Thursday, March 17, 2016

When is a Character Really a Character?

I recently watched the first three films in the Sigourney Weaver Alien series back-to-back. I know that many people would recommend only watching the first two films, but I've always liked Alien 3 just as much as its predecessors, and it's become a hobby of mine to analyze why the film is so hated. The day will come when I write a blog entry about that, but I wanted to start off today's essay by mentioning one of Alien 3's biggest controversies: the death of the character Newt in its opening scene.

Seeing a child die in any movie is obviously not a cheerful experience, and after everything Newt goes through in Aliens, it's understandable that people would want to see her get a happier ending. However, watching that movie back-to-back with Alien 3 for the first time and observing her role in the overall series changed my perspective on the issue. Newt's death isn't as depressing in the grand scheme of things because, in my mind, she isn't really a character.

Okay, she's a character in the sense that she's a living entity who participates in the story, but she doesn't have much personality to speak of and she really doesn't grow or change by the end of Aliens. Although she helps the adults occasionally with her knowledge of the xenomorphs and the layout of the colony's ductwork, her main purpose in the story is to be looked after and protected by Ripley so that the audience can see how compassionate their heroine is. Newt is kind of just a more sympathetic version of Jones the cat from the first Alien movie.

So what then is the definition of a character? Is it just a general term that applies to any person in a story, or is it more particular than that?

Webster's Dictionary defines the word "character" as "a person represented in a drama, story, etc.", but that's only the fifth definition that it offers. The first definition that it offers is "the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing."

Judging from this, it seems that the presence of characteristics, or personality, is what determines whether or not someone in a narrative is truly a character. Characters are supposed to represent people, according to Webster, and people in the real world have personalities. They have opinions and dispositions that are constantly subject to change, and those changes are brought on by the things that they experience in their lives. If someone in a story is just there to have a certain effect on the plot or on one of the protagonists, then that someone is really more of a plot device.

Take for instance the fellow named Holbrooke in the 2010 comedy film Date Night. Holbrooke, played by a perpetually shirtless Mark Wahlberg, is a secret agent and former real estate client of Tina Fey's character. After Fey gets into trouble with some mobsters over a case of mistaken identity, she and her bumbling husband played by Steve Carell seek help from Holbrooke, and the muscle-bound sleuth uses his tech skills to locate a few places and people for them. He's only in a couple of scenes, he gets no funny or memorable lines, and his very last scene ends with Carell begging him to put on a shirt.

It's pretty clear what Holbrooke's purpose in the film is. He exists to make Steve Carell's character feel insecure and to give the couple their next lead so that the story can progress. He's not a character; he's a plot device that talks. This is perfectly fine, since the encounter with him does play a major part in the development of both Fey and Carell's characters, but Holbrook probably couldn't get away with being so one-dimensional if his role was bigger.

Another example is Mercer from the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. As the henchman of the villain Lord Beckett, Mercer's role in both movies is to spy on the heroes, report information about them to Beckett, and occasionally be a detriment to someone else's plans. We don't know how he's able to track down the heroes in places like Tortuga and Singapore or how he's able to report back to Beckett so quickly, but he always is able, and every time we see him, he's stonefaced and deadpan.

Mercer does have a much bigger role than Holbrooke, but he's still more of a plot device than he is a character. He's a means of keeping the villain aware of what the protagonists are doing, which would otherwise be difficult to do in a movie set in a time period before satellites and tracking devices, and he leaves a relatively small impression for all that he does in the story. It's only fitting that once the climactic battle between the pirates and Beckett is under way and there's no more need to spy on anyone, Mercer gets killed off.

Again though, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with this kind of storytelling. If any element in any narrative has enough of an effect on the plot or the protagonist, then its use is justified. What I am saying is that it's important to note the difference between true characters and people in stories who just do things. Knowing that difference can help a writer to create more engaging characters, and in the case of someone like Newt, it can tip the scale enough to make plot device figures engaging enough for audiences to get attached to them as well.

It's certainly not a good idea to write characters who bore audiences to sleep. If the Alien films have taught me anything, it's that nothing good ever happens to anyone while they're sleeping...

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