Okay, I got in a debate with my entire Writing for Comics class at the Comics Embassy last night. I felt bad for hijacking Ty's class, but what's worse is that I think I had something important and right and valid to say, but I just didn't express myself well enough so no one understood:(
So I'm going to give it another go, in this note because you know I'm obsessive that way.
In my last note I posted the 6 questions Ty wants us to ask about our characters before we sit down to write an iconic character like Batman or Superman or one of our own characters. The point of having many of us do the same character was to show the class how different people came up with different answers and they were all valid interpretations of the character. For example, one person did James T. Kirk as an intergalactic space cowboy/shag-machine and another person did James T. Kirk as someone who is an iconoclast, independant and constantly at odds Starfleet command.
The next exercise involved us writing a monologue from the point of one of three villians; the Joker, Lex Luthor or the Wicked Witch of the West about why they hate the hero in their story. The monologue was suppose to be 60-70 words. Then we were to cut it down to half that size. This exercise was to show us how in comics editing and cutting one's work down to the bare essence of the thing, is so important because there is so little real estate on the page. Often cutting it down makes the work stronger, but it is important not to lose what makes the monologue good in the cut and that takes practice.
I did my monologue from the point of view of Lex Luthor about why he hates Superman. The basic thesis of the monologue was that Lex hates Superman because he feels Superman isn't accountable to anyone and has no checks or balances on his power. He judges humans, but as he is godlike and is never hungry, weak, tired or in pain he cannot have compassion for the humans he judges and thus must judge incorrectly.
Although I am very familiar with the Superman logo and the image of the characters from movies and Tv. I don't read the Superman comic, (I don't find Supes very relatable) so it was based on what motivation I could think of that would make the Lex Luthor character sympathetic and what seemed a reasonable reason for his hatred of Superman.
After reading the monologue in full form and then in an edited version, I then asked Ty if this was anything close to the real reason Lex Luthor hates Superman and that's when the fur really began to fly. According to Ty there is no "real reason" as any reason we make up is equally valid.
I disagreed with this premise. People started calling me a structuralist and purist and that I was too rigid and if I didn't like the way X-men characters were being written now adays than I shouldn't read the book, because lots of people like the Morrison interpretation and Scott with Emma and etc. etc. The example was then brought out of Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead and what that does with Shakespeare, and interpretations of Richard III where the character is played as gay etc. etc. and then it just went into minutia and I ended feeling ridiculous and arguing ridiculously!
I should have just written my thoughts down all along. Because these are my thoughts on the issue and they make sense dammit!
There are correct and incorrect interpretations of already established characters. Characters should be constructed psychologically as much like real people as possible. Though people can act in all sorts of ways, some of them quite unexpected, there are only a finite number of things a real person will do in any given situation. The things that person is capable of doing are quided by things like their mental state, their physical powers, their personal philosify, their previous experience etc. etc. Individuals have a certain amount of character essence and predictability built in that is based on their past experience, physicality, situation and mental state. But certain character traits remain constant in all but the most extreme of circumstances, where survival may depend on say a highly religious Jewish person eating non-kosher in a prison camp to stay alive, for example.
The point is-- not every option is valid for every individual. That is how we know we each have our own distinct personality, because everyone has slightly different morals, based on their internal levels of empathy and need for stimulation and other psychological capacity that generally remain consistent throughout their lives.
Case in point-- I just found a piece of writing that I wrote when I was ten. It was a fractured fairytale poem about Jack and Jill. If that piece of writing was put in with hundreds of other ten year old's pieces of writing, I know I would be able to identify it instantly, due to the sense of humour expressed in it and the extraneous things like comic mentions of National Geographic refereneced in the poem that would probably not show up in anyone else's poem. I was shocked by how unmistakably "me" it was even twenty-three years and many books worth of influencing material and writing courses later. It's not that I haven't changed, it's just that there is a continuity to my interests and the way I express myself that is instantly recognizable.
Handwriting, physical appearance and behaviour do change from childhood to adulthood, sometimes drastically, but they can only change by a certain amount and in certain ways. For example, while my hair might thin or go grey as I age it is highly unlikely for it to turn purple naturally on its own! There is also a continuum of behaviour, artistic style and physical appearance. A person doesn't just go from looking 10 years old to looking 70 years old for example.
Change is usually gradual, or caused by some external stimulus, but people and therefore realistically written characters can only change within the parameters of the human brain and body (unless their superheroes but even then there are usually rules aobut what they can physically change).
What I'm saying is that the variables are not endless. Therefore there must be "correct" and "incorrect" interpretations of previously established characters. Longtime followers of a particular fictional character whether it be in TV, books or comics instinctively know when a writer has somehow violated a character's essential parameters. People who haven't been following that character's story though, may not realize that such a violation has occurred and may be fine with it. Therefore people who are not longtime followers of Scott Summer's character and his relationship with Jean Grey might be perfectly fine with him murdering Xavier or making out with Emma Frost on Jean Grey's grave right after her death, but people who've been reading about Scott since the 1980s know that those actions are a violation of his character essence. There are certain core things that make up that character's psychology that are just ignored by those storylines. It is the same with the episode of the Simpsons where Homer is intentionally cruel to a man named Frank Grimes and then causes him to be killed and doesn't care about it. Homer's as previously established before this episode is stupid, but essentially well meaning and never seriously cruel.
I think people that aren't as finely attuned to human psychology don't really get this. This is the reason why all TV shows have character bibles and show runners who act as the keepers of those characters. As an author I know if someone made a sequel to Little Jane who wasn't me whether they were writing Little Jane properly or not, based on what I know about the character's personality and capabilities. It is possible they might take the character in a different direction that would not occur to me, but it would have to be continuous with Little Jane's essential personality. An interpretation of Little Jane where she becomes a zombie ax murderer might amuse people, but it would not be a valid canon interpretation of her character.
The reason I like Rogue and don't like Emma Frost, for example, has to do with certain essential things about those characters that make them who they are. If the characters could just do anything and act in any way then they would not be those same characters, just if they looked completely different they would not be recognizable to the audience as those same characters. Once you stop caring about character consistency, you might just as well be writing someone else entirely instead of that character. Unfortunately, most people only seem to care about the surface aspect when it comes to character recognition. People just think because it looks like Rogue and says "mah" instead of "my" a lot then that character is Rogue, but that is crap. This is why shallow violations of character occur with such regularity in comics and are so irksome to anyone who is paying attention!