A character in a story has beliefs, values, ideas, passions. In short, an emotional stance. It’s this bundle of feelings that make the character a character.
By emotional stance we mean belief-system and value-set. This is particularly important when one considers that often stories show value-sets in conflict, and the theme of the story may present one of these value-sets as preferable over the other.
An emotional stance does not emerge in a vacuum. Stories exhibit cause and effect, and the emotional stance of each of the characters is no exception. A character’s emotional stance has causes. Since we’re talking about emotions and values, their causes can be hard to pinpoint – while at the same time being somewhat obvious.
As an example, take a contrast story like In The Heat Of The Night. Police Chief Bill Gillespie lives in the USA’s deep south is a racist bigot. That is his emotional stance, and for the purpose of this story also his internal problem. That he is a racist does not surprise the audience at all. It is completely credible given his origins. He comes from an area where, at the time at least, such bigotry was rife, and when the African American detective Virgil Tibbs turns up, the conflict is utterly plausible.
What we’re getting at here is that the emotional stance a character displays has to be made plausible to the audience, which may be achieved by making the origins of that character explicit. In many stories, where a character comes from has to be fitting to what the character is like. The origin produces the emotional stance.
Setting, Origin, and Story World
Are we talking about setting? Well, only to an extent. It is not just about where the action of the story takes place – the author also considers the origin of each character. In The Heat Of The Night is set in the area where Police Chief Bill Gillespie comes from. So the setting to some degree determines the behaviour of the characters – or rather, the character’s behaviour should not be incredible given the setting.
“Where” a character comes from need not necessarily refer merely to geographical locations. Virgil Tibbs’ actions fit his character not just because he is from Philadelphia, but because he is an African American police detective who obviously enjoyed a good education.
Furthermore, “where” is relative to the story world. In the case of In The Heat Of The Night, the audience/readers bring pre-established connotations to bear on Mississippi; nobody is surprised to find a bigot there. In The Lord Of The Rings, such connotations have to be established first. J.R.R. Tolkien goes to great lengths to explain how and why an Elf feels, thinks and acts differently from a Dwarf.
So it is the environment in which the character was brought up that will influence that character’s emotional stance and to an extent at least determine their values.
An author can regard this truism from two perspectives. On the one hand, if the character is established in the author’s mind as being like this and doing that, then giving him or her suitable origins may help in making the character credible. On the other hand, an author may know that a character has specific origins, they might be a given if the character is clear in the author’s mind. If so, these origins may cause the author to develop the plot a certain way – because of actions the character might have carried out differently if he or she were from somewhere else.
Either way, an author is generally aware of the environment in which each major character grew up as the basis for that character’s emotional stance.
It is not. It demands a great deal of knowledge as well as sensitivity on the part of the author. If the story world roughly corresponds to the real world, then as soon as characters from various countries or cultures appear, the author may have to research into the values and belief systems dominant in those countries or cultures in order to get the character and his or her behaviour “right”. That is, in order to make them credible.
In historical stories, the time-setting is particularly challenging in terms of the emotional stance of the characters. Much popular historical fiction may justly be termed anachronistic in that it has characters – especially female protagonists! – exhibiting values and beliefs which do not fit into the time. For example: In the Middle Ages, the advent of humanism had not occurred yet. There had been no Renaissance, no Descartes, no Kant, no French Revolution and no American Constitution. Where is a character in the Middle Ages supposed to get ideas, values and convictions from that today we take for granted? Ideas about inalienable rights such as liberty and equality or concepts such as individualism. People in the past had different values and belief systems from people today, and it is almost impossible to put ourselves in their shoes. Historical fiction that does not at least implicitly deal with this challenging issue is more likely to be clichéd and trivial.
Which does not mean that trivial historical stories can’t be wildly entertaining with strong emotional impact. It means simply that an author usually has some sort of attitude to the issue.
Note the difference between explaining a character’s belief-system and value-set according to origin compared to backstory explanations. Origin describes a general state, not a specific scene. If the audience or readers are aware – or made aware, in the case of fictional worlds – of the connotations of a stated origin, then no backstory is necessary to explain why the character is as he or she is.
A backstory explanation is different in that it refers to a particular event which has influenced the character, and which is presented as the cause for that character’s behaviour. While it is legitimate to ask if there was one or a number of influencing events which the story will present as the cause of a character’s internal problem, the technique bears risks of over-simplification and cliché.
Now read how the emotional stance influences the character’s intellectual stance.
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