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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