September 30, 2011

Classic Post: Dramatic Poles

I’ve talked before about the iconic characters and how they are driven by an ethos. By recapitulating it, they triumph over external obstacles, affirm their selfhood, and restore order.

But what drives dramatic characters?

When we care about a fictional character, we hope for X and fear for Y. X is the positive condition; Y is its opposite. In a procedural, we hope the character will succeed in reaching his procedural goals and fear that he will fail. In a drama, we perceive a positive and a negative potential. We want the character to reach the former and avoid the latter.

Compelling ongoing dramatic characters possess dual natures, or internal oppositions. We want them to overcome one of these and realize the other. Another way to express this is to say that the characters are torn between two internal forces or impulses. These are the poles of a dramatically active character.

  • Rick Blaine (Casablanca) selfishness or altruism?

  • Shelley Levene (Glengarry Glen Ross) winner or loser?

  • Nora (A Doll’s House) subservience or selfhood?

  • Tony Soprano: family man or Family man?

  • Nate Fisher: (Six Feet Under) freedom or responsibility?

  • Frank Gallagher: (Shameless US) dissolution or dignity?

  • Walter White (Breaking Bad) virtuous weakness or anti-social power?

Our feelings toward the two poles may be clear-cut, or divided. Dramatic characterization deepens, and our reactions to it become more complex, when our reaction to the dual nature becomes ambiguous. Part of us wants Tony to be the good family man, but part of us takes dark vicarious pleasure in his sociopathic side.

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