Character (narratology) The audience’s perception that the representation of figures in a narrative, primarily human figures, and also animal, machine, computer, or spiritual entities which may inhabit places or objects, have attributes that can be understood to be correspondent to a perception and understanding of character in actuality, and therefore these representations have to a greater or lesser degree personality, identity, sexuality, gender and a lived history, experience and knowledge. Of course the figures in a narrative, the representation of actions, gestures and the statements of actors performing a part or of a puppet, or the cartoon creation of a figure, do not possess the same features and attributes as the characters they represent, so character in narrative, particularly in the sense of interiority, are created through the narration: with narration in this sense meaning all the elements of filmic narration, not just voice over narration, as the term is used in film production.
In this definition the audience develop their understanding of the character through their interpretation of a range of cues that are offered by the film narrative. Some are based on the figure, through costume, appearance, statements, interactions and actions. They are also based on what is said about the figure by other figures in the narrative and by the costume, appearance, statements, interactions, and actions of these figures: each character inflecting on the other. The storyworld setting will create a social and moral environment which will indicate how the characters can be understood and the story setting can have a direct correspondence to the character’s subjective perception of this environment: with screenplay, production design, lighting, framing, editing, all being controlled to indicate a character’s viewpoint: the focalisation of the story being a delineation of character, the audience seeing and knowing what the character sees, understands and experiences. Sound and particularly music will indicate the emotional tone of the story action, and this will often align with how it is being experienced by a character. The musical score can be so closely choreographed that it articulates the individual actions of a figure, and a musical motif, a set of notes or style of music can identify a character through a musical theme or signature, and so indicate their presence within the action of the story even if they are not present as a figure in the scene.
All of these elements of film narration indicate how a character will be read and understood by the audience, and it is also understood by the filmmakers that there is an implied audience who, based on their previous understanding and knowledge of narrative, and due to their social and cultural identity will interpret a narrative and the figures within it through a range of preferences, biases and judgements. The narration presents characters, and the audience as a social group and as individuals have their own viewpoint and interpretation of the character. The audience filters the characters in a story through their own understanding and experience.
In the school-based analysis of the characters in a story, exemplified by academic study notes, features such as social setting, personal history, motives, character, meaning in this case emotional personality, will be isolated to comprehend what specific characters in a story are like, as though the figures in a narrative are actually individualised entities, beings with a separate body, consciousness, social identity and emotional disposition, but this is not how narration functions, it offers a form, an integrated aesthetic construction, a narrative. The audience separates out characters, just as one might listen to one element of a musical performance to hear a particular instrument, but this one element is part of the entire composition which has a combined effect.
The audience’s perception and knowledge of figures, the characters in a narrative is not dissimilar to how persons, people, are understood and judged in actual life: we witness a range of actions by a person, and we witness or are given reports and statements about another’s actions. We never, unless we claim special powers, mind reading abilities, witness the interiority of another person, but we do claim as a matter of habit to understand another person’s interiority, their motives and emotional feelings through what we witness and learn about this person, even though such an apprehension of another’s character can only be an assumption based on our interpretation of particular events and filtered by our own predispositions: our understanding of ourselves and of others, gained through lived experience. The difference between lived experience and story is that a narrative has a predetermined form, a set narrative to present character, and a focalisation to direct the reading, so the audience is positioned to align with what are perceived as characters/persons in a story, while at the same time the audience maintains a distance to observe and judge the narrative, and also to consider the story as an aesthetic artefact, a film. The enjoyment of a story is both involvement with the characters, judgement of them and judgement on the construction of the story. One can sit back and enjoy a film while having no direct involvement, and this vantage point positions the spectator while also giving them privilege: moral and critical judgement.
Significantly, any story is implicitly understood to give privileged access to events, and so this is taken to offer a truth and veracity to the actions of the story and the characters the story presents. A story is offered and appreciated as a special kind of knowledge: hence truth being an important value in storytelling and following from this the conception that a fictional narrative can be truer than a historical account, because the form and ethics of non-fiction limits what it can present and portray. It is understood that a story is an artificial construction, but this construction at the same time orders understanding, meaning and knowledge, giving is a status above ‘facts’. A narrative reveals the ‘truth’ about the characters, and also how they will succeed or fail, survive or perish within their storyworld. The enjoyment or distaste for a narrative is based on the audience’s connection to this access: liking or disliking characters, and taking on loyalties, emotions and reactions that are understood to be constructed by the story, but these connections and reactions are also to some extent felt to be real, genuine emotions. A story is a form of moral rhetoric and the audience's sense of connection or disconnection to a character is an emotional rhetoric which is part of the narrative rhetoric.
