So I was scanning through my usual news sites a couple of weeks ago and saw a headline about the Guardians of the Galaxy that caught my eye. I’d already seen the movie the previous week, and had enjoyed it even more than I had anticipated. So I definitely went into the article with a bouncy fanboy attitude. The author talked about how the movie was better than he had expected, mentioned a few of the pros and cons of the overall story and construction, but then settled in to his main thesis: the characters audiences seemed most drawn to in the film were Rocket, the genetically-altered and cybernetically-enhanced raccoon, and Groot, a walking, (barely) talking tree—and the writer thought this was a bad thing.
He thought it was bad because those two characters are computer animated images, rather than being portrayed by human actors. He admitted that they were voiced by human actors, but “when pixels move us to tears more readily than actual people, that’s a problem.”
My pedantic side immediately wanted to post a comment that, since most theatres have made the switch to digital projection, every character in every movie people see in theatres are pixels rather than real—not to mention all the movies and series that people watch on TVs, computer monitors, phones, and tablets now. Even before digital movies, old-fashioned film wasn’t real people either, it was images projected on a screen by shining light through celluloid tinted with various chemicals.
All of that is missing a more fundamental point. None of the characters in films, plays, television series, et cetera, are real. They are all fictional characters being evoked by a combination of tricks and techniques of storytelling and acting.
I realize that I’m a bit biased, here. I have been a fan of comics from an early age. I grew up laughing at and following the adventures of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yogi Bear, and dozens of other cartoon characters. I have edited and published a science fiction fanzine that features talking animals, the occasional human, and all sorts of aliens for nearly twenty years. I’m currently engaged in writing a series of fantasy novels set in a world populated by talking animals, dragons, ghouls, kitsune, and any number of other non-human creatures. For the last few years, I have awaited the unveiling of a new season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with as much anticipation as a new season of Doctor Who or White Collar.
So maybe I’m just a bit too far out from normal to be commenting on this. However, the author of that particular article is someone I’ve read before. He’s the regular movie reviewer for a news site I read just about every day. I’ve seen many of his previous movie reviews, some of which I agreed with, some that I haven’t. Like many movie reviewers, he approaches his critiques from a literary rather than visual arts point of view. He always talks about plot, themes, narrative flow, viewpoint, characterization, and dialog.
So it’s a little strange that someone who approaches movies from such a strong literary perspective can’t understand the true appeal of any character. Readers have been meeting, getting to know, and coming to love imaginary characters for as long as fiction has existed. Characters like Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Sara Crewe, d’Artagnan (and his comrades Athos, Porthos, Aramis), Robin Hood, et cetera have been engaging readers for generations. For much of their history, those characters have been less than even pixels: people have read words on paper, and conjured the face, voice, and being of the character entirely in their imagination.
Yes, illustrated books, live theatre, and various recorded forms of movies and series have also breathed life into those imaginary characters, but those are all simply different forms of conveying and evoking the idea of the character in the minds of each of the viewers. It is still, ultimately, about the imagination of the audience embracing the story and the characters within it.
As a writer, I deal with imaginary characters constantly. My head is full of a mad assortment of characters, some of them characters I have created for my own stories, others are characters I have come to love (or love to hate) through stories created by other people. When I’m writing a story, my job is to try to evoke in the reader the story that I have imagined. An important part of that process is evoking characters that the reader will, at least temporarily, imagine as if they were real. And more importantly, will have feelings toward as if they were real.
That’s the entire point of art, to engage the audience, and make a connection between hearts and imaginations. And it doesn’t matter whether I’m telling a story verbally, in text, on stage, with painted images, or computer rendered animation. It doesn’t matter if the characters are named Jenny Nelson or Buffy Summers or Zoe Washburne or Applejack.
What matters is the story.
For at least a few minutes, can I make you care about what happens to these characters? Can I make you interested in how they got into the situation they find themselves in? Can I make you wonder what’s going to happen next? Can I so engage you that you can’t look away until you know how things turned out for the character?
Getting the audience engaged with the characters is never a bad thing. And if you think that some fictional characters are less “real” than others simply because of the medium through which the audience’s imagination is being engaged, then you don’t understand storytelling.