Monday, March 9, 2015

Some Tough Characters

In analyzing building characters, another important element might be to examine types of characters. Here, I'm talking about protagonists, antagonists, foils, antiheroes, and background characters.  I may do a brief post on these individually in the future, but for the moment, I want to explore the stereotypes and generalizations for these characters.

Of course, no one wants stereotypes or generalizations.  However, most forms of art--writing included--is a careful balance between expected patterns and the new.

A couple of examples might help.

Take some very experimental jazz.  The novel outweighs the expected patterns or repeated rhythms.  On the other side of the music spectrum might be a pop song which uses bass rhythms and drum beats that you have heard in at least a dozen other songs.  In popular music, the expected patterns are more powerful than the new and the experimental.

Unfortunately, pop music is more popular than experimental jazz.  Mostly--and I stress mostly--this is  because many people are more comfortable with the established paradigms in music composition.

On the other hand, many people are comfortable listening to music that falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, somewhere between the jazz that defies many of the expected patterns of music--a repeated melody, contrasting and complementing harmonies, and basic chord harmonics--and the overly predictable popular music.

And perhaps the implication to characters is, clearly, overly predictable.

We generalize that protagonists should be interesting but flawed, someone we can relate to, but someone for whom we can root.  This seems overly predictable, but the protagonists that break this basic rule must do so gracefully and wonderfully.  As I am trying to think of an example, I do not believe I can--not one that would not fall into an antihero or antagonist role.  Anyone think of one?

This is a careful balance between the generalized (often unconscious) expectations that we have for protagonists and the new people we expect from something called a "novel" or fiction.

Antagonists are almost more difficult to recreate.  Stereotypically, we assume that an antagonist is someone who has gone wrong along the way, and now is causing some sort of conflict or trouble for the protagonist.  In contemporary art, intrinsic good versus evil is not as believable in fiction as our Sunday school teachers might have had us to believe.  Even the Devil might have a reason for his hatred of humanity--bitterness towards God, jealous of humanity, or whatever causes devils to become so permanently loathsome.

Classic literature: Lord of the Rings.  Frodo is a charming protagonist whose greatest flaw is the ring. Gollum and Sauron, likewise, are monsters because of the power of the ring.

One more: Moby Dick.  This one is more complex.  We might call the protagonist Ishmael and the antagonist Captain Ahab, or we might dichotomize the captain and the whale.  Either way, the protagonist is relatable yet flawed, and the antagonist is not entirely evil.

Balancing between the expected and the new shines when done well.  We all have seen a painting that follows the rules of art while bringing something new to the table, or heard a song that carries enough rhythm and melody to be lovely while challenging your sense of song, or, better yet, met a lovely and fascinating character that holds so much of our interest while satisfying our gut, reaching the denouement, and we know that the ending is perfect, because, "That is exactly what the character would do."

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