An Appeal for the Epic Character

The other day I watched Tim Burton's adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and while there was much I enjoyed about the film (particularly Deep Roy) something just didn't sit well. Although the visuals were stunning, it didn't have the same feeling of awe and mystery that the book had. I think there were a handful of reasons for this, but the thing that stood out to me most was this: Willy Wonka was too human.

This is an odd thing to complain about. Some of my favorite stories are about complex, dynamic and fallible characters. That's one reason I've raved ad nauseam on this blog about The Song of Ice and Fire.  It's also been the hallmark of the best television of the last several years. Lost, Battlestar Gallactica, Avatar TLAB and The Wire have all found success by populating their worlds with interesting, human characters.

So why didn't I like Willy Wonka? It makes me want to look back at one of the first characters I ever fell in love with: Judge Dredd. He was perhaps the first comic book character I was exposed to and I've always been fascinated by him. He lives by a code of honor that never wavers. He has an iron will, and he is totally dedicated to upholding the law.

In time, I was fortunate enough to have had some really good English classes in high school, that laid the foundation for my love of critical analysis and story theory. One of the first principles I learned was the idea of a dynamic character. The idea was that a good character will grow and change during the course of a story. This is what is meant by a character arc. I also learned from Robert McKee that the most interesting characters are full of contradictions. This is a brilliant tool for telling stories because it allows you to create climactic and epiphanic moments from the changes and growth of characters.

But it presented a problem: Judge Dredd was not a dynamic character. Nor was he complex, or full of contradictions. He was static, unchanging and simple. And that's what I loved about him. So what role does a character like Judge Dredd play in storytelling?

The Epic Character

Later, in college I was introduced to Bertol Brecht. While I was never crazy about any of his plays, he had some theories on storytelling that made sense to me, and helped to solve my character quandary. Much of what Brecht wanted, had to do with erasing escapism; knocking down the fourth wall so that the audience had no illusions that what they were seeing was in any way real. Part of this meant creating characters that were archetypes. They were pulled right out of folktales. They were larger than life, symbolic and simple.

Discovering Tarkovsky gave me further insight into this idea. In Sculpting in Time he says this: "For me the most interesting characters are outwardly static,  but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion."

Aha, Judge Dredd. So this is what makes an Epic character:

1. They are a symbolic representations of a specific part of the human experience

2. The are super-human

3. They are static

4. They are passionate in their simplicity

Judge Dredd fits this description perfectly. He is a symbol of justice. He has a super-human will power. He is completely unchanging, and he is passionate in his dedication to justice.There are many other characters that fit this model too: Superman, Batman, Obi Wan Kenobi and yes, Willy Wonka.

We Just Like 'Em!

So why do we like these types of characters? First, their simplicity gives them power. They have no back story, and thus are charged with mystery. In addition, their simplicity means that the traits they do have are amplified. Think of Darth Vader's unbending pursuit of Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back or the Terminator's single minded destruction in The Terminator.  Second, they are ideals. They have the traits that we desire, and they are the people that we aspire to be. Last, they are easy to understand and judge. Their value is clear. We like Superman, because we know he is perfectly good.

The Moral Question

While epic characters are powerful, they are also problematic. In past articles I've discussed the importance of empathy in storytelling, and one thing is clear: you don't empathize with epic characters. They are also terrible models for how to think about other real human beings. In the real world these are called stereotypes and lead to bigotry, division and war. And yet we've created epic characters out of many real people: Ghandi, Hitler, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Stalin and0 Picasso to name a few.

So there is a danger of using epic characters to understand real people, but they can play a worthwhile function in other ways, as long as we are conscious up-front that they are just characters. First, they play an important role in fiction in creating obstacles and foils for other characters.  Second, in our real lives they can serve as symbols for our own inner struggles and victories. We need not see them as models of the totality of human, but rather as representations of parts of our inner lives. Lastly, they are true to human psychology. We make epic characters out of real people, because that's how real people see the world. Whether you want to make your audience aware of the shortcomings of this viewpoint is up to you.

Epic Characters Can Change

Ok, I know I just said that epic characters are static, but if you do decide to make them change, they can make for some of the most explosive moments in storytelling. To continue quoting for Tarkovsky: "In a non-developing state of tension, passions reach the highest possible pitch, and manifest themselves more vividly and convincingly than in a gradual process of change." Primarily, this happens with villains, but it can happen with protagonists too. Think of Darth Vader grabbing the Emperor and tossing him down an exhaust shaft, or Javert throwing himself to his death after seeing his world of justice torn to pieces, or my favorite, Gandalf the Grey transforming into Gandalf the White on the peak of Zirakzigil. Because their character is epic, their transformations are equally immense.

Because of their simplicity, passion and mystery, epic characters make for some of the most enthralling characters in any narrative. And there's no reason they can't be a powerful part of a narrative that is otherwise full of rich, complex characters. While Lost is a great character drama, it's primarily driven by the epic character of the island.  In the end, the best narratives are driven by point-of-view and epic characters embody an essential aspect of the human experience. If you want to tell a story with epic power, then make your characters epic.