Some thoughts on “character”

I’ve been thinking for a long time about the following quote from Warren Ellis:

Chris Claremont once said of Alan Moore, “if he could plot, we’d all have to get together and kill him.” Which utterly misses the most compelling part of Alan’s writing, the way he develops and expresses ideas and character. Plot does not define story. Plot is the framework within which ideas are explored and personalities and relationships are unfolded. If all you want is plot, go and read a Tom Clancy novel.

For me, this is a key to understanding genre fiction — or maybe I should just say, fiction in general. Plot is overrated. SF novels and comics and movies and the like where it’s all about the plot, how well it is put together, how if a gun is on the table in Act One, it has to be used in Act Three, and so on, bore the hell out of me. The better and more cleverly it is put together, the more it seems to me to be just a dumb, creaky mechanism which provides neither pleasure nor insight. I know that lots of people (readers/viewers as well as creators) get off on carefully crafted plots; but such things do nothing for me.

Which doesn’t mean that all I want to read is avant-garde novels which have no narrative whatsoever. Fiction entirely devoid of a plot is like movies entirely devoid of sound (i.e., not like “silent films” as they were actually exhibited pre-1928, because they always had musical accompaniment, but silent films shown today without the needed music, or arty silent films that have no soundtrack by choice) — they are extremely difficult to follow, or to keep my attention on, or to have any sort of temporal dimension at all — it is like not having short-term memory, each moment happens and then disappears in a void, never to be recalled or related to anything else. [One of the many brilliant things about Kenneth Anger’s films is how, even if he has no specific soundtrack in mind, he just drops in pop songs almost randomly because that energizes the films somehow, allows us to apprehend the images in their duration better — I love, for instance, the way that silly “things that go bump in the night” song accompanies Pierrot gesturing at the moon (or am I confusing two of his early films?)].

So. Warren is right, I think. Plot has to be there, but only as a “framework” allowing for the development of what really matters: “ideas and character.” Plot is like a medium or an atmosphere, “within which ideas are explored and personalities and relationships are unfolded.” Just like you need the atmosphere in order to live, so you need the plot in order to explore those ideas, and to see those personalities and relationships. But you’ve got to look through the plot, just as you look through the air to see somebody or something. Of course, there are times when the air itself is important (like when there is a tornado, or when it is heavily polluted), and there are certain times when the plot in itself is important. But for the most part, this is a realm in which McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” does not work.

Of course, ideas are important especially in SF; maybe not as much in some other genres. But what I am interested in here is the question of characters, or “personalities and relationships.” It seems to me that this is something very hard to talk about, yet it is an incredibly important part of how we react to fictions, and why we like some of them so much. It’s common to talk about “identification” with a protagonist, but I think this notion is so vague and general that it doesn’t get us very far. Indeed, William Flesch’s Comeuppance argues quite cogently against both the “identification” theory and the Aristotelian notion of an intrinsic human delight in mimesis. Our relations to the characters we encounter in fictional narratives (and to some extent in non-fictional narratives as well) is much more indirect and convoluted than an “identification” theory can account for.

But for the moment I want to think about only a certain subset of the question of characters in narrative. I want to think about the ways in which characters in genre fiction tend to be, well, generic. Or rather, I want to think about why the best and most interesting characters we encounter in fiction are generic ones. The greatest, most memorable, and most enjoyable characters in English-language fiction (leaving aside Shakespeare for the time being) are almost certainly those of Charles Dickens. And Dickens has no interest at all in anything like interiority, or psychological depth, or Freudian unconscious complexes. Of course, these terms are all 20th-century (or at least late-19th-century) ones, so that their application to Dickens could only be anachronistic. But that’s not the crucial point. What I mean is that Dickens’ characters are, in a curious way, indexical. By this I mean that they are each defined by a single trait, or at most by a couple of traits. These traits tend to be exaggerated, even caricatural. And the characters flagrantly exhibit these traits each time we see them — it is almost as if they were machines programmed to exhibit the same tic over and over. Or else, as if they were maniacal exhibitionists, except that the exhibitionism is not felt by the characters themselves, it is only orchestrated by the author.

