Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

On Characterization

It’s probably fair to say that I watch a good amount of television and movies. I also read quite a bit of books and play a lot of video games. So with that under my belt I think it’s reasonable to say that I have to see characters developed and realized somewhat often. And yet it’s only now, after reading Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, can I really say I “get” characterization and the underlying paradox involving making a character really stand out. With that, come along on our adventure of “how to develop characters and how not to” that will take us from Jane Austen to the world of Heroes and with a little stop-off in theWarhammer 40000 universe.

Let’s start off by getting something straight here: there will be a lot of complaining about bad characterisation (except for in the Jane Austen books). Yet you should remember the words of a greater man than I, Bjarne Stroustrup:

There are only two kinds of languages: the ones people complain about and the ones nobody uses.

Of course here we can replace “languages” with “TV show”, “book”, “video game”, or any other work of art. So while I’m going to bitch a lot about this, keep in mind that it’s either that or I talk about something very obscure that none of you know or care about.

What does it mean then to have good characterisation? At a high level, it means that the work must have characters that actually feel like real people. They must have depth, and that is something that is much easier said than done. It’s especially hard because of what I will call the Jane Austen paradox: in order to make your characters believable and deep, you have to spend a lot of time developing them, which then comes at the expense of everything else in the work, which then makes it boring. This is the motivation for works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its successor, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Both books take a peerless work with amazing characterisation and attempt to relieve some of the boredom with some random, unrelated action scenes. But while this is an extremely risky attempt to turn something from an A to an A+ and risk instead turning it into a C, both books actually pull it off. They keep the characters complicated and imperfect, but are able to spice up the story a bit without doing so at the expense of the characters.

This is in contrast to two different television series I have find a somewhat guilty pleasure in watching: Heroes and Stargate Universe. I firmly disagree with the naysayers that complain how it’s not fair to compare books and television and movies. One must keep in mind that they are different mediums and that they excel in different things (for example, the extremely immersive qualities of video games), but we can still compare very basic ideas that are shared across the mediums (depictions of characters, places, etc.). Heroes and Stargate Universe share a common problem: they have too many main characters. While the Austen works have an incredible number of characters, there’s no more than three main characters in these books. In contrast, Heroes and Stargate Universe can’t really agree on who the main characters are, so they end up deciding that most of the characters are main characters. This leads to scenarios where the viewer only ends up seeing a main character for half the season because the other half of the time must be devoted to the other main characters. As a result, all of these works have a great idea going for it but Heroes and Stargate Universe tend to suffer from a bad execution of it.

That’s not to say these shows are always this way. At the end of each season of Heroes, for example, all the storylines tend to converge and it gets extremely interesting to see how it all plays out. However, it causes each character to be developed extremely slowly and since they don’t have a lot of time to develop each character, none of the characters really develop at all. We’re now at four seasons of Heroes, and none of the characters have really changed at all since season one. In fact, at the end of a season, it’s extremely common for a character to say “I’ve learned this great lesson about myself and will change for the best”, only to fall into old habits again by the beginning of the next season. But it’s different from an alcoholic promising to clean up and then messing it all up. You don’t feel bad for the characters messing up because they have such an “I’m right, you’re wrong, I’m going to kill you and save the world” mentality that I actually start to feel good watching some of the more egotistic characters completely mess things up time and time again (especially see Nathan Petrelli, seasons 1-3 and no doubt soon again once his current predicament is resolved).

Stargate Universe is still in its first season, so it’s too early to say much about it, but has a variation of the Heroes problem. It has a dozen main characters who we see for five minutes each episode and they pick a different two or three characters to spend an extra five minutes developing each time around. It’s problem, however, is that it likes to say “feel bad for this person even though you just met them and don’t get to see them that often”. In short, it’s schizophrenic. It has an interesting idea going for it that really has potential but the current execution just isn’t working out for me.

Again, contrast to the Austen works. There’s only about three main characters and as they travel around, you meet all the secondary characters. You always are at least one main character, and the characterisation is done so well that you either hate or love these main characters at first glance. Since you always stick with these characters, and since they always learn and grow LIKE REAL HUMAN BEINGS, your opinion of them changes as you read the book. That’s why the original Austen works are masterpieces. They actually spend time on the characters and not on the drama. And there is a very subtle difference here. Drama for the sake of drama is a telenovella. This is drama as part of the human experience, and this is why these books have such superior characterisation.

The Warhammer 40000 universe, oddly enough, characterises just a bit better than Heroes or Stargate Universe. There’s half a dozen alien races but the novels and video games primarily focus on the human factions, the Space Marines and the Imperial Guard. Since it started as a Dungeons and Dragons-like game, there are huge books containing everything you’d ever want to know about the alien races, which is nice since you’d otherwise be in the dark about them, but since it is like D&D, it’s too technical to get a lot out of unless you’re into D&D. The human factions are shown to be pretty epic, and that much has changed in the far future. Weapons really haven’t changed too much, but human culture has changed quite a bit, into something not unlike a religious dictatorship. But it’s not too centralised, due to the sheer vastness of space itself. So I find myself picking up Warhammer-related material every now and then, and stumbled acrossWarhammer 40000: Dawn of War 2. It focuses exclusively on the Space Marines saving human worlds from the various alien races (conveniently enough, all aliens happen to be evil as far as humans are concerned). But oddly enough, there are neither too many main characters nor that great characterisation. The game is of the real-time strategy genre, and the story is conveyed through characters talking to each other through communication videos (comparable to how it looks when you talk to someone on a webcam). The story is ok but no character really stands out and it comes off as simply bland, which is such a shame considering how enthralling the Warhammer 40K universe is. The characters are just never in any real danger, never change or learn anything as the story progresses, and just…don’t feel human.

I suppose that’s why I love reading about history. History captivates me so much because the characters involved really are human. Nobody’s perfect, but hey, interesting things happen to them, and some people even learn from their mistakes and change. And for a long time, I was just so turned off from literature and sci-fi because the characterisation was such an afterthought to making scenes action-packed and exotic. Jane Austen has shown me that literature can really pull it off in the hands of a master, and with a little spicing up, it can be made even better.