The Consumerism of Character

There’s a unique phenomenon concerning the obsession with “Original Characters” on the Internet, where it seems to me like we’ve robbed characters of the elements that make them characters in the first place. Characters without character, so to speak.

In narratology characters are often defined as actors or agents, vessels the move and develop the plot through action. In the characters so abundant on the internet, there is no such action – or what action appears to be present is really just an ongoing, reiterated, static image.

But Patrick,” one might object, “isn’t that rather reductionist? Should the intricacies of characterization and personality be limited to the events of a plot?”  Certainly not. However: isn’t the current, popular development of character online just as reductionist? These characters are primarily a vessel of lists: a number of traits wrapped up in an image. I can easily produce such a character right now with little effort. I need only pick some random traits from a list and draw up an appropriate, accompanying portrait.

In this, then, the characters do not develop. There is no internal life, no discovery. They serve as “what you see is what you get” portraits disguised as something more. The appeal is the return, again and again, to a list of characteristics posed in different variations – the fantasy of thinking we can know everything about someone and love them for everything we know. And not just know everything, but never need to learn anything else, because they wont change. The scenery and props around them may change, but their reactions – their characterizations – are static.

This becomes more serious when this approach connects with matters of representation. I have noticed a pattern: trans characters are often presented on their own, and gay (but cis) characters are always drawn in couples displaying physical affection. This reveals a telling fetishism concerning identity representation. A trans character is already “developed” through their physicality – they have a “quirk” through the othering of their body. Merely the acknowledgement of them being trans is enough to make them “interesting.” A gay character, though, is othered by a relationship. They must be shown touching someone else in order to be titillating and appealing. To be considered “developed” in their identity.

Furthermore, development is anathema to these kinds of characters, which means there is no room for an actual dialogue with problematic topics. Characters in, say, an abusive relationship, might be represented in a way that’s intended to highlight the problems of such a relationship. However, the characters are often developed such that they aren’t supposed to change. The same representation will be played out again and again. Without any sort of adjustment (whether that be positive or negative) there is nothing to be said or learned. The characters are merely commodities to be consumed.

A character must develop to be a character. Otherwise they are an image, even if they have some words slapped on them as well. Characters are not lists, and it is dangerous to develop them as such. If a character is nothing more than a list of qualities, we have little reason not to think of people the same way.

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3 thoughts on “The Consumerism of Character

  1. tl;dr – I agree, and holy balls is the “OC” stuff a crazy internet hole.

    I started a Tumblr a little while ago just to check it out and see how interactive it is, and I notice a lot of “OC” worship while I surf (well, more like stumble than surf because the search function is garbage). Reddit’s a lot more ‘what you see is what you get’ than Tumblr, and they still seem to suffer from all this characterization garbage. I think a lot of people have fun with it, but it feels more like all these games are preparing a D&D character rather than building a story – even a character driven one.

    I think another reason for the obsession with OCs is because a lot of them are just placed in smut stories. I don’t think much beyond physical appearance and a general idea of how the two characters treat each other is necessary in a smut tale.

    At the same time, I’m loathe to call it completely useless. I rather think that those serious about writing a publishable novel will be able to work *through* that stage. It’s not an altogether terrible set of exercises (well, most of the time…).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. There are certainly different contexts for these kinds of characters. Making characters like this for erotic purposes is alright because, well, that’s what they are. I think the problem, as you put it, is the kind of defensive “worship” of characters that aren’t actually developing in any way. It’s interesting you point out D&D, because I was thinking about that myself. It’s like making a D&D character sheet and then not playing it: it’s not really a character if it doesn’t do anything or have anywhere to go, you need to have it go on adventures and have it be played in some way. I also don’t think it’s wrong to draw the same figure again and again, I do that all the time, but I’m not inclined to thinking that they have a lot of “depth” or “characterization” if there’s nothing there to support it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a good way to put it. I think part of it is that it’s way easier to just fill out a character sheet than it is to write a full novel. There’s some hint or promise of ‘see how good this is? Won’t my story be good too?’ with the character sheets. It’s like a new way of pitching a story to an audience, but one that isn’t really effective and lures readers into a trap for really silly reasons.

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