Coming to (Literary) Terms: Character/Characterization

Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.

Our focus for this entry is: Character/ Characterization!

A character is the subject of a narrative, in simplest terms. This however does not encompass the nuance and complexity that makes up characters, and in turn connects the readers to the story. Some readers prefer mystique over minutia, while other want a star spangled man with a plan versus a dark and stormy knight. An accompanying term is characterization, which is like the personality of a fictional character. Characterization encompasses the behaviors, beliefs, and actions of a character, and our ability to understand and justify their future decisions (as they are written).

When teaching this idea, I often try to explain that characters aren’t real people when it comes to discussing them, and the words that we use to explain our interactions with them show our connection to them. Yes, we feel hate, disgusted, empathy, and love for these characters when they hurt, harm, suffer, and triumph, but when we have a literary perspective the real question is how and why did the author or creator evoke those feeling for us. What are the subtle cues, or overwhelming activities that  move past catching our attention, and engage us?

Let’s start with our staple terms: protagonist, antagonist, minor/supporting.

  • Protagonist: Main character. As the focus, a reader is privy to more information about them, such as their inner thoughts, true intentions or hidden life. It is usually he extra information that leads us to feel more connected to a character. A character that has this information offered or provided is considered a “round character” as they have dimension. A common misconception is that a protagonist is “the good guy”, but that becomes less and less the case as our readings become more complex. James “Logan” Howlett, The Wolverine, is hardly a paragon of virtue, but he is a great example of perseverance and growth.
  • Antagonist: Who or what stands in the way of our (un)likely hero? That in a nutshell is an antagonist. Since a protagonist is not always a hero, neither is an antagonist necessarily a villain. An antagonist does not, also, have to be alive, but can simply act as the hindrance to goals, or the source of conflict.
    • As a related piece different types of conflict are good to identify as well. I’ll continue with Wolverine as my example.
      • Person vs person (Wolverine vs Sabertooth)
      • Person vs self (Wolverine vs his rage)
      • Person vs nature (Wolverine vs a river)
      • Person vs society (Wolverine vs mutant haters)
      • Person vs technology (Wolverine vs sentinels)
  • Minor characters: Who supports our protagonist? These characters are often what brings out the heart of a character, or draws out information by comparison. Traditionally in a novel or short story, these characters remain relatively static; these characters don’t change too much as their role is really to be whoever they were created to be. In comics however, even minor characters get a little spotlight, so it’s more about how a character might function under a particular title. The eponymous (title) character is more than a hint as to who it is. However, in issues that are about teams, sometimes there is a lead character that may take precedence in the narrative, so keep your eyes out for that. There are probably a good group of stories that focus on Logan in X-Men, that you can read like an issue of Wolverine.

So what value can we derive from the analysis of characters. I like to think it helps us understand ourselves and where our opinions lies. If we appreciate a character, there are definitely qualities we gravitate towards. With the breadth of stories out there, we have to connect the moments we feel are the essentials of a character. For example, in Snyder’s Man of Steel, when Superman kills Zod, the initial outrage is “Superman doesn’t kill”. While that may be true in some senses of things, the reality is he did. A similar discussion occurs with Batman in Batman vs Superman. Yeah, there is a bit of a pattern, but it is part of this fictional character’s history now. What do you consider the essential reads that have created this structure, and why do you choose some ideas over others? Asking questions that stem from our reading or viewing experience is invaluable to making meaningful connections with the work we love. But also learning to accept why these characterizations help to sustain drama when writers change them, or how we feel when characters appear on screen differently from the page. (Personally, I am okay with Superman and Batman’s choices in the cinematic world, we can talk about that if you want to).

What are your essential reads? What are your uncommon connections? Let me know what character you love and how that character has been built for you.



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