The "Character Arc"

Shakespeare shows us the difference between tenderness and sentimentality. He is always tender, but never poisons a moment by getting sappy.

Hollywood movies, on the other hand—well. Which accounts for the curious feeling of disappointment we have even before the lights go down.

This is so even (no—especially) in action films. Consider Clint Eastwood, or the current James Bond: the tougher the sloppier.

(To be fair, Dickens is just as schmaltzy. "One must have a heart of stone," Oscar Wilde said, "to read the death of little Nell without laughing.")

One aspect of this questionable taste is the “character arc.” Character,” to etymologize, is the “mark” or defining quality that distinguishes one from other people. But since the Puritan 1600s it's come to mean “moral strength,” as in “he has no character.”

It's no surprise, then, that the cinema of a country arising out of that tradition insists that characters have an “arc” of moral development. (For a definition of Puritanism see Greece versus the Puritans.)

In the other mode—Catholic, for want of a better term, though hardly Christian (Joyce, Nabokov, Fellini, Hitchcock)—mystical rather than moralistic—the self cannot be indicated. There's no character arc there, only a change in circumstance brought about (I've been checking my Aristotle), not by sin but by mistake, or by dumb luck—which some call grace. There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

Here is Alexander Pope, a professed anti-Puritan, as his name would imply, on character motivation:

On human actions reason though you can,
It may be reason, but it is not man:
His principle of action once explore,
That instant 'tis his principle no more.

Oft in the passions' wild rotation toss'd, 
Our spring of action to ourselves is lost.

Alas! in truth the man but chang'd his mind,
Perhaps was sick, in love, or had not dined.

Let me add this coda. A friend accused me of not believing in character, to which I replied:

Of course I believe in character! But it means so many things, like 'love' or 'nature' or 'fool.'

In Tolstoy’s novels the characters are so strong and vivid they get up and walk around. This is something of course that only he could do. Everyone has a different way about it.

Tolstoy’s student and imitator Hemingway said, “A writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”

Of course when you do comedy caricature is what it’s about—and not just in comedy. In how many of the great painters—Raphael, Leonardo, Michaelangelo perhaps the least (Velasquez not at all)—do the portraits have a cartoon-like quality. 

In Nabokov's Lolita Humbert, and by a few deft strokes Lo herself, are the only ‘deep’ (if we must use such a Protestant word), ‘round’ (to use E.M. Forster’s) characters; the others are cartoons, ciphers to advance the plot. You can’t afford more than two or three 'characters.'

In drama? Consider the best play: Hamlet and his mother—that’s it. (And this may be the secret of Hamlet: who is his father? How long has she been sleeping with Claudius?) The ghost, played by Shakespeare himself, is a cartoon hero; the mold hasn’t varied since Homer. Ophelia? Sweet girl, among a thousand others; likes flowers. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are interchangeable. Laertes? The adolescence Hamlet might have had were he not preoccupied with his lack of advancement. Even Polonius is a type.  

Let us move to film, and to Graham Greene, who also weighed in on this, and who wrote the script for The Third Man. Too many characters, he warned us, ‘and the boat tips.’

Look at the best of all movies, Fellini’s : two characters, Guido and his wife. The rest are cartoons. But they have their looks and they have their voices—they’re there.

In fiction I use voice to achieve that kind of presence. I like to feel that I don't need "said X" or "said Y." In a movie you have to choose the right actor.

The important thing about any character is what he or she wants. That’s what gives them life. But I’m with Aristotle: what sells tickets is plot. And most characters, in life as in art—let us dare to say it—are there to advance the plot.

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