What I am trying to get at is that Dickens’ characters are, in a certain sense, not “psychological” at all — they are all outer display, not inner depth. And that, far from detracting from either their “realism” or how compelling they are to the reader, it is precisely on account of what I am calling their outwardness, and their indexicality, that they are both naturalistically plausible and emotionally compelling to us. In a curious way, this mode of presenting character is “truer to life” than any degree of introspection or stream-of-consciousness detail could ever possibly be.

Why is this? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it is because Dickens’ indexical style of character presentation is very close to the way that we actually encounter, get impressions of, and judge people in the real world. I’d even say that, not only do we (obviously) not know other people through introspection, but also we do not even know ourselves through introspection. Self-knowledge is the hardest type of knowledge to obtain. I lack the disinterest that would be required in order for me to see myself objectively. And when I do introspect, the more I strain to examine myself, the more blurry and confused I appear to myself, and the less I am able to apprehend myself in any well-delineated way at all. I am unable to objectify myself, to caricature myself, let alone to characterize myself. Introspective fiction, similarly, tends not to be about character at all. It blurs and dissolves character into something else: at best, perhaps into Language or Style, or sometimes Time, in the great modernist novels. (Leopold, Stephen, and Molly are functions of Joyce’s stupendous linguistic inventiveness, rather than the reverse; Proust’s narrator is so profoundly introspective, so drawn into the flows of duration and memory that he scarcely exists as a “character” at all).

When characters are indexical, as they are in Dickens — and as they also are, for example, in classical Hollywood movies, i.e. those from approximately 1930-1960) — they have the odd quality of being both generic and singular. Generic, in the sense that they are all recognizable types. Singular, in that each one has some sort of unique inflection, something that is wholly idiosyncratic. What’s left out is everything in between these two poles: the individualizing characteristics that are less than generic, but more than the mere idiosyncrasies or tics that enable instant recognition.

Here, I am thinking in part of Thomas Wall‘s wonderful discussion of “character actors” in old Hollywood movies:

Character actors are absolutely familiar to us but they never possess “star quality”… [They] never work hard to disguise themselves or to dissolve into a role as in “method” acting. To the contrary, they play their various roles in much the same way, film after film, decade after decade. They are actors who become so familiar because their reality is entirely made up of their various roles such that their mannerisms, habits, looks, vocal tonalities, and gestures all become characteristic and as familiar as the actors themselves remain unfamiliar to us… They always play “types” and they are nothing apart from the types they play… We know them only as images and we see them only as images, that is, as allegories of themselves. Each role is another allegory.

These marvelous actors are therefore singularities… [They] are completely absorbed into the celluloid, the stock, the stereotypes they play so perfectly. They are “types” and they have assumed themselves as such. The character actor cannot be identified with any particular role but neither do they evoke nor express anything other than the role. They have a pure relation to cinema.

Wall describes these character actors as being at the same time “types,” or purely generic, and “singularities” — by which Wall means something like individual instances that can serve as “examples” of some generic quality, but that have no content to them aside from being, in this way, exemplary. A certain character actor cannot be equated with Cowardice or Drunkenness overall — for he is only an individual instance (or instantiation) of one of these generic qualities. He is certainly not the quality in general. This is what makes him singular. But at the same time he is nothing other than a coward or a drunkard — this entirely defines his being. Walter Brennan is never anything more than the Western hero’s old geezer sidekick. Donald Meek is never anything more than the “timid, worrisome, reticent, cowering” figure he plays so often.

Wall is describing Hollywood character actors in explicit contrast to movie stars. Yet I would claim that, in classic Hollywood at least, the stars can also be characterized by this strange combination of the wholly generic and the wholly singular, with nothing in between. Of course, as Wall points out, we recognize the big stars by name, which is not the case with the character actors. But “John Wayne,” “Cary Grant,” and “Katherine Hepburn” are in fact as much generic figures as the character actors are. It is just that the “types” they embody are themselves. You can’t imagine John Wayne playing Hamlet, because whatever role he plays, he is always John Wayne. In each of his roles, Wayne is a singular instance of John-Wayne-ness, nothing more and nothing less. In some of his roles, he is unabashedly heroic, while in others he may even deconstruct his own heroicness (e.g. The Searchers). But even though he is the only instance of the generic type that he embodies, he still appears always, and only, as a singular example of that type.