To indicate an example of the emotional connection of the audience to character: If one imagines listening to a soaring musical symphony, emotions are generated by this, and then if this music is connected to a character and their actions in a story, the impetus is to join the music to the character. Without the music the character is undertaking an action, but with the music how they are undertaking the action is inflected, giving a sense of interiority to the character. This effect of a narration, by the music and also other methods of narration to provide a sense of character is such that performers in stories, film actors, are taken to carry these film-generated character traits into real life, so that the actor has not only performed the character but also personifies and embodies the character in actuality. This indicates the investment the audience can have in a character, which has actually only been created through a number of shots in a film, a few dialogues and an accompanying soundtrack. In life actors are honoured for the roles, giving them social prestige and public importance and as part of this a screen-based character can be emblematic of a social mythology in relation to gender, class, race, sexuality and history. This high status is negotiated, moving between fictional portrayal and societal values. The actors is taken to embody the values they portray.
In screenwriting and film making a major issue, a problem that occurs, is that character is assumed to be in place in the narrative, because it is thought to be in place by the screenwriter or the filmmaker. Effectively, the narration fails because it does not provide the audience with the understanding of character that the filmmakers thinks it does. This occurs because the filmmakers’ have prior knowledge of their intentions and give meanings to images and actions in the story that the audience will not actually share: a character comes into the room and sits down. This action can suggest tiredness, depression, taking a break, sitting down, but a narrative needs to indicate the meaning of this action in relation to the character, through the construction of the narration, and usually through plot: the character has come from a funeral so that their solitary and quiet actions will be linked to this. The framing, lighting, and performance in a film will often be assumed to offer the feelings of the scene, the character’s interior feelings, but context is given by the plot, and this may come from events outside of the characters actions: while others are grouped and being social, the character is alone and this isolation is felt to indicate a personal interior meaning. At the end of a film narrative a character can make a simple gesture or statement and this can be understood as a very profound or moving action, but this is only the case because this meaning has been put in place by the narration during the course of the film. As single unedited shot the action does not convey the same meaning as it does as part of a narrative.
This presentation of character, making their actions clear so that they appear to have motives, intentions and interiority, can be through direct characterisation: openly stating or showing how a character behaves, or indirectly, which will often be done through a discrete narrative device which is informally termed a set up and pay off: a minor event at the start of a story, will have a greater significance at the end. These sort of minor incidents, set ups, can also be threaded through a narrative as motifs: a character always refuses to shake hands, then at the end the character still refuses to shake hands. Where a motif is unlikely to be successful, and where film narration fails, is if it is not anchored to the character clearly enough for the audience to pick up on it. The key error is for a filmmaker to assume that a character can be understood as a figure in isolation to the other elements in the story, that a fictional character is like an actual entity, a person, as though a fictional character is a being in life, and in fact, in both fiction and in life characters and persons are perceived and judged in context. In life if someone is rude to us then we will know them as a rude person, and this is how story functions: in life we gather a more developed view on a person when they become more known to us, and so it is in film narrative, but here the character accrues meaning in an organised way set out by the filmmaker. A film narrative has structured narration, carefully presenting and delineating character.
There is sometimes a lament among filmmakers that the audience has not understood their film. This can be correct, an audience can reject a story, or even be inattentive to the narration, but, also, a story can also be poorly narrated and the story that was intended was not actually told: one is familiar with someone telling a story, an anecdote, and leaving out key facts, so that the story is unclear, and this occurs more subtly in relation to characters in a film: the plot of the storytelling can be clear, but the motives, and emotions of the characters are not stated, directly or indirectly so that the story has no meaning in relation to character motivation: it’s not clear why a character does something. Exposition, explaining things is often understood to be related to explaining plot, but it is often about character: the racing driver wants to win at all costs. This statement indicates that there is a race that will have a winner and also what the character intends to do. When the character is shown driving the presumption will be that they want to win, so that they are given an interiority by the exposition.
