otherwise you're just manipulating 
traits, adding and removing things from a list of qualities. Real 
people don't change for no reason at all, and a believable 
character shouldn't either. Whether it's seeing your brother 
get killed when you could have prevented it, getting a ramrod 
through your brain, becoming bored with the status quo, or 
getting a brand-new body, there's got to be *some* 
motivating force behind the change.

 In some sense, a character *must* change. Change is what 
life is, as much as we humans fight against it. Life is an ebb 
and flow, a continuity, nothing static. Unchanging things 
appear that way because of our limited perceptions in time 
and space, but with a long enough view *nothing* is 
permanent, not even the universe. A story is a series of 
changes, actions and reactions. *Anyone* can pick up a pen 
and write about a character, or at least use a character's 
name. But if I write "Optimus smiled evilly as he slowly twisted 
Spike's neck, relishing the popping of vertebrae as the 
annoying earth germ's existence came to a messy end", is it 
*really* Optimus Prime?  Or have I pushed the character 
outside their envelope of reasonable definition? 

 I think that's a workable definition of what a character is -- a 
flexible, loosely bounded set of traits, like a dense circle that 
gets thinner at the edges and gradually tapers off into 
nothing. The above description of Optimus is WAY outside 
his circle. Something like the following might be at the very 
outer edge of the circle, very unlikely but possible in the right 
extreme circumstances: "I am truly sorry, Spike," Optimus 
said. "Please... forgive me." With that the Autobot leader 
averted his optics and fired, vaporizing the human. The dense 
portion of the circle -- the part that commonly defines the 
character for most people -- can be stretched and pulled 
according to circumstance and experience, making formerly 
unlikely actions common place as time goes on. Likewise, 
older sections of the circle -- paths of action and response -- 
might be closed off, becoming more and more unlikely as time 
goes by. For example, although it's certainly possible for the 
characters below to carry out the following actions, I think the 
following scene is so far outside their personality circles it's all 
but impossible: 

"Look, Megatron!" Optimus shouted. 
"What is it?"
"Daisies! A whole field of them!" 
"Ooooh, pretty!" 
The two robots joined hands and skipped across the field, 
singing theSmurfs theme song in unison. Above them, 
Unicron smiled. All was well with the universe.

 Furthermore, the circle is different for different people.  I 
think Raksha's interpretation of the Decepticons is within 
their circle, but far enough from the commonly-percieved 
middle that most people are thrown for aloop by it.  Yet 
Raksha argues for her view of these characters with proven 
facts, and has persuaded a lot of folks -- in a sense, she's 
altered the circle, not just as she sees it, but as it's seen by 
many Tranfans.

 In some sense, then, a pop-culture character's personality is 
determined by consensus. Megatron is evil because a lot of 
ATTers think he is. But he's not, because a lot of ATTCMers 
think he isn't. He is, and he isn't.  He's both and neither, 
because he's not real, and yet you can't just makeup anything 
you want and say it's Megatron, because there are certain 
indeterminate things that make him *Megatron*. 

A character, no matter how strongly you relate to them, no 
matter how "real" they seem, is nevertheless a construct of 
the mind.  As such, it is non-concrete and cannot be said to 
have an absolute truth.  Characters are influenced by the 
people who write them, the people who voice act them, the 
people who illustrate them, and the people who read about 
and view them. Characters are a composite work, a 
collaboration between the writer and the reader, and thus will 
be slightly different for each person.

You may disagree, but consider: if a character is not open to 
interpretation, then there must be some absolute defining 
truth for them.  And where would such a truth exist?  Where 
does a _character_ exist?  On celluloid?  On paper?  In the 
reader's mind?  Subspace?  In the reader and writer's mind 
only, I have to say. Sure, they exist on the TV screen, but 
that's just celluloid. Does a single cell ofthe cartoon that 
shows Starscream actually contain him? No, because there's 
a million other cells that also show him. Each is just an 
interpretation, a representation -- the character is the sum of 
all these representations, the sum of their every word and 
action and expression.  