The telling contrast, I think, is not between character actors and stars, but between the actors of classical Hollywood (significantly, Wall names Thelma Ritter, Elisha Cook Jr., and Thelma Ritter) and those who belong to more recent times, from the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s to today. Today, for the most part, characters are supposed to be specified — they are all supposed to have “plausible” backstories and motivations. This is partly due to the ubiquity of Method Acting (Wall emphasizes how the generic/singular nature of character actors is incompatible with anything like the Method), and partly due to the way screenwriting conventions have changed, or screenwriting has become “rationalized” (this is due in part to screenwriting classes). The idea is that everything in the narrative — every detail, everything about a character — has to be “motivated,” assigned a plausible rationale. The generic is scorned as being cliche — which leads, in fact, to the much worse cliche that everything has its own particular reason for being, incomparable with anything else. In America today, each of us has his or her own “individuality” — and this is precisely the way in which we are all exactly alike, all atomized consumers with our own bundle of “preferences.” The generic and the singular are both repressed, in favor of the in-between ground of busy particularity.

The result of imposing motivation and backstories on everything is that the film’s characters lose their generic quality — and by that fact, they lose their singularity as well. Today’s character actors are completely interchangeable, in a way that Walter Brennan, Donald Meek, Thelma Ritter, etc., were not. They are interchangeable precisely because they are not typecast, but are rather each crafted as an “individual.” The trouble with such “individuals” is that they are not singular; the fact that each of them has his or her individual differences is precisely the characteristic by which they are all the same. And I think this is true of stars as well. Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert Downey Jr. are both totally brilliant actors whose performances I greatly admire. But they aren’t iconic in the way that John Wayne, James Stewart, and Cary Grant were; and this is because they are somehow too immersed in their particular roles, which vary from film to film.

[There are some exceptions to this, of course. The two Toms — Hanks and Cruise — are much more in the tradition of old-style Hollywood iconicity; but I can’t help it, they both seem to me to be completely lame when compared to Stewart or Grant. It may also be that the generic/singular formation can be revived, if not by individual contemporary actors, then by the pairing of such actors, as with the Ed Norton/Brad Pitt doublet of Fight Club. — Also, my old friend Philip Wohlstetter once suggested to me, rightly I think, that part of the brilliance of Titanic was precisely that it had dispensed with post-Method motivation, and gone back to the old Hollywood style of generic typecasting.]

To turn to another type of narrative — science fiction novels — you can see the same sort of contrast if you compare a novel by Philip K Dick to one by a contemporary hard-SF writer like Greg Bear. Nobody praises Dick for his delineation of character; yet part of what makes Dick’s novels so poignant is precisely that his metaphysical and socio-commodified predicaments, and paranoid dislocations, are always experienced by everyman, ordinary-Joe-who-just-wants-to-get-by characters. Joe Chip in Ubik is entirely generic/singular in the ways I have been describing; he has no “depth”. But isn’t this precisely why we feel so drawn in by his struggles, whether he is being shaken down by his refrigerator for a ten cent payment, or struggling for his life-after-death against a spirit of entropy and decay?

On the other hand, I just finished reading Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, which is very interesting from an ideas point of view (it imagines a form of directed evolution, in which an endogenous retrovirus emerges from its thousands of years of sleep as “junk DNA” in the human genome, in order to orchestrate a new speciation, or at least subspeciation, of humanity). But I am really irritated by the way Bear introduces characters. Each one is givien a specification when first introduced. For example, chosen entirely at random: “A middle-aged Republic Security officer with the formidable name of Vakhtang Chikurishvili, handsome in a burly way, with heavy shoulders and a thick, often-broken nose, stepped forward.” No matter that we only meet this character for an instant on page 20, and never again in the course of a 524-page novel; we have to be given some “hook” that will de-genericize him, that will give him a certain “plausibility” as a character. The result is that all the characters of Darwin’s Radio get muddled, precisely because of the way that we have been given details to distinguish them. We know a lot more about the novel’s protagonists, Kaye Lang and Mitch Rafelson, than we ever do about Joe Chip; but we never care about them anywhere near as much as we do about Dick’s hero. And this is precisely because, like contemporary Hollywood actors and characters, they lack the generic dimension, and lack singularity as well, falling in between, so that their very plausibility turns them into stick figures without any deeper resonance.

