There is No Such Thing as Character in Stories

Here is a question for you,

What is the voice in your head look like? I mean physically speaking, is it like us, or someone we know? Is it the same figure that everything emanates from, and remains constant through the course of our lives? Does the entity that speaks to us have a particular character? Traits that we can distinguish its patterns and behavior? If it was a real person what would it would look like?

We all know about the little voice in our heads. We’ve all heard it and been triggered by it at various times and we all imagine that there is something behind it. We don’t know what it is exactly, or what it looks like but we assume there is something nonetheless.

But yet again, there is no real evidence that there is. Maybe it’s like the voices we listen to the radio that we assume there is a particular figure behind and we move on to append the characteristics that our brain wants to give it, but were we to actually look at the person we would never really anticipate the image we would get. It would be completely opposite to what we had thought previously and we would cringe at the mismatch of our thoughts and reality.

This brilliant thought experiment was conducted by David Mamet, the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright, known for works like “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed the Plow”, and it made the point on the fact that most of the time we just assume something to be there when in reality it is mostly us making the whole thing up.

We assume there is an entity behind it, the same way we assume there is a character behind the protagonists we read in books, but in reality, there is nothing else there other than the attribute we give to them ourselves.

The pattern is not very different from people who believed in witches where they would punish and burn them based on the belief system they had agreed to operate on. You could say ‘I’m not a witch’, or you could try to defend the accusation somehow by proving you are a normal person but you could never declare that there is no such thing as witches. Because that was the story people believed in back then and it was an impalpable notion that was impossible to counter.

People operate in the stories they agree to believe in. Noah Harari in a recent interview with Tim Ferriss elaborated on the meaning of ‘stories’ and how people have ‘agreed’ to believe in them even though they nothing substantial or valuable intrinsically.

“The big advantage of humans is that we can cooperate basically, in unlimited numbers, thousands, millions, or even billions. Chimpanzees can’t cooperate more than, 50 or 100. That’s about the limit. And what enables us to cooperate in very large numbers, is our ability to invent and believe in fictional stories and fictional entities. All the big heroes of history are fictional entities that exist only in our imagination. Nations, gods, money, corporations, states, the only place they exist is in the stories that we invent and tell. They are not physical or biological realities.”

As Noah explains, these stories help us by bringing people together and uniting them based on the stories they decide to believe in. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have the ability to comprise alliances or create bonds based on the common ideas we carry.

Money has no real value on its own. It is only what people agree to make of it and their role is only invented by us to coordinate our living. Businesses are also fictional, written in legal documents, and branded as an idea but they have nothing real by themselves. Only the descriptions we assign to them and the stories we make that we share with each other.

Noah has a simple test that people can use to defer whether something is real or fictional. And that is to ask the question of suffering.

“A human being can suffer. A cow can suffer, an elephant can suffer, but a nation can’t. If a nation loses a war, it doesn’t suffer. It has no mind. It can’t feel pain or sadness or fear. The soldiers who are fighting for the nation, the citizens in that nation who are being conquered by some other nations, they can suffer a lot of things, but the nations can’t suffer.”

Writing draws on similar patterns with the idea of ‘characters’ that all writers secretly know doesn’t exist, yet they refuse to acknowledge so publicly. We use the language to say that someone is of a certain kind or that he has a particular personality but in reality, these are all fictional attributes.

As Aristotle defined it, ‘character’ is nothing more than ‘habitual action’. That’s it. We are what we habitually do and how we have developed to respond to the world around us. If a person learns to appreciate the people around him and acts in accordance with the rules he may be labeled trustable, but there is no intrinsic characteristic for ‘trust’ that makes him be so, other than this past behavior of his.

“We came to see what the character does we’ll determine what the character is later.” — David Mamet

In terms of a story or a narration, there is only one thing that matters and that is the objectives of an individual. What are the heroes trying to achieve, what is blocking them and why do they need to have what they are looking for. Out of these questions, they are going to react to whatever comes their way, based on their targets and the situation they find themselves in.

This, says David, is what makes fairytales work. Because we don’t characterize the hero. We don’t have to say the man is impulsive, easily irritated, or agreeable because that would be like manipulating the audience in moving the story towards a certain direction. A story gives the ability to the people to jump into the shoes of the heroes and assume whatever characteristics they want to project on them.

This is how stories can interact with the imagination of the audience. They can picture themselves going through the path as if they were part of the story themselves. If you project a ‘character’, the audience won’t be able to project to it and they will lose their ability to relate to the play the way they were supposed to.

The Backstory is Irrelevant

Many times you go on to read a story and you get a number of flashbacks about the situation of the hero, or his past and how he came to be here today. It would be surprising to realize that most of these recollections don’t really add anything to the narrative in terms of giving something valuable to the story. Creating an image of the hero as a child being fed by his mother with a spoon, just to make the point of the strong bond he is holding to her is mostly irrelevant. People can assume that there is a bond there and they will jump on the boat once the hero starts moving towards his objectives.

The objectives are all that matter to the story and you can find that most of the time a book can jump right into them, bypassing a tone of material without creating any issue to the reader. If there is the need to be a backstory it needs to be in relation to the objectives and that is the only way they could offer some sort of value.

Telling a relevant story is all about cutting out all the redundant parts of it and keeping the things that actually matter to the audience and there is a certain path all authors go through as they evolve in their writing journey. While in the beginning they try to add more to the story and append information to make it reacher, the really experienced ones remove parts like sculptors that carve on a big chunk of rock and they won’t be satisfied unless they reach the bare minimum.

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