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Characterization Through Action - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Characterization Through Action
(I also did a rant about cheap melodrama over at fanficrants earlier.)

I've always liked movies with a lot of action in them. Star Wars was always a favorite, Indiana Jones, The Goonies... heck, I'll cop to really enjoying Independence Day, Twister, and Speed.

Needless to say, I've been accused of having rather lowbrow taste. I think that the moment I stopped paying any attention to that was during the initial arguments about The Phantom Menace--the level of characterization can be argued, that's not the point. The point was that I used a sequence of actions from characters to demonstrate where I was getting the characterization I saw, and was dismissed by someone saying, "Implied characterization is non-existant characterization."

As Colonel Potter would say, horse-hockey.

Whatever you may think of any individual example (there's a shocking possibility that you may disagree with me about TPM), the fact is that not only is characterization implied through action a valid form of characterization, it's actually a trickier and more skilled form of characterization than two characters sitting around and mutually contemplating one another's navels.

Some of the most striking characterization sequences in Star Wars (particularly) are non-verbal, and many are in the midst of heavy action scenes. The lightsaber battles are always rich in choices and attitudes. The three-way battle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan against Darth Maul had no lines at all, but I find it very disingenuous when people complain about its lack of characterization. This was pure characterization through action. You can see the taunts from Maul, thoroughly confident in his own superiority. You can see Qui-Gon becoming weary, but still trying to understand the situation, to see it clearly. You can see him reach for his peaceful core when there is a respite in the fight, ignoring Maul's taunting to meditate. And you can see Obi-Wan giving in to the taunts, rushing carelessly, then finally understanding how he came to the point of hanging by his fingertips, finally finding his inner balance to leap out and defeat Maul. All of this was implicit in the action sequence. It was well choreographed and well-cut to show it.

Meanwhile, Amidala never says (as I'm sure the "Why isn't there more characterization?" crowd would have her say), "I was young and unprepared for the initial attack, but through my experience on Tatooine, I have gained an appreciation for what a single person is able to accomplish in the face of great odds, and will now, as a responsible adult, fulfill my role as queen by defending my people and re-taking the symbolic center of our world, ousting the invasion and setting them free, while forging an alliance that could be our salvation."

Nor do you see Palpatine musing to Maul, "Yes, my apprentice, now I am going to manipulate the Senate to get votes for the Chancellorship, which I will then consolidate under emergency powers to become Emperor, because a Jedi once stole my lollipop when I was seven."

Anakin never says, "I'm scared to death," but it didn't take Yoda long to see it.

And so on.

In AotC, again, we see characters revealed through action. Anakin's hunting of the Tuskens--even before the slaughter which so many seem determined to see as the only action indicative of his character--is very telling about his methods and his intelligence. The farmers apparently just rushed off willy-nilly, following a backtrail. Anakin follows the trail, then gets information from jawas, then scouts out the camp before jumping down. This isn't complex tactical practice, but it does show him using the kind of tactical thinking we see later in his life as Vader (and which he has probably used as a Jedi padawan earlier). Unlike Kenobi, there's no mingling and amusing undercover work; Anakin is dead serious.

All of this is through action.

The battle at the end is simply, from every angle, brilliant in terms of characterization through action. Each character is assigned a beast. Only Padme, the non-Jedi, takes active steps before she is attacked, slipping her "get-out-of-irons-free" card into her mouth on the way to the posts and then picking the locks and climbing. She uses the chain with which she's been bound as her primary weapon. Obi-Wan uses the beast that's come after him to knock down the post to which he's tied, then just keeps trying to dodge it. In the fight that follows, it visibly takes him by surprise twice, and he is unable to vanquish it until he reclaims his lightsaber, the symbol of his position in the Order. Anakin simply jumps onto his beast and makes it a part of himself, using it to effect the rescue of both Padme and Obi-Wan, until they are eventually trapped together on its back. Eventually, he loses control of it entirely and it runs roughshod through the battle.

Now think of the animals as the Dark Side.

Look at the way Anakin and Padme turn to one another and function as a team in the battle. Look at Yoda as a leader of troops. Look at Obi-Wan in the heat of battle, twirling his lightsaber as he finally slays his beast.

I don't know how people come out of that movie feeling like they don't know these people.

Oh, well. I'll stop ranting now, even though I haven't exactly come to a conclusion. Someday, I'll rant at myself for bad endings.
7 comments or Leave a comment
From: leeflower Date: March 23rd, 2004 10:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
spot on here.

that old saying "Actions speak louder than words" really does apply quite well to fiction.
silverhill From: silverhill Date: March 23rd, 2004 11:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well put. I especially like your analysis of the TPM lightsaber scene.

You can show or you can tell. And I think showing frequently is much more effective.
ladyaeryn From: ladyaeryn Date: March 24th, 2004 12:41 am (UTC) (Link)
The attitude of "action isn't characterization" has always confused me - isn't it actually the preferred way of characterizing someone, by showing how they act in a particular situation? If you have to rely heavily on talking heads for characterization, then you've failed to get your point across.

Padme's ever-increasing display of skin in AOTC is another case: you don't ever hear her say "I'm fighting an attraction to you, Anakin," and you don't need to, because the fact that she's wearing sexy clothes and willingly accompanying him to intimate locales (and backstepping in a panic any time she gets closer to him) is more than enough to know this.
affabletoaster From: affabletoaster Date: March 24th, 2004 08:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Thank you! That was beautiful! Your points about the beasts and the Dark Side were new to me, and I must confess I hadn't noticed that before, but that's brilliant! I'm going to memory this, if that's okay, to read whenever people start going off on me for liking the prequels.
lazypadawan From: lazypadawan Date: March 24th, 2004 04:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh heh, some of my comments last night contributed to this rant :). Of course, I agree with you Fern. Lucas never put in these action sequences purely to punch up the movie. They do express characterization. Some fans though seem to think "character development" is purely through drama and endless yapping.

Besides, the action and adventure are part of what makes Star Wars Star Wars.
From: roseblue Date: March 25th, 2004 07:45 am (UTC) (Link)
If action can't be considered characterization, my English teacher made a mistake. She did said that you can characterize a person through actions. It is preferable because that is how we get to know people in real life. I don't what those people are griping about. They need a good English class.

By the way, I like your anaylis of the beasts being the Dark Side. I never though of that.
From: illmantrim Date: March 28th, 2004 02:24 pm (UTC) (Link)

very true

the action is sometimes the best way to show someone's character-- i mostly write Cyclops centered stories and Cyclops is a man who when he's not in motion, isnt really alive, but through the way he moves and acts his character comes alive.
7 comments or Leave a comment