I don’t mean to single out Bear for special censure; he is, in fact, one of the more interesting SF writers at work today. But, although I value SF very largely for its ideas, for the ways it tries to think through the hints of futurity that have already arrived in our present, and to negotiate the tricky shoals of the meeting between technology and socio-political actuality — I also like it because (in contrast to Bear’s technique, which is closer to mainstream fiction) it is one of the places where the generic-singular mode of character presentation is still viable. The same is true, and perhaps even more so, for comics — the medium of comics, with its tendency towards iconic images rather than fully naturalistic ones (as Scott McCloud notes), and with its linguistic compression (for reasons of space alone, text has to be brief and pointed, resonant and charged, rather than over-specific), almost requires the kind of iconic, generic/singular approach to character that I have been discussing.

Which is why, for instance, I am so looking forward to Matt Fraction’s forthcoming run with Invincible Iron Man, in which we are promised an epic battle between Tony Stark’s corporate fascism and the “post-national…open source ideological terrorism” of “bad guy” Zeke Stane.

19 thoughts on “Some thoughts on “character””

  1. On plot – one of the weirder phenomena, for me, is the incredible popularity of Agatha Christie novels, which are basically nothing but plot – its almost programmatic the extent to which she refuses to supply /any/ characterisation, or even caricature. Plus, many of the plots of her novels are so unbelievably complicated that it’s hard to believe any human mind could follow them (at least on a careless first read; and it’s pretty hard to read the books with care…) – it’s like any grasp of what’s actually going on drops out, and you’re just left with the sensation of experiencing a complicated network of events and relationships. I’m convinced the pleasure many people get from Christie’s resolutions doesn’t depend on anything being understood, but on a weird sensation of resolution and understanding, a pleasure that’s almost entirely formal.

  2. Two thoughts on the particulars of this great post:

    One: Contra Claremont, I feel that Moore can often exhibit a great talent for plot. The narratives of “The Watchmen” and “Top Ten” in particular are gripping and wonderfully well-paced. And even the stories that fail somewhat to maintain their narrative tension–e.g. “V for Vendetta,” which fizzles a bit near the end–also contain several brilliantly sequenced sub-narratives.

    Two: the take on character in Dickens seems mostly right, but Pip at least seems like a partial exception. Some of his personal traits (vanity, self-absorbtion and youthful fearfullness) seem exaggerated in the typical way, but by the end of “Great Expectations,” he seems to have acquired something akin to a complex personality.

    Three: in both Moore and Dickins, it seems that narrative works in the service of character, rather than vice-versa. That is: narrative is a secondary consideration, deriving its contours from the exigencies of characterization. In some cases, this actually works in the service of the plots, resulting in stories that equally brilliant on the levels of character and narrative. In others, the plots tend to lose focus and/or sprawl, but we don’t tend to care, because the characters are so well-drawn.

    I wonder if serialized narratives in particular tend to waver between these two outcomes. I see evidence of a similar tendency in “Buffy” and “The Sopranos.” “The Wire,” on the other hand, consistently puts plot in the service of character, to consistently brilliant effect.

  3. As interesting as I find your discussion of Dickens, I hope you don’t Shakespeare aside for too long as you think this through. Hamlet is routinely read as the first fully formed and developed “real” character (interiority, singularity, etc.) in the tradition. Curiously, this invention of character often then gets translated (sometimes with great publishing success) as the invention of the human. That is, the creation of what we have come to accept as “character” in fiction has come to be so closely interwined with what we call “human” that most can no longer separate them out easily in conversation. Weird, of course. We tend to say a character isn’t “real” or fully developed if he isn’t like Hamlet because the character Hamlet is real and fully developed — we just forget that Hamlet isn’t a person, just our first “character,” a brilliant and longlasting generic construct. To further complicate things, the “character” Hamlet really identifies with actors, wants to be an actor.

