Is Margolin’s View of Character Applicable to Film?
September 21st 2008 @ 1:18 pm Uncategorized

Uri Margolin writes in her essay “Character” in The Cambridge Companion to Narrative that character can be most succinctly defined as “storyworld participant” (66). Seems simple enough. But it gets complicated for literature, the medium she’s writing about, when one considers what, exactly, constitutes a participant. Objects and places can be awarded a personality and significance, and even interact with other storyworld participants, but does this make them a character? And I’m sure we can all think of ‘people’ who do not actively participate in their storyworld at all. Confusion of terms can also get in the way: character refers both to the being and the qualities that define that being. 

One way Margolin describes to handle this conundrum is to view character as a created literary figure. She writes, “By writing their narratives, authors determine rather than describe the properties of their characters” (68). Margolin seems to be positing a prime mover behind the text that the interpreter can look to for intention and logical reasons. This makes sense; the author owns their work entirely, and few works suffer a particularly heavy hand from the publisher. But in film, it is much more difficult to identify an author. Even if the auteur theory is correct, when applied to character things get mighty muddled. Is it the screenwriter, director or actor who determines character? Surely a character depends on the specific confluence of the three. 

Margolin continues to identify necessary traits for a character. It must have an identity that is individual, singular and unique from all other storyworld participants. Readers should be able to categorize the character in the storyworld, for example, by class, ethnicity or whatever category is most pertinent. These concepts are also problematic when applied to film. Oz in The Whole Ten Yards is not just a character, but an actor named Matthew Perry, who also played Chandler in long running television series Friends. As we watch Perry performing as Oz, we bring our entire experience with Perry as all the other characters we have seen him play to bear in the particular storyworld of The Whole Ten Yards. We will identify ‘Chandler moments’ where the character of Oz looks and sounds a whole lot like the character of Chandler. Margolin’s definition breaks down when Chandler and Oz and Perry are no longer unique individuals. But does that make Oz less than a character? I can probably name five actors off the top of my head that play the same ‘character’ over and over again, but aren’t the same character (a la Margolin’s first definition).

I guess, for me, the definition that she supplies that most tracks with film studies is her last one. Character is directly related to what she terms the textual database, which is “just a set of data, which needs to be critically evaluated” (77). In this definition, the reader is as important as the author in defining character. So for film, character relies on the viewer to interpret the signals of the actor, director and screenwriter. Like last week’s discussion and my previous post, any examination of a storyworld would be remiss if it didn’t acknowledge that a message is only as good as it’s receiver.

In the end, Margolin writes, “in reality it [character construction] is a process or continuous mental activity …” (78). This seems to be a definition worth examining further (despite its vagueness and simplicity) as it applies to texts in any medium.

-Leslie Stonebraker
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