Character is the key to the world of the story.
A character is a keyhole entry to the story for the actor and audience alike.
Length: 1300 words
Reading Time: 5 minutes
The word “character” has a compelling story. In the dictionary, a character is a set of distinctive mental and moral qualities unique to an individual. Therefore, a person’s actions are either in line with their character or are not. For example, hard drinking and gambling are out-of-character for a mild-mannered vicar. On the other hand, a story about this kind of person would be very interesting simply because of the conflicting signals. The thing that makes a story interesting to an audience is the prospect of discovering something surprising about someone!
Character as Evidence
Character can be “read” by interpreting external behaviours. This is an empirical (evidence-based) summary of a person. However, most people know that you can’t judge a book by its cover. An external reading alone rarely satisfies. As a result, most stories adhere to the idea that the most compelling parts of a person are those that no-one can ever truly know without putting in some effort.
I think this is why plays, films and dramatic arts in general have captured audiences for millennia. Living in a profoundly social world, we are constantly called upon to keep our own character in check while judging/evaluating the characters of those around us. We should be good at it, but I have a feeling that to most members of the human race, other people remain a mystery.
Character as Symbol
In language, a character is a symbolic representation. Like all things symbolic, it refers to something greater than the sum of its parts. The Chinese character for the word “home” is 家 (pronounced ‘jiā’). As a symbol, it evokes a larger concept than what appears to the eye. The reader is meant to interpret it and project into it.
In many ways, this idea of seeing a wider picture through a reduced representation is synonymous with regarding a character as a keyhole to the story world. A character is a placeholder for the reader’s associations. With this in mind, it is a similar process to reading a novel or witnessing an event. A character’s actions will prompt you to interpret (and often create) their significance to you.
In a similar fashion, a personality is made knowable by reading into it, just like the written character above. Psychologist Carl Jung developed this idea, saying that we begin with little knowledge of ourselves. Much of our personality hides in our unconscious encoded in archetypes that we all know somehow, even if we can’t explain why. It’s as if archetypes are codes in our latent psyche. We know them tacitly, without learning them.
Character as Self Discovery
Over time and through interactions with the world, one gets to know more of one’s own character. We develop by gaining self-awareness. We don’t always get to know why we do certain things. It’s enough to know simply that we do them. Eventually, according to Jung, we achieve self-actualisation; an understanding and coming-to-terms with all facets of yourself. For most, like Jung himself, this is an invigorating, slightly terrifying, lifelong pursuit. However, I believe it’s just as fascinating to us when we see it happening for other people. Consequently, this is why characters, not events, are the most compelling part of a story.
Character as a Journey
Taking the above into consideration, the character’s journey intertwines with the story. They construct each other. One of the most well-regarded theories on the journey of a character can be found in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Robert McKee extends many of Campbell’s ideas in his book, Story, and both are central to how the Crosspoints define Character. You’ll notice the similarities when you look at the Emblems of the Unevolved Self, Obstacle, Gateway and Evolved Self.
Character as Distilled Experience
We identify with an evolving character empathetically because it is work that we all do ourselves (sometimes with overwhelming difficulty) and rarely talk about it. Stories, movies and plays give this lifelong pursuit in one potent, distilled shot. It’s as if all the best-of parts of a life combine together in one “sizzle reel.”
Character as a Window
The character is the audience’s keyhole-sized window looking into an inner life. It’s similar enough to the audience’s own inner life that they become curious about it, developing empathy. Gradually the story’s events tease it out. As a result, this curiosity takes hold of an audience and it doesn’t matter if the story moves the character to good fortune or bad, the audience loves both. That’s why a story can be satisfyingly sad, beautifully tragic or even deliciously terrifying.
Character as Audience Participation
Part of the pleasure of looking into a keyhole is the mischievous feeling that you’re seeing something that’s hidden. There’s an illusion of broken privacy. I believe it is the mark of a great role when a character is in a perpetual state of vulnerable self-disclosure. As a result, the story sets an exquisite “trap,” by which I mean, a playful entanglement. The actor/character is the hapless one who, against good sense or better fortune, is caught and must deal with the entanglement.
A really good story forces a character to unpack themselves. The audience has the pleasure of witnessing the revelations (which inevitably become self-revelations if they identify with the character). If it’s well-executed, a character is like a cave of treasures. The audience is an explorer with a match, lighting the cave a little at a time as the actor shows a little at a time.
My “cave of treasure” metaphor might seem corny to many readers, but I’ll defend it with what I believe to be a core value of acting; it’s the sense of play (i.e. pleasurable daring). It’s very important to me, as a teacher and a director, that the work happens with a sense of engrossing game-playing. It is in this zone of optimal development that actor’s assume a sense of creative flow and can access inexhaustible imagination.
Character in Crosspoints
With this in mind, the Crosspoints and the Archetypal Emblems help flesh out the broader inner world. They work beyond the margins of the script into the “anti-story.” This is the implied parts of the story that include events that will never happen because the character avoids them at all costs.
Why does the character avoid them? Why are some choices never entertained in the story? This might seem like a lot of extra, unnecessary work, but for a major role, is it enough to say that a character simply wants to be happy without understanding what they are trying to avoid?
To put it differently, the Emblems are “seeds” of self-knowledge. When they’re planted in the soil of a story, they produce readable behaviour and a tangible perspective or worldview.
Given these points, one o the most important aspects of a character (its “spine”) echoes back to what Stanislavski calls the perspective of the role.
In the end, character and story are nearly indistinguishable. We read the story through the character. Trying to separate them would be like trying to separate the letters in this blog post from the message they convey.
In an acting class, you have to walk the fine line between being “you” and telling a story. Your character is not a person, it’s a tailored, crafted story walking around in the guise of a human being. Moreover, it’s co-constructed by the audience observing it.
I’ve used an example from Jungian psychology to show how archetype shapes your own personality. Markedly, if this is so, then a character is as well. Every time you prepare for work, a date or dinner with your parents, you’re projecting an archetypal story about yourself. This illustrates that as much as we want to believe we’re honest at all times, we are also masters of fiction.
It’s for this reason that I propose an external, physical mode of building a character (through Emblems for example) can give you an experience that is as authentically felt as plumbing the interior of your psyche.
The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society, by Carl G. Jung, 2006.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, 1999.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee, 1997.
Crosspoints: An Integrative Acting System, by Stephen Atkins, 2020.