  4. Personally, I think the genius of directors like Kubrick, Fincher and even Spielberg is that they understand the need for actors and their performances to be iconic rather than merely naturalistic. Its what gives their work a meta-fictional power.

  5. I’ve seen far too many student films that use the Anger method of “drop[ping] in pop songs almost randomly” as a crutch for me to endorse the method. It even makes me question whether Anger made the right choice in doing it in his own films, or whether it was simply a matter of convenience. What’s wrong with allowing images to stand on their own, independent of sound? And because you bring up “silent films shown today without the needed music” – one of my pet peeves is watching DVDs of early, silent avant-garde films in which a soundtrack has been added, usually with little attention paid to how it relates to the film itself – merely generic background film music, implying dramatic moments when there are none or otherwise just plodding on aimlessly. Whether or not the films were originally exhibited with soundtracks, simply dropping in something almost randomly seems like a ridiculous way to appease people who are turned off or made uncomfortable by silence.

  6. There is one almost indispensable idea from Aristotle that I can’t help associating with character development, I.e., hubris. Newman in Cool Hand Luck, Nicholson in One Flew Over the Coocoo’s Nest. The parenthetical would be the difference in affect that novels have over films; or vice versa. In any case we see character’s thrown into a state of self-consciousness. The two examples are perfect. How is it possible for characters in film or novels to be self-aware? You see they intrinsically know the plot. This is exciting and boring at the same time. It excites in me when Newman won’t give up. It bores me that in fifteen minutes, half-hour, hour the movie will be over and I won’t have any more connection with the character than I have with any story on my shelve.

    Arrogance arises in the character when he is given by the narrator a clairvoyance into the plot; when he knows there is no way out, no way to form beyond what is given in text of himself, no way of avoiding the outcome. But what of this self-awareness? Isn’t it absurd to ascribe to a character self-awareness? Yes. But if you’re comfortable working with/within the absurd then we’ll have no problem of this. I bought an inexpensive toolkit from Target. I don’t know the names of half of them. Most look as though they’re absurd in the sense that they have no function. Indeed they don’t unless they have something to fix. If only as a tool it allows the us to form a comprehensive taxonomy of narratives. Can this be done?

    There are many starting points in narratology. I don’t think there is any necessary absolutes. Somewhere around phylum voice, character, plot are blurred. It takes a mighty developed ear to hear the difference in tempo and key of strings, brass, &tc.

  7. We might need to define plot a little more clearly, too. Is it the overarching story? Or is the the various episodes, incidents, events, and situations throughout the story? Because it is in a lot of those episodes that characters, relationships, and ideas are fully revealed and explored. And perhaps without the bigger story, the episodes become meaningless.

  8. I’m reminded of the Bruno Bettelheim book on fairy tales, “The Uses of Enchantment.” Stories should not be too specific. It robs us of our imagination and enjoyment. This also goes for acting.

  9. Male movie stars: the first were tragic and the second are comic. Jimmy Stewart is Tom Hanks (and John Wayne is Harrison Ford), but Cary Grant is not Tom Cruise but rather Denzel Washington. Tom Cruise is Clark Gable, Brad Pitt is Steve McQueen and Johnny Depp is Errol Flynn.

  10. Vince Vaughn is Chevy Chase.
    George Clooney is Burt Reynolds.
    Paul Giamatti is Richard Dreyfus.
    Josh Hartnett is Jan-Michael Vincent.
    Adam Sandler is Anthony Perkins .
    Ryan Reynolds is Barry Bostwick.
    Casey Affleck is Harry Dean Stanton.