In casting a film looking for a determined actor to play the role of a determined racing driver, can seem like a way to ensure that there is clarity of character in the narrative, but this fails if the narration does not present this successfully. Stereotype characters occur where the same cues to signify character are repeated across films so that audience recognises this narrative construction, and also there are stereotypes in narratives when specific racial, gender or other social traits, actual social stereotypes are used to indicate character. Stereotypes are based on poor narration, and on social stereotypes and beliefs. Stereotypes offer familiar elements of narration, and these can define a character is a positive or a negative light.
In relation to character in narrative there are thought to be characters with more depth, rounded, full characters, and those with less depth, flat characters, In a narrative there will be some characters which the audience is given more access to, so that the representation of character in a story differs: main characters have more representation and minor characters has less, and those with less representation are taken to have less interiority: the minor characters are part of the story, but the film is not their story, and it is the motives of the main characters that is presented and dominates. In this respect whatever the apparent sense of psychological depth in a character, how they are perceived by the audience, this is a function of narration: there is no actual psychology or personality in any figure in a story.
There are stories of complications where the plot has external events complicating matters, plot based stories, and then there are stories which are said to be ‘character based’, stories with less external action. What is occurring in these character based narratives is that character is being offered in different ways other than external action: in a plot based story it will be the physical actions of the characters doing things, saying things, that dominates, and in a character based story, the interiority will be presented by the setting, music, and lighting, and performance will focus on micro-gestures rather than large actions. What is essential to both is that the narration diligently constructs and depicts the characters: the narration will cue in how the character is to be interpreted and understood: the perception that a character has depth has to be articulated. It’s not present in the single action, but in the construction of the narration. The concept of psychological depth is only present because it is signified.
What is offered to an audience in a character based story differs between prose and film. In a prose story a narrator, either omniscient, first person, or homodiegetic narrator, will state or speculate about what a character is like: this telling, describing requires no physical action from the character who is being described. At the beginning of The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carroway, speculates on Jay Gatsby, who Nick Carroway has never met. This speculation is based on the parties that Gatsby hosts at his mansion. As a film narrative, an adaptation of The Great Gatsby which remains accurate in terms of physical action of the novel will have Nick Carroway going to a party and looking about, and unless the film offers voice over narration, the presentation of character of Jay Gatsby, who is the central concern of the novel, is not present as a character in the film. The conventions of realism in film drama preclude extensive narration, so that novels that are based on character studies are often said to be impossible to adapt for film. This is correct, in so far as film narrative aims to be mimetic. To render an adaptation of The Great Gatsby as a film, then voice over narration at the start of the film can indicate Nick Carroway’s viewpoint, and then what follows from this, in terms of Carroway’s actions, is that he will meet various characters who comment on Gatsby: converting prose description to exposition in dialogue scenes, which make statements about Gatsby. The novel might be radically adapted by showing Gatsby from the start of the story, inventing action for the character and the film depicts story events that are not in the novel, but this would be perceived as false to the novel, as scenes are being created for the film narrative. The creation of characters in fiction can seem to be similar, because it’s possible to have the same characters in a book and a film, but the mediums narrate in different ways. A novel can simply state what a character is like, and a mimetic realist film can only show and imply this.
Audience’s are cued into understanding a character by the narration and in a character based film they are invited to consider the interiority of characters, and this creates a sense that some characters have more psychological depth, but this is achieved in the relationship between the narration and audience. The painting of the Mona Lisa is considered to be mysterious, inscrutable, a subject of fascination, with the figure in the painting holding secrets, representing a deep and profound enigma of personality, but this is not the case. It is in the reading of the viewer and the context in which they view the painting that creates their reading. Art relies on the context of the gallery and the knowledge of the viewer to give a work of art depth, while a story in constructing a narrative indicates that this depth of character should be looked for. For instance, in a film, at the start of the narrative, two figures talk about about a third figure, who has not yet appeared in the story. The two figures are worried because the third figures has just been released from a psychiatric clinic: they want to help this figure, and to make sure they stay well. They plan to look out for signs of illness returning. As the narration continues the third figure is introduced, and the focalisation of the scene indicates that the first two figures study this third figure. The audience has been cued into understanding this third character, their appearance, actions, reactions, gestures, inaction, in relation to the plotting of their being potentially unwell. The audience, with their access to the story through the two figures, reads the third character in very distinct ways and the audience will continue to do this as the film progresses. When the actor in the film makes certain gestures or reactions this will be taken to represent illness, but of course this will not actually be occurring. In the narration of this film without the set up of the initial dialogue between the two actors, the meaning of the succeeding scenes would be lost. What has led the audience to understanding third figure in the narrative is the initial conversation between the two figures and this is because this narration gives access to a private conversation. Also, it will be assumed that characters are acting truthfully in private situations. This truthfulness in the scene might turn out to be misdirection, because the audience can be deliberately misled by the narration: so one of the figures who expresses concern about the third figure is lying, but the plot will later reveal this. In this instance, where there is misdirection, the audience will come to understand that they have misread the third character because they misread one of the first two characters. Stories give the audience privileged access, and the actions of the characters shift between private and public actions, developing the audience’s understanding of characters, the private usually indicating what the character’s true intentions and personality are.
