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Players vs. Characters

Before we delve deeply into the nature and function of these representational archetypes, let us begin by stepping back a bit and asking a very simple but important question: What is a character?

This is not as easy to answer as it might at first appear.  Like most dramatic concepts, it depends on whom you ask. Some say characters are just ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Others say characters represent personality types. And then there are those who see all characters as personifying ideals.

As varied as these descriptions are, they all share one thing in common: They are looking at characters through the veil of storytelling – the setting, manner of expression or topic. When we strip that away, we begin to see the true structural nature of characters underneath it all: past their personalities and into their underlying psychologies.

Still, before we delve into this fundamental structure of characters, let us give the devil his due and take a moment consider their personalities, as that is what makes them intriguing, involving, charismatic and memorable.

In a story, anything can have a personality: a person, an animal, a tree, the sea, a star, even a virus. This stands to reason because in our every day lives we imbue inanimate objects with human qualities when we name our boats, call the wind Mariah, or refer to the Fatherland, Mother Russia, or Lady Liberty. As a preliminary definition, we can call any entity that exhibits a personality a player.

Some players are just part of the background as with extras in the movies. Others are tools of convenience an author uses to drop information or solve a logistic conundrum in the plot. And still others are nothing more than window dressing – simple elements of entertainment that are purely storytelling devices.

But a player can also perform another dramatic task: it can function as part of the story argument. That is to say, it contributes to the problem solving process to illustrate which approaches work best in this particular situation.

When it directly advances the story’s argument, the player has become a character. To be a character, then, the player must (through its attitudes and/or actions) illustrate one of the ways the story’s central problem might be solved. And so, by this definition, not every personage populating a story is a character. Simply put: while all characters are players, not all players are characters.

To further clarify, consider this excerpt from another book of mine on the function of characters:

Characters need to perform double-duty in a story.  First, they must depict fully developed people in the storytelling so that the readers or audience might identify with them and thereby become personally involved in the entertainment and, perhaps, internalize the message.

Second, each character must idealize a different facet of our own conflicting motivations, made tangible, incarnate, so that we (the readers or audience) might directly observe the mechanisms of our own minds, see them from the outside looking in, and thereby gain a better understanding of how to solve similar problems in our lives.

And so we see two distinct kinds of functions in each player when it also acts as a character: the fully developed aspect that makes it a real person and the small fragment of our own psychology that makes it part of the story’s argument.

Ultimately, as the story unfolds, all of these fragments will come together through the interactions of the characters like pieces of a puzzle to create the overall message of the story.

Armed with this understanding of the difference between players and characters and the two essential jobs of each character, let’s focus on just the structural functional side where archetypes reside.


Archetypes

Characters, Narrative & Mind


By Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator of StoryWeaver

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