On character analysis

Introduction and case study

Life is harder when you recognize confidence tricks for what they are.  That has been a growing issue for me, as I struggle to live up to various promises and goals.  I have created them, they exist apart from me.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to imbue them with any potency.  I can muster the generic strength necessary to keep moving, but the directions I’ve gone in recently have been significantly more erratic than usual.

Recently I watched an episode of Monk that was of some curiosity.  To boil it down to core details, Adrian Monk meets a man whose wife was killed.  Having experienced similar events in his life he sympathizes with this man and takes on his case.   I found myself offended by the entire thing.  Discarding the route a more boorish critic might take, I will not cry racism.  To do so likely would require presupposing something unique to relationships between people of different races.  Whether or not I am mistaken on this count is not particularly concerning however.  As a discussion of a highly specific type of human relationship, I feel that it’s of secondary importance in comparison to a discussion of relationships in the abstract.  There are very particular issues in that area that this episode has raised in my mind.  I also believe this episode was a single instance of a larger trend or phenomenon in fiction generally.

The most immediate curiosity is the extent to which Adrian Monk and his newly found friend parallel each other.  Not only have both had their wives murdered, each is also uncannily attentive to detail and in certain respects, obsessive.  When Monk first meets with Mr. Wangaya in order to send him away, he is informed that the street corner they are on is sacred ground.  This is because Wangaya’s wife was killed here.  This sentiment directly parallels that expressed in an earlier episode in the series, where Monk chained himself to a parking garage.  His wife was killed there, and he wanted to prevent it from being demolished.  The possible significance here of comparing what I presume is a cultural tradition to the actions of a man with OCD, will be left unexplored.

The point is that these two men are presented as very nearly mirror images.  To add an even more troublesome twist to the whole thing, Monk at numerous times confuses the man’s dead wife with his own, his quest for vengeance with his own, and even his closure with his own.  That this is presented as madness is made less compelling in two capacities.  First of all, it was made possible by the writers drawing the men so closely together in the first place.  Secondly, it all goes unprotested and in some cases is even endorsed by Wangaya.

There is something at work here that seems to render the characters two dimensional.  I cannot quite place my finger on it yet, but I am certain it is there.  If I had to make an attempt, I would say the characters are trivialized because their relationship to their dead wives is objectified.  These women exist in death as the forces which propel these two men.  Yet the motive itself is cheapened.  As a result the men themselves seem objectified.  As I said before, this is not a thorough analysis of the situation, as I can’t really grasp the mechanisms by which all this happen.  It is nonetheless apparent to me that it is happening.

Generalized speculation and the culture of the critic

Issues like these, ever present in fiction, have made me appreciate all of it substantially less.  I am beginning to play with the notion that all art is a lie, designed by nature to make people appear two dimensional.  Undoubtedly this is because the one uniquely human dimension is that of uncertainty.  There is something disquieting about that.  This realization has been extremely important in my understanding of stories.  I used to detest people who lambaste the pure Apollonian for being “boring” or seemingly “inhuman”.  This has been the most common criticism I have heard of Ayn Rand’s novels.  Now I am starting to appreciate a possible sense to this instinct, although I still regard it as ignorant.

If uncertainty is the unique condition of the human spirit, then unpredictability would seem to be the most expedient empirical shortcut for deriving an object’s humanity.  Yet principled human beings are predictable, to the exact extent they have the strength to live by their rules.  This is a rather curious and troublesome paradox.  It seems to suggest that the only thing needed for a person to become invisible in this world is that they possess both strength of will and consistency of action.  In fiction, this phenomenon becomes very readily apparent if you observe critics, because critics are the people who are observing the characters.  To say that a protagonist with no internal conflict or character flaw is static or one-dimensional is really to acknowledge that they are opaque.  If a perfect human being existed in nature, I submit that to the untrained eye they would be the least interesting creature to behold.

I like to read Roger Ebert.  I tend to agree with his assessment of things, but I only find this out after I figure out his reasoning.  Sometimes I feel he is very wrong, such as in his treatment of Harold and Maude.  I present him in order to show evidence for my belief that even the most highly trained critics are susceptible to the instinct I’ve described.  Ebert has a number of bad instincts to go along with his good ones.  When he said of Speed Racer that it makes a caricature of capitalist evil, I found myself chuckling.  Ebert darling, all capitalist evil is caricature.  His most egregious sin though is in many respects the only sin worth counting.  He does not wholly recognize what it means to live honestly.  As a counterpart to this, he does not recognize dishonesty.  Harold and Maude is a film about learning to live honestly, and for that alone it deserves to be lauded.  It depicts people and not objects.  This is such a rare, difficult, and stupendous accomplishment that how it handles anything subsequently is barely a concern.

I have not yet seen Public Enemies.  Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars, with seemingly his only complaint being as follows:

This is a very good film, with Depp and Bale performances of brutal clarity. I’m trying to understand why it is not quite a great film. I think it may be because it deprives me of some stubborn need for closure. His name was John Dillinger, and he robbed banks. But there had to be more to it than that, right? No, apparently not.

Since I have not seen the subject material, I cannot help but wonder if this is another hint of the limitation I have previously described.

Developing a new analytic framework, vidcon analysis and upcoming work

As I have begun to grasp more of the meaning of being human, even in the incomplete readings I’ve so far managed, I have become more cynical about the value of stories in general.   Naturally this mindset has not left my views of vidcons untouched.  In many senses my attitude is now a near inversion of the prevailing apologetics for the medium.  That games occasionally have stories which are symbolic of anything is not a question, but the value of the symbolism in general has dropped precipitously in my eyes.  Creators in all mediums have access to a rich and potent library of tools with which to tell stories, yet the stories told all seem to contain dishonesty in some form or another about the significance of human life.  Typically, this stems from a general lack of rigour in formulating characters.  This is profoundly characteristic of vidcons, and is certainly not helped by the particular qualities of this medium.  More on that later.