In relation to plot and character, to indicate the need to signal character in a film narrative, some stories are told out of sequence, and this can be understood as being done to create a mystery in the plot, as a dramatic device, but this use of a prologue will also give the audience cues to character which would be missing if the story were recounted with a linear temporality. For example: a story begins with a child being left alone at a train station. This is the end of the story, and then the start of the story is shown: the child is with their family, and so the audience looks for cues which will indicate why the child will end up alone, and this search by the audience will be in their watching the actions of the characters, the family members, as the plot develops, and this scrutiny occurs only because of the initial prologue. The change in temporal sequence influences the narration in terms of indicating a reading of the narrative.
The ghost story and the detective story function to create intrigue, and there is the audience expectation in these narratives that the ending will explain the enigma in a way that is coherent with the clues offered. The murder mystery story, the whodunnit, will often begin with a dead body being found, or a person going missing. The story will usually have no identified killer, so that the narrative is a search for the truth about characters and their actions, and each interview by the nominal detective in the narrative may be thought of as a working to uncover the hidden plot, actions which have not been shown, but which influence the plot of the story. The crime story will need to explain what motivated the killing, which at the same time is a revelation of interiority of character: the solution to the crime also reveals the killer’s true nature. A story is about significant events, the plot, but these need to be purposeful and this is dependant upon character. Character needs to be articulated and be coherent if the narrative is to be understandable. A ghost who haunted for no reason, or a killer who had no motive to kill would be an effectively failed character as their actions are rendered purposeless. The plot can begin with a mystery, but there needs to be a revelation to explain the mystery or the story is incomplete. If a story is narrated with too many twists, a character changing between good, bad, good, bad, then this is usually rejected as plotting because it lacks credibility: presenting a character then changing and them re-changing them will undermine the realism of the story: character starts to change so often that it’s no longer believable. The same effect, the lost of realism will occur if the character takes an action to keep the plot going, but this action is out of character. The thieves show that they are willing to kill, then decide to leave someone tied up: this breaks the character, but is done so that the person tied up can escape. Like a narrative, as part of a narrative characters need a coherence to be able to present a realist story.
Besides characters in narrative being thought of as having greater or lesser psychological depth, there is an understanding that a dramatic story will offer a character arc: that the character changes in a story. What a narrative will do is establish a character with what are perceived of as their essential internal personality and beliefs: they are a wise person, they are a brave person, and the story will then set up a challenge or a test for this: a person wants to be a just ruler, but they will always support their brother, even if that is unfair to others. Here, there will be what is viewed in storytelling as an internal and external conflict. The character will want to be fair, but will have a favorite who they do not wish to judge, which is an internal/external conflict. How the character reacts to these inner and external conflicts can then be understood to be a change and development of character. Sometimes the change in a character, their actions being different to what is accepted by the audience, and something they are rejected.
As the story progresses the audience applies tests to the narration: the action of the story is accepted and appears authentic, the relationship between character and action is experienced as congruent, or the story is understood to falter, so the character/plot is inauthentic, the character wouldn’t act in the way the plot indicates, or the character is inauthentic, and they have been changed character only to suit the narrative progression.
Overall a story has a realism not because it depicts reality/actuality, but because its depiction is accepted and this is determined by the viewer’s, the audiences’ response to the narrative. Here one can see how a viewer’s individual identity and psychology can interact with character: the story signals character and the viewer then projects into this, creating the sense of a full and detailed person from a limited range of impressions, or they can understand the story as struggling or failing to create a realism because the viewer can’t construct a sense of a coherent character from the story action.
