Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Time and Character (Part One)

Time and the Character: Part One

So I've talked about the dramatic arc of characters before-- a good deal of it reflecting some of the issues Robin Laws' has been bringing up recently in his LJ, and some of it drawn from other sources. The gist of it is that characters has some arcs and change over the course of a story-- be that a movie, a TV series, or an rpg campaign. There are problems established, crises that test those characters and play off of - for lack of a better word- their flaws. Managing those changes can be difficult for the player and the GM for a couple of reasons.

Icons and Change
On the one hand, some of the flaws which make up a character serve as a central defining point for them. They serve as important parts of their identity. Laws mentions the idea of the iconic character- where they go through the trials but do not change. They remain unswervingly associated with those ideas, even when that causes sacrifice and destruction to others. He mentions Inglorious Basterds, where the apparently central characters follow their code to the end without any kind of bending, even when that destroys others. Change and actually moral choices go to the wayside-- the character moves through the story unchanged and unchangeable. Interestingly he suggests that because of that nature, the story focus rests on others who can change or be affected by circumstances. The iconic character is interesting, but doesn't provide a dramatic attachment.

Modernization of the Icon

Sherlock Holmes is an iconic character as is Dr. Who-- but consider all of the modern reimaginings for those characters. Most of the recent takes on Holmes present him as human, associated with love or subject to problems of the self that he has to overcome, and sometimes fails at. The Seven Percent Solution, the more recent Rupert Everett Masterpiece Theater take, and clearly the new Robert Downey, Jr. film all follow this path. The newer Dr. Who works because it really does consider the internal struggles of the character at the same time that he remains at least somewhat iconic. The writers recognize the difficulty of balancing that. The Doctor is dangerous to know, to be around. And he's driven by other concerns and values which do not change. There's a striking two-parter in Season Three of the new series which makes this explicit. The Doctor's forced to become human for a time, and forget his past to hide alien hunters. He falls in love as a human, but once he's forced to revert back- that means nothing. His lover recognizes that-- and sees that he's a being without the capacity for human choice and change, at least in that respect. I'd say the central tension in the new series comes from that balance between The Doctor as an iconic figure and The Doctor as a creature who does suffer when things go against him.

As a side note, I'd say that part of this comes from an evolution of the Dr. Who show from being primarily a children's show to primarily a show for adults. Iconic characters provide a kind of reassurance and solidity for certain kinds of readers and viewers. I'm not saying that's bad, but those structures are more classical. Consider the flack that Peter Jackson took for some of the liberties he took with Lord of the Rings. Some of those came from cutting and the choice of story moments, but the most vehement objections I heard revolved around the humanizing of some of the characters-- Aragon, Boromir and Faramir, making them agonize over their choices, showing them as real people. They are changed by their interactions and evolve. In the original, there's little of that beyond a kind of mythic telling of the power of the ring in some cases or a sudden taking on the mantle of a new power in others. We sympathize and empathize with the characters more strongly, and not just because we see them on the screen. The iconic character appeals to a certain kind of mood and a certain kind of thinking.

The Appeal of the Iconic: One View
Norman Spinrad, author of Bug Jack Barron and a essayist on science fiction, talked about a related kind of appeal-- the fiction which presents the superhuman, the unfailing character. He went so far as to suggest that those kinds of certainties appealed to a kind of totalitarian mindset. In particular he indicted the later Orson Scott Card novels for making a character who was always right, and whose moral judgments were beyond those of ordinary humans. There's a magical thinking that goes on there where the writers present their superhuman characters and the magic of the world present magically wipes away the atrocities they create. Gordon Dickson's Dorsai novels fall into this category as well-- with a strange superhuman philosophy of great thinkers who magically stand above others and who are always right, always perfect and unchangeable.

Look at the difference in paths between Marvel and DC in the early days. At the time Superman was still always right and completely perfect, Marvel had started to present characters with real problems: Spider-Man, the Thing, Daredevil-- they weren't always right and they didn't always win. Eventually by the 1970's DC would begin to follow that story path as well, but more modestly. Of course all of that would explode in the 1980's in two directions: the completely flawed heroes and the dark and gritty heroes who just didn't care. Then we have the modern Superhero movie which presents these iconic heroes, but stresses their flaws and need to change even more perhaps that the comics do. The Spider Man and Batman franchises are about the characters changing and making choices. They made have a code, but when they adhere to it they can suffer as well. I read an article recently that looked at another tangent to this-- where the character changes, tries to find humanity, but ends up destroying without real remorse. And that destruction is presented as unimportant to the audience. As that article puts it, there's a certain irony to heroes “...who struggle to re-humanize while killing lots of other humans.”

False Dramatic Choices
This does bring me to an important example of a place where there is apparent change as the dramatic highpoint of a story, but which actually fails. In this sense, I think the ending of the Harry Potter series sucks. Not the epilogue, which is problematic on its own, but the first ending. To finally defeat Voldemort, Harry has to sacrifice himself. Rowling makes a big deal about Harry's struggle with his decision to make that sacrifice. There's a whole Passion in the Garden moment for him, but it doesn't ring true. The problem being two-fold. First, we can be pretty certain as readers that Rowling's not going to actually kill Harry off. That's for a whole different class of writing (see the end of the Narnia series for example). But more importantly, sacrificing himself really isn't that big a deal. It isn't a struggle there-- everything about Harry's actions before this has been selfless and sacrificing. He's a sheep led to slaughter in that respect. There's never any question that he wouldn't sacrifice himself-- the Harry of any of the earlier books would have done it. There's a false drama which comes from that-- where there ought to be a struggle against impulses-- the kind of struggle we saw in earlier books, here the final choice pretty much fits with his character.

Character Evolution
But all of that goes more than a little off tangent. For me the important point is that characters can change and evolve over the course of a campaign. However that change requires dealing with two issues: what kinds of changes do the players want and when do characters change? I've talked a little bit before here about the idea that some changes to characters are organic to a players conception and some changes break a character's conception of themselves. Basically there are some key elements of a player's conception of themselves that, should they change or be forced to change, then the character is no longer one they wish to play. But other elements of a character are set up to be changeable-- the character can and will overcome those in the course of a campaign. They see that arc as part of themselves. The trick is to get both the GM and the player on the same page regarding that. So that Three Up/Three Down structure I borrowed attempts to do that: to have a player explicate those issues for themselves and for the GM. I think it is something that has to be done a ways into the campaign, once the players have had a good chance to walk around in their new skin.

Mind you, I'd say there are several levels to character change-- some deeper than others. Some character changes are superficial, some are external and some are internal. Superficial goals can revolve around achieving a short term objective, like gaining a particular item or defeating a foe, they're generally easy to get to within the span of a few sessions. They can be external or internal. Like winning the admiration of a particular group or coming to trust a particular character. They're small changes which represent the continuing development of the character. Perhaps superficial isn't the right word here-- more that they're smaller and accumulated. So in contrast larger, external goals would revolve around defeating the big bad, gaining a particular role or position, advancing to the next year of school. Iconic or static characters only change through these external goals, changes to the world around them or apparently changes to themselves which don't really change who they are. The more complicated, more satisfying and more interesting dramatic changes are large and internal.

Which brings us to the difficult question: when should characters make these kinds of changes? (TBD discussed in Part Two)