Monday, October 08, 2007

Character Design Complex

"What's your favorite type of character?
  • Perfectly wholesome and good
  • Mostly good, but flawed
  • Ambiguous
  • Mostly bad, but potentially redeemable
  • Consumately evil"

--the poll on Ali's blog.

One of my favorite characters ever is the Joker, from batman--almost any iteration of him. The Joker has no redeeming qualities. He is not a good guy. But I don't know if you'd call him quite consumately evil either. Probably, if you wanted to describe him in five words or less, consumately and evil could be two of the five words. Easily so. But so could the words "funny" and "insane." Insane is different.

Another of my favorite characters is Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of the starship Enterprise. A complicated, well rounded character. And he is essentially perfectly wholesome and good. But not really, because his fundemental beliefs are imperfect. Those beliefs he will follow almost without deviation, but by virtue of their being imperfect, he has made wrong decisions. Furthermore, he has flaws: he tends to be grumpy, among other things. So I would put him in this scale of five character types someplace between, "perfectly wholesome and good" and "mostly good, but flawed."

Another great character is Batman himself, in his current state. Batman began as the world's second biggest boyscout--right after Superman--sometime in the thirties or forties of last century. And now, after decades of evolution, he's a dark, rough around the edges, generally scary, bad cop style of guy, who you know for damn certain you don't want as an enemy. A guy with questionable tactics, who intentionally uses fear to his advantage. But he won't kill. He will not kill. No matter how much people label him as bad guy, no matter how many terror tactics he adopts from his enemies, no matter how genuinely unpleasant a person he is, he's a good guy. You couldn't label him ambiguous, but I wouldn't call him, just as a bystander, a mostly good guy, but with flaws. I would probably call him a bad guy, to look at him, and consumately evil if I were impressionable and believed things that the Gotham media said about him. Batman is almost invariably wanted by the Gotham police.

When I create characters, I start with a voice, with a posture, and with facial expressions. Everything else--morallity, history--comes later. So far, most of my characters seem to be pretty ambiguous, at least superficially. People themselves are ambiguous. Mostly folk don't know enough to always make the right decision or to always make the wrong decision. They do their best or do their worst, and how much they know and how many people are involved determine how much good or evil their actions end up bringing about.

So many people are doing right in their own eyes, that a scale like that is pretty difficult to determine for your characters as well. I'm writing this series of stories right now almost exclusively from the perspectives of the people who would be termed mostly simply "the bad guys". But I find myself sympathizing with them a great deal. They don't know they're the bad guys. They're doing their jobs as well as they can. In their eyes, those who would be termed most simply "the good guys" are terrorists and criminals, living on the fringes of society and attacking the sanctity of the state.

I find that my favorite characters to watch on TV and in movies are the mostly bad, but potentially redeemable--Riddick, in Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick, and Darth Vader, and Jack Sparrow--and I love to read about the utterly ambiguous ones. In reading you can see so much more of the thinking, and seeing the thinking of those who you cannot predict just fascinates me. But when I write, I find myself most fascinated most quickly with the perfectly wholesome and good characters who I set in really crapshoot situations: places where everything conpireth against them. It's just occurred to me that you put a perfectly wholesome and good character in a situation like that, there's the chance of their slip-sliding the slippy-slidey path to evil. Or at least ambiguousness. That would be character development.


Ali said...

Ah yes, five points on a grayscale is kind of a joke, but I didn't have room/time to list fifty, so I opted for five as a starting point :)

Gotta love Riddick, not so much in The Chronicles, though. Then he loses a lot of what made him such a great character to begin with and becomes a predictably "good more than anything else" hero-type guy, whereas in Pitch Black he was nice and creepy.

One last Dexter plug - watch that show and then think more on the character spectrum question. It's a good example of a character who's difficult to peg.

Jenny said...

I like evil characters.

Yep. That's what I like.

If they're redeemable, well, it can't be without due cause.