Somewhat uniquely, A plot that will allow for incoherent characterisation is when there are identical twins who have different characters, or a character has taken a false identity: here the plotting can reveal the deceptions, so that the audience understands the from the beginning of the narrative, or the audience can be uniformed and feel confused over the behaviour of a character that changes for no clear reason: they may of course figure out the plot, that there is a twin or that the character has taken on a fake identity. What this sort of plotting indicates is that the audience are expecting coherence in a character, which they will link to their understanding of the character’s belief, social role and personality. If the realism of the character breaks down this can be poor narration, the audience or viewer rejecting the character or occasionally this sense of an incoherent character/s can be a plot device related to double and imposters.
The everyday phrase, the story gets behind the scenes, indicates that narrative supposedly reveals the reasons for a character’s action. This is the convention for interpretation that realist drama offers, but of course not all dramatic forms are realist, they can be ritualistic or symbolic and in this case these forms of drama are not a presentation of what is understood to be psychological insight into characters. To indicate the pervasiveness of realist interpretation: one of the practices of contemporary nature documentaries is to ascribe human actions and motives to animals, as though they share the same thoughts and consciousness as socialised humans. That this projection, which should seem entirely artificial, but it is accepted as a standard feature of realist, naturalist drama. A nature documentary cues the audience into the ‘character’ of the animals, primarily by voice over narration and a narrative film can also do this for a human character through voice narration, like a documentary, but character in film is developed through different aspects of narration: dialogue openly stating what a character is like, showing character action and inflecting the understanding of character through the interrelations of narrated elements: shots, editing, sound, point of view. The actor might be understood as the primary element in depicting character, but each aspect of film making contributes to the articulation of character.
The emphasis here has been on narration, how character is articulated in a film narrative and how this is understood by the audience. The topic of representation, how character, personhood, identity, gender and sexuality are understood by people, by society, and how these exist in actuality has not been set out. However, because narrative film is mimetic the concept of a person in life does inflect on the creation of characters in film, and so conceptions of people, of persons of their interiority and psychology is a concern for filmmakers.
In creating a narrative there are understandings, expectations, conventions in terms of what characters/people are like, and these can be assumed and passed on with film narratives repeating familiar character tropes: relying on standard devices to represent character. Filmmakers can also investigate and research, not just a specific and established notion of personality, but different conceptions of personality, so that what might be accepted and assumed in terms of people and character can be considered with greater insight and coherence. This is done to support storytelling in two ways: to relate narratives that are sociologically and psychologically specific and to consider how character is narrated in film: what the motives of the characters are and how these can be articulated.
In storytelling and screenwriting, and established through the writing manuals, and through a desire for ‘universal stories’, there is a claim made for the ubiquity of archetypal figures, actants, characters who function as mythic, essential figures, and it is the case that figures/characters in a story can function mythically and allegorically. This formulation of character does support what is identified as mythic narrative, but for writers and filmmakers to narrate stories that respond and interact with contemporary and ongoing social developments then there needs to be an investment in current concerns and debates about identity, society, and the politics and the representations that stem from this. This is not necessarily to produce contemporary films in a contemporary setting, but to understand a range of human behaviour and activity and to consider how to create and narrate stories that are part of a contemporary social environment process.
The stories that are considered mythic have familiar features: heroes, heroic action, and these are offered as universal, but as much as any other story what is conventionalised needs to be learned. One reason for a failure of narration in representing character is the filmmakers believing that what is assumed by them about a character is therefore successfully narrated and so they will be understood by the audience, a second is that characters are oversimplified, because familiar conventions are easier to communicate. Socially specific films will have a more limited social engagement because they will relate and be understandable to specific people and societies with particular political and personal concerns. Here filmmaking is an interaction between the society and the filmmaker and this interaction is expressed in the film narrative, if a filmmaker mainly relies on other films for character types then this will be repeating characterisation, rather than engaging with their society to tell stories about people. Characters are narrative constructions they are also expressions of understanding about people in actual life. The film performances of yesteryear seem dates, not because of bad acting, but because there is social change. The audience may read a film relatively little conscious inspection, they accept a character, but this acceptance is based on the skills of the filmmakers, who understand how to relate character in film narrative and who also have an understanding what is specific to the characters in the film.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019