no, you should not analyze characters based on what they say about themselves.

Sep 14, 2013 12:55

This was going to be my Grand Unified Theory of Character Motivations, but I think it bleeds a bit into an even bigger picture of how I generally analyze and evaluate fictional characters, which ended up making clear to me why I spend so much time groaning in frustration when something or other gets panned as being "OOC."

Note: there are examples from numerous shows below. If I'm just alluding to a character and the most basic description of them that you'd get in their first appearance ("Klaus is a vampire"; "Zarek is a terrorist") then it's not under a cut, but any specific in-story events are spoiler-cut.

On and off I'm going to be referring to Occam's Razor. This term is popularly misconstrued, and so I'm going to write it out here: when faced with competing hypotheses, you go with the one that requires the fewest new assumptions.* This is very, very different from the popular misquotation that "the simplest explanation is the best one."

*I think this is implicit, but just to make it explicit: those competing hypotheses should account for all available data. With television shows, which is mostly what I'm going to be discussing, I think it's reasonable to account for some small margin of error. That said, striking something from the text when you're analyzing a character should be considered an assumption under Occam's Razor. Even though it's actually a counterfactual, we'll consider this an "assumption that this bit of data can be ignored." So, when faced with two competing character interpretations, the one that involves (a) incorporating the least consequential amount of fanon and (b) ignoring the smallest amount of canon is the best one. If, say, one interpretation accounts for everything and makes few or no new inclusive assumptions, and another interpretation assumes several facts not in evidence and assumes that a significant portion of the storyline can be written off as OOC, the first one is better.

I think the most illustrative way to gauge a character is to take a 3-step approach: analyze stated ends in themselves without considering actions, analyze observable actions the character (ostensibly) takes toward those ends, and then look at how much daylight there is between (1) and (2).

(1) Say a character claims their goal is to bake a pie from scratch. I consider what I expect someone with their current knowledge and means to figure is the least cumbersome way to bake a pie. They'd be reasonable to check the kitchen to ensure they have necessary ingredients and equipment, after which they're fairly likely to make a grocery run. They'll make/buy a pie crust, they'll mix up some filling, they'll heat up the oven and pop that sucker in. This is what I expect of a character who wants to bake a pie from scratch.

(2) Say we open a scene on a character standing in a kitchen loading a clip into a handgun. They take the handgun, and a carving knife for good measure, and head to a shopping center, where they rob a bank for money, relieve a bunch of passers-by of their wallets, and then hit up the grocery store for money and goods. Whether or not they return to the kitchen and bake a pie, the salient series of choices was clearly the armed robbery.

(3) Say (1) and (2) are the same character, and the character claims their intent all along was just to make a pie. Well, that's just not true. IMO (3) is the most revealing step. A person could want to bake a pie - even want and fail to make a pie - for any number of reasons. And a character might rob a bank for any number of reasons - they're broke and/or they're a thrill-seeker and/or they're looking to provoke or get revenge on someone. But if someone says (dishonestly or sincerely) that they just HAD to rob THAT BANK to bake THAT PIE, well, that dramatically narrows the pool of conclusions we can draw.

This sounds pretty obvious, but there are a lot of very common pitfalls.

(A) Sometimes a character states as their (1) motivation either (i) an ineffable emotion about which the audience and other characters have sympathy for some degree of irrationality, or (ii) a broadly-defined/impossibly difficult task which provides cover for any number of sins.

(A)(i):[TVD spoilers]Take Elena's compulsion of Jeremy in S3. She says she does it for ~love, and both Damon and a large segment of the audience accept that is the case, even though the next couple of episodes overtly demonstrate the flaws in her plan, namely, that sending Jeremy away, cutting him out of the loop, and dampening his self-protection skills simply left him much more vulnerable to the Originals' machinations. Indeed, if she had been trying to disempower him, she could hardly have done a better job - step (2) suggests, and I happen to believe, that this is on some level exactly what she was doing. But that's not the whole picture of Elena that we get from her insistence that she strapped Jeremy into the Chair because she loves him so much. I think the real takeaway is that Elena buys into the conflation of control, objectification, and devotion - ie, she has internalized and even romanticized the doppelganger experience of the protection-by-disempowerment survival skill set, and she tries to seize some personal power not by pushing back against it but by forcing that experience onto her brother.

(A)(ii): Tom Zarek's SMASH THE SYSTEM! rhetoric may tangentially relate to some legitimate grievances with the Colonial interplanetary hierarchy. But SMASHING THE SYSTEM is a pretty broad goal, not one that actually necessitates mass murder, and definitely isn't something he has any reason to keep doing after the world ends and he gains his freedom and a lot of influence to boot. His actions are much more closely-tailored to someone who loves chaos for its own sake. That said, Colonial society is a lot like American society - there are plenty of avenues for culturally-sanctioned sadism. Zarek chooses the cover story he does in part because he is a person of broad vision, who values more than anything the power of ideals and independence of thought.

