Why Characters Play Their Parts: Human Identity in Storytelling
The exploration of human nature has been a writer’s responsibility since the dawn of the word. Storytellers are accountable, whether or not they aim to be, for a representation of their society and culture and producing a record of the time period they are writing in, as well as presenting a medium for mankind to ask life’s biggest questions, all cunningly disguised as entertainment.
Plato believed literature had enough of an effect on beliefs, perception and therefore behaviour that he proposed strong censorship of popular literature and wrote his own dialogues, often starring his teacher Socrates, promoting his ideals to the world. The Ancient Greek philosopher is one of many who have used narrative to theorise about the nature of existence and is evidence that a strong and believable character is fiction’s main tool in the study of human life.
Creating a believable character (or believing in a character someone has already created) depends almost entirely on their motives and the way they react to whatever situation they encounter. In order to believe that they would stand and fight, head out on a life-threatening quest or even turn and run away, they need to have beliefs of their own; values that determine what life means to them and how they would feasibly approach the obstacles crossing their path – or else the lack of their belief in anything should be the point.
While you have a book open (and hopefully long afterwards) good characters are people in their own right. They play their parts in explaining the human condition because whatever their story and whatever they are doing they are searching for justification of themselves and a solution to the world around them, which contributes in a big way towards their motives throughout the story. In turn we read the narrative of their lives in order to make sense of our own in a similar way that people turn to religion.
“Some people” is actually somewhere around 80% of the world that believes on faith alone that there is “something” out there bigger than us. Whether this involves the monotheistic belief in one all-powerful, omnibenevolent god, a pantheistic view of the divine as all-encompassing with no anthropomorphic personality, or multiple deities duking it out on Olympus, religious beliefs have been the cause of many disputes, in both fiction and reality, and prompted people into action in defence of those beliefs.
Trudi Canavan captures religion’s effect on human nature in her Age of Five Gods trilogy, depicting a religious war between two nations fighting against each other on behalf of deities that they share. Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series lives a life of thievery and occasionally murder and maiming that most people would find a touch immoral if it was happening in their neighbourhood. However, he has a firm belief in his world’s thirteen gods and follows the traditions of the thirteenth, his patron the Crooked Warden, with such devotion that the accompanying traditions play a lead role in the first book’s climax.
Regardless of whether there is anything out there or not, organised religion works as a cultural function, presenting a mythology that explains our purpose while instilling a moral code that is crucial for the survival of society. A problem that arises from this is that doctrine can be taken too literally.
Arlen Bales from Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle comes across this problem a few times on his travels and it is in fact the reason he ends up leaving home in the first place. His personal values – that a life ruled by the night is no life at all – contrast with those of his fundamentalist and fearful homestead, which provides him with the motivation to leave and begin the story.
Arlen is something of a humanist in that he believes individual action and personal choice decide our path and we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to live life well. In his case it means getting naked and fighting demons. For others living well or unearthing any meaning for their existence can be totally different. Jorg Ancrath from Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy is almost broken by his discovery of life’s pain and struggles with the idea that people can live well at all. For a long time the only purpose in his life is to survive it. These characters are relatable because they represent the shady side of morality that real people face daily. However, despite fantasy being elbow-deep in antiheroes these days, the smudgy grey of mankind’s perception is something the genre has always been apt to explore.
Tolkien’s stories may have been fairly black versus white but he tackled themes including racism between elves and dwarves (perhaps somewhat nullified by the uniting factor; hatred of other races), feminism discussed through Eowyn’s right to fight, Lord Acton’s maxim that all power corrupts debated via each character’s reactions to the Ring of Power and plenty of other schools of thought that are still relevant in society today. Whatever conclusions are made about the way these issues are represented, the topics raised are motivation enough for the characters to go out and attempt to change the world, giving meaning to them and perspective to us as readers.
Occasionally motivation is left out of the decision making process. Utilitarianism, defined as the greatest good for the greatest number, ignores motivation as an assessment of right or wrong as it claims only the outcome matters. This kind of thinking may be popular with leaders and kings who have a nation as a whole to consider rather than individual people. Stannis from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is prepared to “sacrifice one child to the flames to save a million from the dark”, which from his point of view is the right thing to do but I’m sure the child would disagree. This philosophy makes for excellent antagonists because while their cold decisions don’t encourage affection, it can be hard to fault their logic.
When you have a full understanding of the way someone thinks and therefore how they act it can be hard to fault anyone’s logic, or at least hard not to feel for them when they make doomed decisions. Martin demonstrates this better than anyone, slowly revealing each of his characters’ motivations to cover the line between love and hate until goodies and baddies don’t exist anymore and everyone is thoroughly confused.
Confusion in this sense can be seen as a very good thing as it means the characters are representative of real people rather than one-dimensional heroes and villains. This inevitably creates empathy that will connect readers to the story and provide context for the world around them. In real life no one considers themselves to be a villain, even in really obvious cases like Hitler.
The entire seven series of the cult fantasy television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, in its simplest form, about an empowered individual learning what it means to be a hero and ultimately growing up to discover and face her own identity. The idea of morality, often depicted utilising various ideas of the soul, is a key element in Buffy’s development. The show’s creator Joss Whedon combines the ontological view (that it is a separate entity that gives life to a body) and the existential view (that it is a mere moral compass, basically a working conscience) of the soul in order to demonstrate his own existential belief that in an absurd world, humans are solely responsible for creating meaning in their own lives. The more a character, such as the naturally vicious vampire Spike, develops morally, the closer to humanity they become. In this representation whatever our nature happens to be it can arguably be curbed by conscious decision and personal motivation.
The nature of morality is just one of many theories about how personal identity is formed, with nature versus nurture hanging as an umbrella debate above them all. It can be argued that the discovery and justification of a character’s individual identity is the driving force behind most character story arcs, bringing about their overall development and therefore a satisfactory ending to any successful tale in any medium or genre.
Fantasy is especially good at producing characters that represent real people, somewhat ironically because of its inclusion of magic. For many characters, magic is built into who they are and is something they define themselves by. Whether it’s the libertarian dreams of Fitz from Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Celia from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or Elsa from Disney’s Frozen, who simply want to be free to use their powers without condemnation, or something you have to learn like Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, magic represents a whole world of choice, power and responsibility that can shape a personality, its values and therefore its motivations.
As well as being the greatest entertainment we have at our disposal, storytelling is integral to our understanding of the world. It is capable of presenting all the different aspects of life and if it’s done well, with characters so real they might as well live and breathe, it does so without drawing any grand conclusions, allowing each reader to interpret their own meaning.
This article was originally posted on February 11, 2014.