Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Philosophy of Characters - Inspired by Disney Fictions

Today experienced the new Belle meet and greet attraction soon to open at the Enchanted Forrest section of Fantasyland in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.  The anticipation of visiting the ground breaking attraction got me thinking back to a familiar philosophy topic of mine, the philosophy of fiction. In the case a fictional story character such as Belle:

  • What is a character?
  • Why do representations of a single character vary?
  • Who defines a characters existance?

What Are Characters?

In order to delve into this topic, I would like to first identify the obvious truth: characters and places within fictional stories are not presented consistantly with regards to their physical representations. Take Maurice's cottage (a character in in of itself); each one of the representations below are official depictions of the fictional home:

Theme Park Art
Theme Park Building

Each of these representations is empirically very different from the others.  By our training in logic, we know that these cannot all be the same object.  If these are physically different, then why would each of us be comfortable using the same label for all of them?

I propose that each of the objects above are the same in that they each have been created with the hopes of eliciting the same emotions and associations within us as viewers.  In this way, the importance of the fictional character is not in its specific representation, but in the power of the idea behind the representation.

Characters as Concepts

We each come to understand at a very early age that fictions do not exist as instances in material reality; they exist only within the confines of our minds. We can see this clearly when admiring the art of a young child.

When a young child brings you a crayon drawing of a dragon, you resist the urge to pass judgement by applying praise or criticism.  Instead, you inquire about the child's evaluation of the drawing.  The child will reveal instantly that the image is in fact a drawing, and not the actual dragon visualized in their mind. We will see this as she critiques her own work; she will identify parts of the drawing that do not sufficiently match the creature in her mind.

The child completely accepts that the character exists only in her mind, and also accepts that any representation of that character will always be an imperfect derivation of the idea.

Character Representations as Derivations

With the wisdom learned from this child, we can turn our attention back to character representations.  With our minds opened to the truth that what we see presented are always imperfect derivations of a character's pure conceptual existence, we are much more comfortable in understanding and accepting character permutations as demonstrated by Belle:

Theme Park
Doll  .

The Right Version of a Character

We have now established that all depictions of fictional characters are by their nature imperfect.  Paige O'HaraJames Baxter, and Mark Henn did a superb job in bringing their depiction of Belle to the screen in 1991 film, Beauty and the Beast.  We understand however that Belle was and is an idea in their minds.  The images which flickered across theater screens were but small sliver of the character they had come to know over the years of work on the film.

Depictions we see will always and forever be derivations of the concept of a character.  Since the idea of a character can not be directly expressed in our physical reality, there will never be a way to compare it to anything at all.

Truth and Falsehood in the World of Fiction

Here in physical reality, we can test our ideas out to see if they are true or false, fact or fiction.  We understand the truthiness of an idea to be the measurement of how closely that idea aligns with physical reality.

Fictions and fictional characters are, by our basic definitions, defined as false with regard to our existence.  We therefore have to be very careful to avoid using reality based language to describe the falsehoods of fiction.

Since a character can not exist in our testable world, no truth statements about any given character can ever be made.  Every statement about a character will be a statement of opinion or preference, not of truth.

In this way we will avoid getting into brain blending arguments about whether any given depiction of a character is correct.  All depictions of a character are by out definitions incorrect.

Who Defines a Character Then? Where Do We Go from Here?

At the beginning of our exploration, we established that the various representations of the cottage all had the same goal: to elicit feelings and associations in you.  We then showed that characters exist only within human minds, including your mind.  We established no one can be right or wrong about a fiction in a truthy sense, since every individual is the highest authority on the character which exists in their mind.

Where do we go from here?  Characters and fictions are very personal.  They only exist as ideas, the closest things to our consciousness.  Being so close, embedded within our minds, they become the most powerful communicators available   They have access to our emotions, and our past experiences.

This is why characters like Belle can last for hundreds of years, and also why historical figures are inevitably turned into characters in order to keep thier permanence within history lessons.

You are the only authority on the content of your mind.  Be the proud master of your thoughts, and be respectful and cautious of the raw power of fiction.

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