(B) Failure to account for irrationality. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all rational people are rational in the same way; irrational people are irrational in all kinds of unique ways. Moreover, there aren't a whole lot of happy families or rational people, and frankly, they're not too often a whole lot of fun to write about. Characters should be irrational to some extent. They ought to have biases and make mistakes. My step (1) analysis up there isn't intended as a checklist which I expect a character to meet, but as a baseline from which to measure how far and in what ways they go astray, which does tell us a good deal about the underlying character logic.

My most reliable departure from fandom is fandom's tendency to do a Step (1) and stop there, expecting a character to behave perfectly rationally, and claiming that some break between (1) and (2) is categorically bad writing, as if the room full of highly-educated professional storytellers are unable to do the simple analysis we just sketched out here in two seconds. This is such bullshit.

(B)(i) Right now my quintessential example of this is Klaus. Guys, it is not bad writing when Klaus acts irrationally. Klaus is a lunatic. His plans will not make sense, and his rationalizations will be impulsive and self-serving. He is a thousand-year-old adolescent gorilla with the means to do whatever the fuck he wants. His reputation and success should not be judged on a human scale - Klaus has unlimited time and means in which to indulge his insanity. Step (2) actions that are minimally burdensome to him will look like the savviest and most improbable of human feats.

(B)(ii)[Supernatural spoilers (all aired)]Sometimes it's not even irrationality that fandom gets up in arms about, it's a simple and realistic case of human indecisiveness. No, SPN fandom, it wasn't BAD STOOPID RITURRRZZ screwing up when they leaned hard on the boys' plans to close the gates this season before the actual scene where the plan was abandoned. They weren't sure about their plan for numerous reasons, which were made explicit in the text; they should have been dealing with underlying misgivings of the wisdom of the whole thing; the point where they change their minds needs to have the dramatic impact of them, um, CHANGING THEIR MINDS.

(C) Wrongly-imputed irrationality: Every once in a while, you will see a character acting rationally to a fairly decent implied or stated end, and people get pissed (again, with THE RITURRRRZZZ!) and claim that this kind of sense-making is BAD WRITING. In order to reconcile that which is already...preconciled, they'll hide the fact that they just don't like the character's ends by simply pretending they don't exist. Again, BIG ASSUMPTION.

[Supernatural (all aired)]Supernatural: No, Virginia, Sam Winchester did not have a psychotic break when he decided against the annual Winchester apocalyptic egg hunt upon Dean's disappearance. Sam - as sane as he's ever been - acts the way he always has. If there's a thing that can be done he does it, if there's not he doesn't. The other alternative....doesn't end well. It NEVER ends well. Fandom expected a huge and bizarre gulf between (1) and (2) and when they didn't get this wildly irrational behavior they decided SAM was the crazy one. lol, aite.

(D) Unsubstantiated normative judgments

Sometimes the new assumption to be avoided by Occam's Razor is a simple normative judgment as to whether a character is "good" or "bad."

(D)(i): I am so glad I was not around to watch BSG fandom unravel around Lee's "OOC"-ness for 2/3 of his character's run until well after the fact, which was aggravating enough. I have never in my life seen a character make more sense than Lee Adama, okay. THERE WERE ROBOTS ON BSG THAT MADE LESS SENSE THAN LEE ADAMA. ACTUAL ROBOTS. The thing that didn't add up was the attempt to crowbar in an unsubstantiated "this character behaves in a way I will find moral and admirable" between (2) and (3) that everyone got their tanks in a twist over which made no sense.

(D)(ii) TVD/Originals people have already heard enough of my yelling about Elijah recently, so I'll spare. But no, it is not OOC for Elijah to be a dick.

(D)(iii) Sometimes, we ascribe ill will in a place where it's not supported by the narrative. This is my chance to explain my perspective about The Lie.

[BtVS (S2)]Step 1: Xander claims to want to minimize lives lost by Angelus, including but not limited to his own, which culminates in wanting to prevent Angel from ending the world. What I'd expect people to do most reasonably changes throughout the season, but:
Step 2:....Xander actually does pretty well here, given what he has the capability to do in his world. He really can't act on his own behalf, since making a move against Angelus would just get him killed, which goes against his motivations. So he decides - perfectly rationally - that his only shot at attaining his goal is to influence the only non-A Team powerhouse in town.
His tactics for this, too, shift in a way that I think is reasonably well-tailored to the changing circumstances. When the most effective and most morally/emotionally plausible option is simply to be a good friend to Buffy, he very much is. When Jenny Calendar's death persuades him - again, reasonably - that this tactic isn't cutting it, he turns to above-board dissent. He only turns to The Lie when it's become excruciatingly clear that the price of Buffy's uncertainty is a lot of lives.
Step (3): actually, there's not a lot of space between what he says he wants to do and what he actually does. I guess you could argue that he didn't see the opportunity to jump in and control what Buffy knows and so he might have done it before then, but because we don't know what he would have done, that's an assumption, not a part of canon.