 Optimus Prime is not the same being to me that he is to (for 
example, since this paragraph was orginally addressed to her) 
Raksha; how can either one of us claim that we hold 
exclusive knowledge of who he is and the other is irrefutably 
wrong?  We can't, precisely because there's no real Optimus 
Prime that we can go out and get to know and ask "why did 
you do this?" and "how do you feel about that?"  In the 
cartoons, he took certain actions and said certain things, but 
however much we may conjecture about his motives for those 
actions, there is still no actual entity that *is* Optimus Prime 
and actually *contains* those motives.  It's all in the minds of 
the fans and the creators... and therefore it's all (to a certain 
extent) interpretations.

 Likewise -- suppose the G1 cartoon writers really did intend 
for Megatron to be the embodiment of all evil (which, given 
the nature of Hasbro, would not surprise me).  Obviously they 
didn't seal up all other possibilities, since many fans see him 
otherwise.  But if the writer doesn't have the final say over 
what a character is, then obviously there's a component 
that's left up to the viewer.  And that is going to vary from 
viewer to viewer: that's interpretation.

 What all this basically means is that it's very hard to say that 
something IS or IS NOT a character with absolute certainty. It 
doesn't mean a character can be written any old way and still 
be the same character.  But it leaves a lot more doors open, 
room for greater lattitude in interpretation. You CAN, 
however, argue that certain actions are so far outside a 
character's envelope of responses that it is pretty much 
impossible for him to take those actions. 

 No one person entirely owns a character... or even controls 
them. When we speculate on a character's "motives", what 
are we really doing but assigning our own thoughts to them? 
The character's "motives" aren't anything real, beyond what 
the writer may or may not have had in mind; you can't even go 
out and touch a character, let alone the *thoughts* of a 
character. Why did Hot Rod jump Megatron in TF:TM? A 
desire for glory? Or a selfless attempt to protect Optimus 
Prime? The writer may not have had either one in mind. We 
can only assign one of these motives ourselves, as viewers, 
and argue in favor of that motive so that others will agree with 
us. Consensus determines character, and even consensus 
isn't right -- since the "consensus" will be different for every 
different person.

   Most people have no idea what, for example, my character 
Lash looks like, since there are no pictures of her on the 'net.  
If I write that she slugs Thundercracker and knocks him out, 
you the reader are going to form a very different view in your 
head of the scene than I would, simply because I already 
have an image of what she looks like and you don't.  There's 
very little chance our two images would coincide.  Is your 
image therefore "wrong"?  Despite how I feel as the creator 
of the character (that she should basically look and behave 
however I intend her to), I can't really say that whatever 
picture you form is entirely incorrect.  And this is just physical 
appearance we're talking about here... if there's room for 
such leeway in a "concrete" thing as that, think of the 
possibilities for abstract concepts like motivations, thoughts, 
desires, etc.  By contrast, if we meet at BotCon and you slug 
me and knock me out :], there's only one correct and 
accurate version of the sequence of events.  No room for 
interpretation.

 A fanfic writer could write "Megatron does this that and the 
other", and depending on what the actions were, it may or 
may not seem like what we think of as Megatron.  If the writer 
puts down that "Megatron *thought* this that and the other", 
it ascribes a motive to those actions.  Those motives may or 
may not coincide with your ideas of what Megatron is "really" 
thinking and therefore might seem wrong.

    In the cartoon, a definative set of actions that are very 
Megatron were set forth.  You and I both see them and 
agree, that's Megatron.  How we judge those actions, and 
what motives we ascribe to them, may be very different, but at 
some point, despite all the judgements, there must be a set 
of actions that all interpreters agree are possible for the 
character -- the center of the character's circle, I guess.

