In/On Character

One phrase or oft-repeated concept that a writer might see on agents’ websites is that they are looking for character-driven fiction or strong characters. We might comment on someone we know who has a lot of quirks and a colorful personality as “a real character.” Children (both old and young!) love fantasy and mythological novels and media such as Harry Potter or The Game of Thrones because they delight in the archetypes and gods and goddesses and wizards and mythical figures that we do not see today in our very prosaic, pragmatic world. Someone might dismiss a novel as boring because of flat characters, or find a Hollywood blockbuster dull because the characters are nothing unique. In the opera world, we have to play a character and draw upon a number of conventions, as well as what the music indicates. Actors have to create a character without the tool of music, generate an entire human being who is separate from oneself, but that still draws upon him or herself. An icebreaker question at parties or literary events might often be, “Who is your favorite character from a book or movie?”

Why are we obsessed with characters, and take them so seriously? Why do some people hate a novel because the protagonist is “not nice” or unlikable? Why is there a whole industry of costumes and paraphernalia for us to purchase to dress up in for Halloween or other events? Why do some irrational fans detest an actor or actress personally, when he/she is merely playing a role? Why do virtually all religious traditions have sacred stories With characters of great religious figures that we refer to even thousands of years later? What does all of this mean?

Character gives us a starting point, someone to identify with and therefore we can launch the narrative. Many literary theorists would say that characters drive plot, or that plot really is just characters and what happens to them. We become attached to a character and go on a journey with them. I think roundness of character relates a lot to specificity. Nobody is one-dimensional, and what endears us to people is their quirks and various facets. How do they react in different situations? Because no two people will react in the same way to the same stimulus.

On the page, someone who is unique will grip our attention rather than “someone we have heard of before.” In highly plot-driven fiction, there is the danger of characters being flat, because they are there to serve the story’s (and therefore, the author’s) mission. Conversely, in literary fiction, plots can lag because nothing really happens, but we get a sense of real, rounded people. The best writers accomplish both. This is not an easy task, because creating complex characters is in itself an art, and then creating a strong narrative arc is also a challenge. In my work on literary retellings in the last semester of my MFA program at Warren Wilson, I found that the most successful retellings drew upon characters and themes from the original Urtext, so to speak, but fleshed them out or were able to take on a new life of their own in the retelling. John Updike and Jean Rhys were both successful in this regard with their novels Gertrude and Claudius and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively.

In opera, as an emerging professional soprano, I am learning the importance of committing to character. This is a greater challenge than it is in straight acting, for we have the additional layer of music. To create the music ourselves, from our body, takes a tremendous amount of technical mastery and attention. The integration of character and music takes time. The majority of opera performed today, the arias we learn, are from much earlier historic times and from Europe. Therefore as American singers, we have arguably extra work with imagination and understanding the literary conceptions from earlier times. And, just as in straight acting, we are often playing or inhabiting characters that are very different from ourselves, And we must make that leap to completely immerse herself in character and lose all self-consciousness, which is the enemy of creating character in performance.

Literature and acting are two of our oldest creative impulses as human beings. We observe and we re-create. We like to tell stories, and any individual who jumps out at us as unique makes for an interesting character. We also like to observe and have the innate faculty of seeing and reflecting. As long as there are human beings, as long as we are social beings who interact with each other, there will be the phenomenon of character. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

I recently saw a production of a modern one-act opera that I will not name, lest I put my own operatic career in jeopardy. One of the things I found very distasteful about it was that it frequently broke the Fourth Wall — the theater expression for addressing the audience directly, when an actor breaks the invisible line between performer and viewer and dispels the illusion that the viewer is buying into. The reason I found this very problematic in the opera is that it became a poor substitute for truly engaging the viewers in an organic way by drawing them into the interactions of the characters on stage. The characters did not act together much, but spoke at the audience, and therefore I was turned off. It felt like they were delivering lectures about their circumstances to the audience rather than letting us see for themselves. In other words, the classic literary cliché of they did not show, but tell.

This raises an important question: when is it helpful to break the Fourth Wall? When is it useful or engaging?

There are numerous examples of when it is successful. One rather nonsensical example, but an extremely strong one, is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Ferris frequently addresses the audience with his opinions, explanations for his schemes, and even ends the film by shooing us away. Why does it work? Because Ferris is filling us in with little details, backstory, or comments that we would not get otherwise. Since the film is set in real time, moving linearly into the future, with no flashbacks, we want to know a little bit more than what we see on the screen. Also, the film is about Ferris, and in his point of view, so he is our narrator and our guide. What happens between the characters confirms Ferris’s opinions; when he breaks the Fourth Wall, it is also placed very strategically. Contrast this with the breaking of the fourth wall in Ingmar Bergman’s stunning film “Autumn Sonata.” it is extremely distracting that Viktor has to narrate the story to us, it is overkill. The acting between Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman is so moving the film should simply speak for itself.

In literature, especially literature from earlier centuries, the narrator frequently addresses the reader. Who can forget the classic line “Reader, I married him” from Jane Eyre? This slightly self-conscious breaking of the Fourth Wall engages us because it analyzes our sympathies with Jane. She has confided in us and taken us on a journey with her lifelong struggle, and she wants to deliver her good news to us directly. It is slightly meta-fictive, calling attention to itself as metafiction does, though metafiction would not truly exist as a genre till a century later.

We do often indeed see an indirect sort of Fourth Wall-breaking in theater and opera, and there are numerous examples. Internal monologues are often delivered to the audience, as are arias, such as “Hai già vinta la causa” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The angry, cuckolded Count Almaviva is singing with no one else onstage, but we the audience are there to listen. Here, it works to break the Fourth Wall, for the Count is telling us how he feels and what he wants to do. We are his sole confidantes for his supposed vendetta. This information is secret, for he would not dare reveal his romantic/sexual humiliation to any others in the opera, for it would shatter his pride. Granted, it is ultimately the director’s choice as to whether the Count will address the audience directly, but it is a very good choice to do so. The same goes for Shakespeare. Hamlet can potentially address us audience members in “To be, or not to be…” Granted, in both situations, with this indirect breaking of the Fourth Wall, an equally impactful effect can be felt as the performer does not make direct eye contact with single members of the audience as would happen in a true breaking of the Fourth Wall.

Where we see the Fourth Wall broken the most in our modern performance arts is in standup comedy. Many comedians choose to engage members of the audience, heckling them, asking them questions, and drawing comedic fodder from them on the spot. But even so, the comedian must still maintain a continuity of the theatrical illusion that s/he is presenting; s/he must remain in charge. Finally, one of the funniest uses of breaking the Fourth Wall in comedy was on the television program “Three’s Company.” Certainly not highbrow, and undoubtedly formulaic, cartoony, but vastly entertaining and well done. We buy into the illusion of the hapless roommates and their romantic adventures, misunderstandings, and comedic crises. Anything to disturb this would call attention to itself and the artifice of such an absurd show. However, the screen presence of rubber-faced actor Norman Fell (as Stanley Roper) turning to the camera with a slightly lunatic grin after making wisecracks about his wife Helen is a hilarious use of breaking the Fourth Wall. It only heightens the humor and adds to the absurdity of the show, and gives and gives a roundedness to the cranky character whom we dislike as much as “the kids” upstairs.

When used properly, we love it when the Fourth Wall is broken because it makes us feel like we are conspiring with or allied with the character on stage to get us more involved in the story.