Conclusion: Xander may happen also to harbor some resentment toward Angel, but I don't think he'd act too much differently without that ancillary motivator. (Whereas if it was his primary motivator, I'd expect him to take a run at Angelus himself.) Xander's ire toward his psycho-stalker-attempted-murderer-several-times-over....certainly doesn't alter his course of action here, but the emphasis fandom seems to put on it as a wrongful driving motivation strikes me as...looking to normativize and pathologize a perfectly rational and responsible course of action.

(E) Hindsight is 20/20: Presentism is the shiny new word I've learned from Race for the Iron Throne, which is so overt and evocative that I mostly wouldn't have believed it was a real thing, for the privileging of present knowledge. When interpreting events, real or fictional, people have a tendency to assume that because a series of events turned out a particular way, it was not only reasonably foreseeable but likely inevitable. (For an exploration of the cognitive science of this phenomenon, check out Everything Is Obvious* (Once You Know the Answer) by Duncan J. Watts.) Relevant to our purposes is the disproportionate amount of weight we tend to place on outcomes when we interpret a character. We tend not only to overstate the likelihood of outcomes, but to ascribe normative judgments on a character's intent based on those outcomes. In our skewed, just-world-y evaluation of narratives, there are no unintended consequences - actions with regrettable results are the result of hubristic carelessness or even malicious intent.

(E)(i) If you're familiar with AtS or Supernatural, you probably have at least one pretty solid example of this point in mind, where a character did act in a way that, given the information they had about what is possible and even likely in their world, was rationally within the lines of their stated intent. And then things went awry. The most likely event isn't all that likely in fiction, but the characters don't know they're in a story.

(E)(ii) Hindsight is usually applied to condemn, but occasionally we see the reverse, where a character pulls of a particular type of macho swagger that distracts from the fact that he didn't pull off his stated goals - he claims a step (1), doesn't take sufficient action to fulfill that step (1), but step (1) either still gets done or the blame for its failure gets laid at someone else's feet, and therefore he gets a disproportionate amount of credit instead of a disproportionate amount of blame. A character says they plan to bake a pie, and then they futz around "taste-testing" a couple of fillings, and then there's a random pie in a bakery box? Nah. See: Lannister, Tywin,[probably sufficintly-vagued-up Book 3 spoilers]who once made a vague comment that a certain coup d'etat would be in his best interests and is therefore credited by a subset of fandom as the ~mastermind over the silly lady-brains who we saw hatch the plot and carry it out.

(F) All-or-nothing thinking: Just what it sounds like. Sometimes 1-2-3 analysis will line up just fine, but the process by which the events occurred (there's more than one way to rob a bank or make a pie) say something about a character other than "this plot point needed to happen." That's okay! That's good! But there's a tendency to assume a "gotcha!" stance where if a character says "I want to do X because Y good reason" rather than the more specific, but rarely substantively different, "I want to do X mostly because of Y good reason but also a little bit because of Z self-interest" fandom tends to seize on the Z self-interest part as the REAL!!1!! motive even if it would actually make a lot less sense sense (or no sense at all) to do X strictly or mostly for Z purpose.

[BtVS S6]Like I even need to spell out the obligatory Buffy example? Yeah, Willow got off a little on ~harnessing the power of nature and so on when she raised Buffy in the S6 premiere. But there were all kinds of ways she could've looked out for #1 that summer, and most of the rational ones begin with her hightailing it out of Sunnydale instead of sticking around Hell-ville in order to fight vampires and help raise a teenager. Whereas her stated goal - reverse the highly likely scenario that Buffy was stuck in some horrible hell dimension - could only be achieved by the means she eventually took. Some incidental self-interest along the way doesn't poison and negate the logical connection between action and goals.

Anyway, this is getting repetitive and y'all get the idea:
  1. How would a totally rational actor use the tools the character has to accomplish what they say are their goals?
  2. What are the goals you would surmise based strictly on the character's behavior, if you knew nothing else about them?
  3. Why would someone who does [2] think or say [1]?
and boom. That's it. That's the character.

everybody lies, asoiaf, meta-fantastica, btvs/ats, the riturrrrzzzz, tvd, the author is boxed, supernatural, game of thrones, bsg, the originals

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