 What, then, makes a character a good or bad one?  There's 
many criteria: are they realistic and believable?  Are they 
interesting?  Can the reader relate to the character's feelings 
or their situation?  Are they consistently written?  I've mused 
that perhaps the more people's interpretations coincide, the 
better written the character is, but I don't think that's it --  
many of Shakespeare's greatest characters were wide open 
to interpretation.  I guess there's no one set way of defining a 
"good" character -- they can be very concrete and definate, or 
more open to interpretation.  I guess as long as they speak to 
the reader in some way, they're a good character -- they can 
be amusing like Waspinator (evoking empathy for their trials 
and tribulations), admirable as many folks see Optimus Prime 
(seen as a role model), or any of a thousand other reactions.  
And perhaps having them seem more "real" by making them 
well-rounded is simply a way of making the delivery of this 
emotional connection more palatable to the mind.

 A quick aside: an idea floated around every now and then is 
that the Transformers -- especially those of early G1 -- aren't 
simply normal characters, but rather archetypes -- super-
characters, characters set in stone, facets of the human 
condition taken to an extreme.  As the first person to propose 
it stated, "Red Alert isn't just paronoid; he IS paranoia."  
Tracks is vanity; Bombshell is gluttony; Starscream is 
ambition; Rhinox is death; and so on.  In this sense, we 
wouldn't expect the characters to change at all; they are the 
embodiment of some element of the human psyche - much 
like the gods of Greek and Roman mythology.  Considering 
the "extreme" personalities many TFs have, this is certainly 
one legitimate way of looking at Transformers. 

 I do think it's neat that you can consider Transformers this 
way.  However, I don't use this viewpoint myself, either in 
writing stories or in thinking about them.  To me (and I want to 
stress that I'm speaking personally here), it's too limiting.  It 
basically means that a character can't change, that their 
personality is set in stone, and that makes it harder to explore 
them, harder to show the sort of emotional changes that 
bring humanity to a story.  Furthermore, such a person would 
have a hard time functioning in a normal society (how long 
could Strafe really continue to shoot random people walking 
up to him before they locked him in a padded room for 
everyone's good?)  It's also limiting in the "good character" 
department, since it seems to rule out many of the minor 
everyday facets that make a character more real, more 
believable.  Real people aren't just agressive or vain or 
arrogant all the time; they get mad, become happy, fall in love, 
get bored, depressed, complacent, the whole shooting works.  
It can be easier and clearer to define a character in terms of 
one or two outstanding traits, but it won't necessarily make 
them more realistic.

 And a final thought: the "architypes" view skirts the edge of 
another matter I've thought about some.  Fans don't want 
anything to change; they're happy with the static situation.  If 
they weren't, they might not be fans.  Writers want to change 
everything -- where's the pleasure and challenge in writing the 
same static situation over and over?  How can a story move 
forwards without change?  "Change is what's happening 
here, people," Bob Forward said in one of his earliest posts to 
ATT.  Sherlock Holmes was killed off because his writer was 
tired of writing him.  But fans raised such a cry that he was 
brought back.  Ditto for Optimus Prime.  And there are fans 
who today detest the fact that Prime was brought back, 
because it cheapened his "death".  Death is a change, 
supposedly an irreversable one, one that many fans didn't 
like.  Other fans may have liked it, even if they were fans of 
the character.  Still others might have disliked it, but found in 
it some moving sense of drama or pathos that was 
invalidated by having Prime return in TRoOP.  It's human 
nature to resist change; yet as I said above it's the way of the 
universe.

  I suspect that, again, this comes back to a personal 
preference in the way people view things.  Those that hate 
changes perhaps look to the story for a solace and comfort, 
something stable and reliable -- I suspect this might be the 
"architypes" crowd.  Those that prefer changes to come, are 
more looking for a reflection of real life's ups and downs and 
variances and cycles, like myself.  One preference may be 
more realistic, but the other might be seen as more 
inspirational or mythical or something.  Again, though I know 
which one I prefer, it's all strictly personal.

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