Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Character Study

As human beings, we tend to evade truths which as writers, as readers, and even as gamers we would do well to understand.

I have way too much to say on this topic for one blog post, but let's take one finite piece of it: the degree of autonomy that characters have.

We all react to characters as independent entities and as projections of their creator's selves. It can be absurdly hard to separate one's reaction to an actor from one's reaction to the characters we've seen him portray, to a singer from the persona expressed in the lyrics to her recorded music (even when we know she didn't write them), to an author from her most famous series hero, to an elven wizard on a unicorn from the US Marine playing her across the table from you.

Okay, maybe "separate from" is not the right verb phrase in the last case. Maybe "overcome the cognitive dissonance between" is better.

Anyway, this is clearly unfair. In all these cases, the character has an artistic purpose. In some of them, more than one person is responsible for the character. The movie needs a villain and the casting director chose Vincent Price to play him. As an artist, Price had to leave his own emotions behind and adopt those that will generate the most satisfactory villainous performance - guided by the director. The persona behind a song, the hero of a story, the party wizard all have roles in the final production that must be balanced for the best effect.

The character may even have been chosen because of his dissimilarity to the creator. A 16-year-old girl is not typically challenged by portraying a virgin elven wizard; a combat veteran may well be. A performer may deliberately create a performance persona so readily recognizable, yet so different from the real self, that it forms a privacy shield. Take it off, and he can walk around unnoticed among his fan base. I don't want to write endlessly about people who share my particular background, tastes, fears, and experience. Part of the point of making a character is to explore what it feels like to be someone other than me.

At the same time - there is a kind of player whose characters continually do obnoxious things, and who responds to complaints with an airy: "Oh, I'm just playing my character." An author, tasked with repeatedly creating characters who are racist, sexist, foul-mouthed, or violent, who says: "I'm just portraying them honestly. These people are not me." A musician who wants people to relax about the drug imagery in his music, and has a rap sheet a mile long.

These people are kidding themselves. You're creating a character for a reason, out of bits of yourself. If they're all nasty, you are choosing to put your nastiness front and center. You're still responsible for what they do.

I happened to think of this because I've been on a computer gaming forum where people, discussing various gameplay issues, will say things like: "I don't see why I should care about sim children when their parents don't" or "Romance sims are so bad, always cheating on their spouses." My sim parents love their children. My Romance sims don't cheat on their spouses, because I don't give them spouses. Other gamers will marry off Romance sims for the pleasure of finding creative ways to satisfy them without extramarital nookie; or to create soap opera plots; or for some other creative reason that doesn't involve projecting responsibility for their own darker impulses onto a bundle of program code.

I was interested to see the similarity between the choices people made for their sims in an asocial game and the choices people make for their PCs in a social game. It's easy to see, from these conversations, which of the computer gamers I would welcome at my gaming table and which ones I would rather avoid. But how does this square with my sense, as an author and as a gamer, that characters are independent entities? My characters are constantly surprising me. If I, and the people around me, couldn't separate them from me, the time my wizard fell in love with another character (not my husband!)'s fighter, or the time my priestess and my husband's ranger got locked into a power struggle over the group's tactical and moral options, would have been deeply problematic. Actually, when I'm in deep drama queen mode, other players are sometimes afraid that I have lost the distinction, and I sometimes get a good load of emotional chemicals on and have to call a break while I sort them out.

And what about the factor played by the phenomena of identification and projection - the interaction of the reader/viewer with the character, that inevitably makes him into something different from what the player, author, actor, whatever intended? I remember reading several books - Giants in the Earth by Ole Rolvaag was one; Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton was another - in high school English class, which engaged me in critical battles with other students and the teacher over characters regarded by everybody else in the class as unsympathetic or contemptible, but whom I saw as wronged and trapped in a maze of choices, all bad. I had my reasons for reading these characters in this way. Would the authors have been enlightened, encouraged, or horrified by my take on these characters? How much does it matter?

Everything exists on a spectrum. If you're looking for a simple conclusion to this thought, you're on the wrong blog. The important thing is not to solve these conundrums, but to be aware of them as we deal with characters, our own, and other people's.

No comments:

Post a Comment