Heroes vs Characters

28Mar12

People often talk about round vs flat characters, dynamic vs iconic characters.

Instead, today, I want to ramble a little bit about another distinction — a distinction, you might say, between archetypal heroes and distinct characters.

I’m not trying to make this the Grand Unified Theory of all fiction here, just pointing out something interesting that I’ve seen happen in popular books and movies.

If you can get past the tasteless and misogynistic humor used to frame the videos, one of the best ways to waste an hour on the internet is to watch Red Letter Media’s 7-part review of Star Wars: Episode 1.  There’s a lot of really good storytelling analysis here.

Today’s blog entry is going to pivot off of the section that begins at about 06:48 of the first video, where guests compare Original Trilogy characters and Prequel Trilogy characters.

If you don’t care to watch, here’s a transcript:

Describe the following Star Wars character WITHOUT saying what they look like, what kind of costume they wore, or what their profession or role in the movie was.

Describe this character to your friends like they ain’t never seen Star Wars.

The more descriptive they get, the stronger the character, right?

Han Solo:

 “He’s a rogue”

“He’s very arrogant, but charming”

“Roguish, if you will”

“Han Solo is… totally dashing <3”

“Wannabe dashing, he fancies himself as a playboy”

“So, like, he’s a smarmy cocksure womanizer”

“Scoundrel”

“Pigheaded”

“Completely sexy in like a bad boy sorta way where, like, he’s gonna ride the line”

“He’s got kind of a dark streak to him, with shooting Greedo in the bar”

“But also, deep down, he’s a thief with a heart of gold, that’s his character, really.”

Qui-Gon Jinn:

“He’s……. stoic”

“I don’t remember that character.” (OK, he’s Liam Neeson, with the beard?) “Oh… yes..”

“……Well, he has a beard.”

“Qui-Gon Jinn, and he was……..?”

“Bahaha!!!…. um…. stern?”

C-3P0:

“Bumbling sidekick”

“Scaredy-cat… timid”

“C-3P0 is… anal-retentive—”

“—is prissy”

“Used a lot as comic relief—”

“—High-strung”

“—He’s bumbling… effeminate”

Queen Amidala:

“That is going to be fucking impossible because she doesn’t have a character”

“She is, um………. she’s Natalie Portman?”

“Yeah, like, just, kind of…”

“She’s a queen…”

“Normal, I guess. She’s kinda normal.”

“Makeup would be a description, I was gonna describe her makeup.”

“Um… monotone?”

“I can’t answer that and you know it!”

“So….”

“She is…. this is funny, btw”

This storytelling exercise makes it clear that Han Solo and C-3P0 are way more dynamic and memorable than these newcomers.

My question, though, is —- why didn’t Red Letter Media ask about Luke Skywalker, who is after all the main fucking character in Star Wars?

Hey guys, what about me?

Let’s compare:

  • Why is the typical JRPG protagonist silent, while supporting characters get dialogue?

This is the distinction I want to make:

In almost every case, when you compare the main character of a story with a main supporting character, the supporting character is cooler, more quotable, vivid, and (sometimes) even more popular!

I think the main characters of stories like these don’t really deserve to be called characters. They’re really just heroes, full stop: indistinct surfaces onto which viewers can project themselves.

And as we all know, blank surfaces are best when it comes to projection.

You might have noticed these characters are also male… I wonder why LOL. Nevertheless, female versions exist…

as pale as a movie screen

I got thinking about this dichotomy when I read an interesting line in Gregory Barrett’s Archetypes in Japanese Film:

Characters are the constituents of realistic drama and literary art. Archetypes are the stuff fantastic entertainments and commercial films are made of.

Similar to this is a comment Susan Sontag made in Thesis 33 of Notes on Camp:

…Wherever there is development of character, Camp is reduced. Among operas, for example, La Traviata (which has some small development of character) is less campy than Il Trovatore (which has none).

It sometimes seems that the campier the entertainment, the less character development becomes possible for the hero.

You could even say that the Campbellian Heroic Journey — the basic story structure we all know from Star Wars, the Matrix, etc, including the figure of the ‘chosen one’ — is specifically set up to use spectacular events as a substitute for character development.

Any time a character hears a prophecy or “finds out about their destiny”, say goodbye to nuanced character analysis and say hello to spectacle.

I even think this distinction between nuanced character and heroic archetype can help explains why certain literary techniques fall flat for me.

To me, Ayn Rand’s mode of “romantic realism”, featuring larger-than-life capitalist heroes that represent (as she put it) “man as he should be”, ends up being just as turgid as works of Socialist Realism, which, you might say, tried to represent “Russia as it should be.”

Although their political philosophies were diametrically opposed, the artistic effect of both movements was equally poor.

Does this guy look like an interesting character to you?

I think this happened because the archetypal, audience-surrogate, wish-fulfillment heroes in these stories are incompatible with the level of psychological analysis that their own creators tried to milk out of them.

Rand, like the socialists she detested, believed that her ideology was the only accurate way to view the world.

Yet just like the socialists, when she tried to subject her own heroes to analysis, the effect failed. The characters were too heroic and perfect to seem real when viewed in detail.

So… the more popular the entertainment, the blanker the main character? Are things really this bleak?

When we try to create compelling main characters, it’s easy to use audience projection as a substitute for character development and default to the “chosen one” type hero.

The challenge is to achieve audience identification without relying on the “projection effect” that makes Neo, Luke, and Paul Atreides so goddamn boring.

For me, the mark of a high-quality story is when the main characters admit some degree of audience identification, but are nevertheless unique and psychologically nuanced. These individuals may develop in more ambiguous directions than the archetypal hero.

For me, Alfred Bester’s Gully Foyle, Gene Wolfe’s Severian, and Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe all fall into this category.

Luke Skywalker, not so much.




5 Responses to “Heroes vs Characters”

  1. 1 John

    This reminds me of how Raymond Chandler described Sherlock Holmes: mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue. (It works as a description of Philip Marlowe, too). It’s an interesting observation because it implies that good characterization (or one specific type of good characterization) occurs only intermittently, in between stretches of negative space. (Which is kind of like reality—I have a distinct personality, but the way I ride the subway and buy coffee and tie my shoes and do all the mundane activities of life isn’t all that different than everyone else).

    It also makes me wonder if, from the reader’s perspective, the default mode is one of constant self-mapping onto the protagonist. That would mean that good characterization are moments that interrupt that mapping in interesting and believable ways—sort of a negative space theory of character development, if that makes any sense.

    Anyway, nice post, with plenty of brain food, as always.

    • I suppose that mode of engagement probably varies with the reader. Some people hate stories with “unsympathetic protagonists,” but I kind of like them.

      I like the idea of “interrupted mapping” — can you think of an example?

  2. 3 John

    I think Philip Marlowe, and a lot of Chandler-inspired noir protagonists, come across this way for me. Part of this has to do with the fact that most of them are written in the first person, and that noir protagonist as a rule are usually unremarkable and lacking in special skills (except for street smarts and an unusual tolerance for alcohol). Noir characters also exist in social vacuums. If Marlowe has parents or siblings you’d never know it–as a narrator he’s almost always entirely silent on non-case related social interactions. This leaves a white space into which I can graft my own social sensibilities.

    The net result, I think, is that when I read Chandler novels, for instance, I am picturing myself as the narrative “I” more than I would otherwise, and my picture of Marlowe’s character comes across largely from the dissonances between his actions and what my sense of what I would do in his circumstance.

  3. Reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.


  1. 1 SF Tidbits for 3/29/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

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