The problem of stories is that by and large, they always ask you to treat the characters that inhabit them as human beings.  For those who have a more common grasp of human nature, this rarely presents issues.  Indeed, it often even fails to present an issue when the humanity of the characters is later removed, through a clever reveal of “oh they were robots” or some other mechanism.  I have encountered more difficulty recently.  To treat a character as human means to start with the assumption that they have agency.  Perhaps not over the world.  In some cases if sufficient finess is displayed, maybe not even over their actions.  At minimum their own understanding of the world must belong to them.

If the character is incapable of feeling, thinking, or doing otherwise, then I have no investment in their actions.  That is the true mark of the one-dimensional character.  As I stated before, the one uniquely human dimension is that of uncertainty.  Human beings own their own possibilities.  If they do not, then they are not human beings.  Fiction has the unique power to give us zombie-like creatures in the place of people.  To look for inconsistency or dynamism is in my opinion, only utile to the extent it lets us discover humanity in a character.  It is not the only way to do so, it is just the easiest.

In terms specific to gaming, there are unique issues surrounding the symbolic humanity of characters.  Once again, I will reference Ebert.  He has been very clever in his rejection of games as art, although by no means brilliant.  The argument that sticks out most clearly is the one from narrative control.  Games put control of the material in the hands of the player, and hence take it out of the hands of the creator.  Hence games cannot have objective meaning.  This argument is half true.  If it were entirely true then games would only be half as problematic as they actually are.

The world lacks objective meaning.  What is the purpose of a mountain, or a cloud?  It is de trop.  Let us not confuse the issue of textual meaning with the more spiritual, personal or human sort of meaning, however.  Symbolism is mechanically objective.  One can derive or at least infer what something represents through perpetual critical analysis and resynthesis.  A text can’t give you an objective purpose for going bowling, or watching films, or getting up in the morning.  Nontheless, what the text symbolizes can at least can be discussed with fair intentions to objectivity.  This much I have concluded on the subject, if little else.

In that capacity, giving the gamer control over the symbols and hence rendering them subjective is half a problem.  Why play a game?  Well, why do anything?  Why read a perfectly symbolic text, forged under complete authorial control?  Note that these are not and cannot be rhetorical questions; rather they seem to beg for and accept any answer, albeit in a tragically and necessarily evanescent capacity.  The real issue in games instead comes from the textual half.  This is how dishonesty enters gaming, and it taints both the characters of the game and the players of the game.

The interactive elements of a game present a player with the same issues as reality:  Here is a world, you may impose a psychic order upon it.  Do these elements in themselves really subtract from the story elements of the game?  That seems like a trivially dismissible question.  Do the spaces in between words subtract from the meaning of a book?  Of course not.  You might see potential there for more meaning, but a text is an object.  Besides, nobody ever got anywhere by selling writing by the pound.  Except maybe post modernists.

Conversely, the text elements of the game typically present the player with a purpose.  Collect 70 stars to fight Bowser and rescue the princess, for example.  I advise you to be careful here.  I said purpose intentionally.  While this is not the case of all games, the task here is not inherently symbolic.  No argument is readily deducible from it.  It leaves the player in a peculiar state of freedom.  There is no communication here.  The player has complete agency over the psychic organization of the interactive elements of the game.  Yet they are able to assign their own meaning to things while simultaneously knowing that their actions were intended.  The ghost of authorial control is stuck here in the game, in an enabling capacity.  Games have the ability to appeal to a love of structure as purpose, while decoupling structure from all limitations and central symbolic organization.  In that capacity they are the worst enabler of all media in the corruption of an honest understanding of human life.

Not all games are like this.  A narrative can be semantically closed.  The problem is that a game becomes semantically open again at each instant of interactivity, even if the textual elements are static.  The difficulty is rectifying the objective symbolism of the text with the subjective symbolism the player has assigned to the difference.  I stated earlier that a character must be capable of feeling, thinking, or doing otherwise to be sympathetic.  Since the player controls the character at various stages in the game, it seems trivial to deduce that all video game characters are sympathetic.  Yet this is wrong.  The fact the player takes control of the character is no indication of any of these things, since the narrative can contradict them.  The player is not the character.  The character is an object on the screen, in the world of the game; and if the creator of the game isn’t careful then that’s all it can be.  This is a disgustingly large issue with Metal Gear Solid 4.  Just as any story can spring the Ex Post Facto revelation that characters had only the illusion of free will, the story of a game can take what the player has done and symbolically rob it of the one great significance it has; as a representation of human agency.

Therefore, the key to overcoming the weakness of games as a narrative format is for the story proper to account for this agency in some way.  Rather than attempting to trivialize it, it must be dealt with respectfully.  Perhaps in this sense video games are merely the format in which the fundamental dishonesty of art becomes most readily apparent.  This does not need to be the case.  The problem of games in this understanding is their transparency.  If they produce a character that is something less than human, it is much more obvious.  I don’t believe that it will take a uniquely great genius to produce a gaming magnum opus.  I believe that it takes a great genius to create any character worth believing in, and that any appearence of a non-uniform difficulty in accomplishing this task is an illusion.

I leave you with a video.  It is of only limited relevance.  Food for thought.

~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on August 16, 2009.

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