Why we think fictional characters are real – Good writing and cutting edge graphics

After Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: The Return premiered on the 21st of May, I wondered why we identify with fictional characters and think they are real – or want to believe they are real? There has to be a psychological or neurological basis for this. Here goes reason #4.

Reason 4 for Thinking that characters are real: Good writing, cutting edge graphics

Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett, with DEATH acting out of character.

It seems that, the better the author, and the longer the life of the character, the more people identify with them and the more they expect the behaviour of these characters to be congruent and “true”, whether they appear in movies, games, TV shows or more books. Readers can come to expect the characters to be congruent with readers’ own, personal expectations.

“For 40 years now, philosophers have wrestled with the “paradox of fiction”: how we can care so much about people we know have never existed. My own theory — and I hope this isn’t too complicated — is that we just can. But if the idea of characters merely as constructs doesn’t match the way readers read, it doesn’t seem to match the way writers write either.“ (James Walton writing for The Telegraph, 26 Dec. 2015)

Am I guilty of that? For certain. I expect “Wallander”, Henning Mankell’s character, to be a depressed old codger, with moments of brilliance, who takes enormous and stupid personal risks. And if he isn’t, then I get mad. I expect “DEATH” in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels to talk in capital letters and have a dry sense of humour and very good manners. And if he doesn’t… well, it would be unthinkable!!

Tintin and Alph-Art, by Yves Rodier

In the fan fiction novel, Tintin and Alph-Art, I was quite miffed that the author suggested that ”Tintin” might go on a date with a woman. Never! Tintin is practically asexual!

A “well-rounded” character, that is depicted as behaving in a congruent fashion, and exhibits behaviours that we recognize (in other words, that is realistic), can easily become real or almost real in a reader’s mind. To some fans, “Inspector John Rebus” is real, because of these traits of the character that Ian Rankin has created.

This implies that, if we do not recognize the character’s behaviour and they are either non-congruent, or non-familiar, we would not promote the character to someone real in our minds. An example of this dichotomy or disconnect between the author and the reader is characters in Western fiction and characters in Eastern, particularly Chinese fiction. Characters in Eastern fiction are often depicted with motivations, expressions and behaviours that Western readers either don’t understand or find offensive. Understanding the Chinese novel means that Western readers have to approach them with a completely different set of expectations.

Human and robotic characters

“Ava”, the AI robot in the film, Ex Machina (2015) – a brilliant technical achievement in the rendering of the robots.

This is illustrated by a Japanese theatre production in which actors are combined with robots on stage, partly programmed and partly controlled by humans. This, the Robot [or Android] Theater Project, ongoing since 2008, are various one-act plays, including I, Worker (2008), In the Heart of a Forest (2010), Sayonara (Goodbye) (2010), Three Sisters, Android version (2013), and La Metamorphose Version Androide (2014). They are written and directed by Oriza Hirata, and are produced in collaboration with Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro from the robotics lab at Osaka University.  Three types of Dr. Ishiguru’s robots are used, and these days they don’t look half as slick as the latest commercially available robotic pets and companions. The main problem of the production has not been the appearance of the characters, the plot, the dialogue or the staging, as would have been the case with stage productions in Europe or America. It has been, according to Hirata, the concept of “interiority” (“kokoro” in Japanese), of the actors, and how much of the plays is created in the minds of the audience.

In traditional, Western method acting, the audience believes that the emotional expressions shown by the actors are what they feel inside themselves and are accepted as such. Hirata rejects this idea and “stresses that play-writing should be precise and robust enough so that it can be performed correctly without the actor’s ‘unique’ expression.” (Ref. Yuji Sone) He regards the resulting superficiality as justified – and a well programmed robot can do what an actor does. Moreover, he is supported by surveys that show that the majority of the audience felt that the “characters played by humanoids demonstrated a sense of human interiority on stage”. (Yuji Sone, Japanese Robot Culture: Performance, Imagination, and Modernity, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2017, pp. 94-95)

Poster for HBO’s 2016 Sci-Fi TV series, West World, which has fantastic CGI, especially the title sequence depicting construction of the robots.

Human-robot interaction in books, films and plays is a difficult subject. In Science Fiction, for instance the books of William Gibson who pioneered the use of the internet concept in fiction, the trick is to make the machines relatable to humans, while still remaining machines. If a character is non-human, how can we feel empathy? If we cannot identify with what they do and where they do, and if they are impossible to understand factually because they are based on futuristic concepts, where does that leave the reader? Moreover, what does it say about the devious workings of the mind of the Sci-Fi author? This conundrum is illustrated by audience reactions to the robots in the film Ex Machina and the TV series West World. In Ex Machina the problem is solved by the robot, “Ava”, passing the Turing Test and achieving sentience. In West World it is solved by the robots being able to recall memories, and thereby being able to learn and achieve a sense of self.

Advances in the technology to product graphics of fictional characters, making them human and avoiding the ubiquitous “Uncanny Valley” go a long way towards enabling readers to identify with characters.

Making books come to life with tech

Technological advances in Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) visual effects, Special effects (FX), Virtual Reality (VR), 3D imagery and humanlike machines with Artificial Intelligence (AI) have all contributed to making non-human or fictional characters come off the page and start to resemble real people.

It’s far less of a stretch of the imagination to visualize – and take for real – a CGI figure or a 3D game character, than a character described in words, and with the merchandising of movies and the spin-offs in different media, book characters can now jump off the page into the room. This makes it far easier for people to believe they are real.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum was a beloved children’s book since its publication in 1900 (!). But the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, with its revolutionary hyper-realistic matte paintings (a precursor to the green screen “digital mattes” we are accustomed to today) turned the novel into a virtual reality, pardon the pun, and caused many little girls to wear blue gingham dresses, bobby sox, and glittery red shoes.

Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

After Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, hobbits, elfs and orcs were no longer mere words on the pages of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. The films provided new groundbreaking technology to advance the special effects; motion-capture. It was during the second instalment, The Two Towers, that motion-capture and Andy Serkis as “Gollum” were introduced to mainstream audiences. Serkis wore a motion-capture suit while on set and his movements were recorded into a computer program, creating a guide for the digital model used in the film, my Preciousssss! This allowed the CG character to be extremely life-like, and the method is now the go-to way for animating CG characters.

Another innovation used to make the creatures in the film more believable was 3D scanning and modelling. Round about 2007, Christchurch company ARANZ Medical designed a handheld 3D object scanner and its software, called SilhouetteMobile, for mapping wounds in hospitals and wound-care clinics. Subsequently, their client Weta Digital used this 3D object scanner to create the digital models for the creatures in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. ARANZ also helped establish the super computer platform for Weta Studios for processing the digital models. The expertise with 3D modelling continues with ARANZ forming ARANZ Geo, which owns Leapfrog 3D® geological modelling software.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling

The latest and most carefully thought up physical manifestation of a fictional world is “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” (after the Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling, and the subsequent movie spin-offs) at Universal Studios, which includes reconstructions of “Hogsmead”, “Hogwatch Castle” (at Islands of Adventure), and “Diagon Alley” (at Universal Studios, Florida). Humans in costumes and animatronic robots provide the entertainment, with carefully planned interactions with visitors to make it look like magic, for instance choosing a wand at “Ollivander’s” shop, complete with light effects. After the films, and now the theme park, does anyone even remember what they imagined when they read the books?

Next reason: Empathy 

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