December 04, 2005

The author, at some level, knows their characters to an extent which might be surprising to most of those who read the work (with the exception of those who themselves write). Why, exactly, did the character do this, and not that? Why is the background this way, and not that? It might never arrive into the polished work, or exist as the merest sketch, a suggestion of a figure in the background, the sound of a ship's horn, the smell of oil under an elevated track: but each of these has its place within the greater canvas -- even, sometimes, to the point that these hints of backstories within the primary story themselves evolve into primary stories (as can be seen in action in the wide body of fanfic).

The background is important, in my perspective at least. To understand why a character, why a person does what is done is to understand that person just a little better -- and how can an author truly write that character without understanding the background "why's"?

(Or, for that matter, begin to understand a person in "real" life without that same perspective? Motivations and influences are of two major types, internal and external: yet there exists an interesting psychological fallacy which causes the vast majority of us to vastly underestimate the effect of internal influences with respect to our own actions, and to overestimate it with respect to those of others. I am a crochety old skinflint because I never got anything for free in my entire life [or so I firmly believe], and anyone would be a crochety old skinflint had they experienced what I experienced -- but he is a crochety old skinflint because, well, he is cheap, that is just the way he is.)

Where creator's vision additionally intersects with actor's (and director's, and camera's) requirement to interpret and translate that vision for a viewing audience: why would it not be found important by a creator to know -- or at least to transmit to the actor whose job it is to portray the character -- a rather key piece of background in understanding character? Six possible reasons come to my mind:
  1. To the author, it was not known, and not important. This would suggest a stronger concentration of image over substance.
  2. To the author, it was known, but not important. (Why not?)
  3. To the author, it was important, but not known at the time. (Characters have this curious habit of taking over their stories.)
  4. Whether known or not, the author wished to see what conclusions the actor would come to independently.
  5. To the author, it was important -- but s/he deliberately did not say anything in order to preserve (destroy?) the existing popular image of that background.
And of course:
  1. To the author, it was important and known, but s/he did not transmit it for some reason known only to themself.
As a rule (and contrary to the myth!), actors don't generally ask: "What is my motivation?" Rather, they ask specifically about those actions the author has seen fit to mention in the script. If the character is to acquire an object, the actor wants to know how did I get this? Did I steal it? What did I do to get to this point? Every gifted actor knows very well that previous, unseen actions of the character colour that character's actions now -- and through those current actions reveal something of the character to an audience who can only know that character through what the actor chooses (or is able) to reveal to the camera. It is only in actions -- or specific lack of action -- that who we are becomes visible to others: but an actor cannot know a character's previous actions unless told them by the one who created that character.

Look at what I do, and that will tell you who I am. If you wish to know who I am, open your eyes.

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