  11. On a more obvious (but true) note:

    sylvester stallone is victor mature
    russel crowe is charlton heston
    michael douglas is kirk douglas
    brendan fraser is jeffrey hunter
    william h macy is elisha cook jr.
    ben stiller is george segal
    christian bale is anthony perkins
    sarah michelle gellar is tuesday weld
    cate blanchett is deborah kerr
    ben kingsley is donald pleasance
    robert downey jr. is tony curtis
    edward norton is alan ladd
    jamie foxx is william holden
    tommy lee jones is gary cooper
    jim carrey is jerry lewis
    george clooney is james garner
    jack black is peter boyle
    tom cruise is rock hudson

    Of course, frequent miscasting, talent deficits and modern variations of gender roles have been taken into account…

  12. jean-claude van damme is johnny weismuller
    colin farrel is robert shaw
    don cheadle is henry fonda
    james van der beurk is ryan o’neal
    benicio del toro is marlon brando
    scarlet johansen is audrey hepburn
    eddie murphy is peter sellers
    geoffrey rush is peter finch
    kevin costner is ronald reagan
    john cusack is jack lemmon
    john malkovich is orson welles
    clive owen is lawrence harvey
    mickey rourke is rondo hatton
    billy bob thornton is walter matthau
    wesley snipes is yul brynner
    tommy lee jones is lee marvin
    susan sarandon is jane fonda
    brad pitt is robert redford
    woody harrelson is burt lancaster
    bill murray is bob hope
    philip seymour hoffman is charles laughton
    harrison ford is gregory peck
    salma hayek is sophia loren
    samuel l. jackson is michael caine (a terrible movie almost every month, with an occasional handful of decent performances to hang on to a little gravitas)
    rap m.c.’s who become actors are about halfway between george raft and elvis presley

    p.s. – is that the same James Monaco who wrote How To Read a Film etc.? That book helped me coast into university!

    p.p.s. a lot of older stars gain a lot of resonance playing aged versions of their more iconic characters:

    As Good as it Gets as a sequel to Five Easy Pieces
    Million Dollar Baby – Every Which Way But Loose
    Donnie Brasco – Panic In Needle Park
    Nobody’s Fool – Hud
    Blue Velvet – Easy Rider
    Parralax View – Bulworth
    Play it Again Sam – Deconstructing Harry

  13. Sorry, Wedge, but no one is Tuesday Weld. I’ll give you the rest, but Tuesday is a feminine singularity, never to be repeated. Just ask Anton LaVey. I do agree that S. M. Gellar has a particularly acute set of feminine wiles, as her performance in Southland Tales will attest, but Tuesday Weld is, to my mind, the uber-ingenue.

    Cusack = Lemmon. Very perceptive.

  14. Tuseday Weld was bit before my time, but she seems to share Gellar’s trajectory from all-american TV favourite to perverse experiments (and ambitious folly). Both deserve(d) to be bigger movie stars in a less testosterone-baked movie scene. I ain’t askin’ Lavey anything!

    The thing about Cusack is that he can make fluff seem substantial, and has enough charisma to make you root for him without trying too hard to be ‘cool’ or ‘tough’ or ‘cute’ – like Lemmon.

    A ‘John Cusack’ kinda film is pretty much guaranteed to be entertaining without being immature, visceral or insulting to the intelligence. His films are usually ‘literate’ – like Jack Lemmon’s ‘brand’ of movie a few decades ago. Their dumbest films involved airplane hazards (Con Air and Airport 77) – but they still made them more watchable than others of their type!

    Ben Stiller has carved out Segal’s former niche – but without the same level of charm or sensitivity. Maybe their respective careers say more about the changing attitudes of Hollywood audience since the 70s.

    As for Tom Cruise, it’s becoming apparent that his weird personal life will gain greater posterity than his run of smash hits – like Rock Hudson; with religious mania replacing homosexuality as today’s embarrassing ‘perversion’…

  15. these ideas which have been hinted at here have left me somewhat in confusion. i mean, maybe a point was not the purpose here… is this because that would require structure? and in some weird way, as mentioned early on, when speaking of structure, this ‘essay’ proves that you can go your own way, in writing, filmmaking, in just whatever, without using a structure (which is basically another word for plot) but you also risk being obscure, unclear, vague. and in some ways this was just that, an excersize, or simply shooting from the hip, that is what I get after reading this. however much there were lots of interesting ideas hinted at, but mostly it just comes off as tips of many icebergs.

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