Defining Character Strength
Previous parts in this sequence on Theme-Character Integration:
Here is a TV Series Episode that clearly and cleanly defines the interface between Theme and Character-strength.
The Series is INTELLIGENCE on CBS and the episode in question is titled ATHENS.
This is Episode 9 of the First Season.
Why is that important? Because strength of character is abstract, illusive, and a trait that is "revealed" one component at a time, not on the first page of a novel or the pilot for a TV Series.
"Strength" of character means one thing to an editor, producer, or agent, and another to the writer -- yet another to viewers/buyers.
What one person sees as strong another sees as weak.
The assessment of a character is very much based on the end-customer's View of the Universe and is idiosyncratic -- very, very personal.
Strength of Character is a Trait that can answer the question "What does she see in him" that is the core of Romance, but is especially relevant to Science Fiction Romance (my favorite kind).
INTELLIGENCE is a mundane science fiction romance -- and a pretty good one.
The couple in question is an ex-soldier who volunteered to have a "chip" inserted into his brain (which works because he has a certain rare genetic mutation) and the woman assigned to be his bodyguard and protector because he's worth maybe a billion dollars (remember the 6 Million Dollar Man? this is an UPDATED version.)
So episode by episode (or for a novel, chapter by chapter) we have seen this man's character revealed as the attraction between the two Special Forces grade individuals heats up.
At first wary, the mutual respect is established and grown as each saves the other from harrowing circumstances, and they develop teamwork precision like a circus act where each puts his life in the hands of the others.
And meanwhile, respect grows with the management team sending them on missions, and the tech team that works the "chip" miracles.
So we have many "variables" of character traits filled in for both these people and a really neat ROMANCE blooming nicely.
Now, remember this is a CBS drama, not USA CHARACTERS WELCOME.
There are two "beats" (see Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! screenwriting instruction series for beats definition) to pay attention to in order to learn to assess a "strong character" for the fiction market, and then to analyze many examples, then create some of your own.
Here's the story. Gabriel, the fellow with the chip in his head, gets amnesia (long international terrorist plot business that's irrelevant). When he wakes up in the middle of the attack on his headquarters without any memory of who these people are, he doesn't know the good guys from the bad guys.
3/4 through the episode, when he's now convinced the attackers are the good guys and he's helping them beat his real friends, the showdown scene, the turning point into the final act, is his bodyguard eye-to-eye with him trying to convince him that she is the "good-guys" side and the attackers are the bad-guys.
Gabriel's chip has been hacked in such a way that the data attached to his friends' personnel files has been changed to make them seem like bad guys, killers, victimizers of children.
The DATA shows the bad guys as the good guys.
Riley (his bodyguard) stares Gabriel in the eye and tells him to stop thinking and just FEEL -- telling him that his memory of facts is gone, but his FEELINGS originate in another part of the brain and are more reliable in sorting good from bad.
This is the NEW CULTURE PARADIGM we see in all these most popular TV shows.
This entire generation of viewers has been educated from primary school to understand the world in terms of feelings and to put aside all facts in favor of what feels right. (look for that theme if you haven't noticed it -- it sells big time in Romance).
We see in Romance -- if you read some written in the 1950's and 1960's then skip ahead to 2000, you will note this trend, then follow it back decade by decade until you locate the turning point in philosophy -- the theme that lust and passion are irresistible, that there's no use trying to use intellect to over-ride animal lust, and that all hook-ups or even marriage must have searing-passionate-animal-lust as the foundation.
That might correlate to the divorce-rate rise -- a statistical researcher might get a paper out of it.
But to sell fiction, you have to understand the world the reader thinks is real in order to invoke suspension-of-disbelief. So pay attention to the cultural shift from THINK FIRST, and STOP CRYING OR I'LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT upbringings, to DON'T EVER OFFEND ANYBODY.
The worst crime children learn about in primary school is making someone feel bad by doing something better than they can do it. Everyone gets a certificate of merit, a prize, a ribbon, just for showing up, so the incapable won't feel bad about being incapable.
So we see this EMOTION trumps THOUGHT as a major, cultural assumption, a philosophy, and that makes it THEMATIC MATERIAL.
In this episode of INTELLIGENCE, we see one of the love-interest characters convince the other love-interest character that you can tell the good guys from the bad guys by how you FEEL and that all data, all facts, all thought is unreliable.
The story is rigged so that in this instance, that is actually true -- and that rigging is what makes this a beautiful example of THEME.
The "Character" element that integrates with the theme is that Gabriel - the chip-guy - buys it. He relies on how he feels about Riley and throws in with his employers against the invaders.
And he wins the day back for them.
Then the STRENGTH of character scene comes at the end, final tag of the episode, where it is made crystal clear that emotions trump facts or thought. How you feel is the only important and determining factor.
So this series defines "STRONG CHARACTER" as someone with the courage to act on emotion-only against all the facts. Facts are unreliable; emotions are the truth.
You know that the TV Series Intelligence is still using the same mechanism to create "strong characters" for an audience because this episode which showcases and defines "strong character" first wipes out Gabriel's memory of facts, then replaces the facts with lies. When he's convinced the lies are truth, he still acts like Gabriel -- loyal and strong, and ferociously protective of children.
The script bores right to the core of the definition of Strong Character by removing Intellect from Reliable Information Source. By eliminating that one factor, the script reveals the unspoken cultural assumption of the definition of high moral fiber. The best people strive to follow their heart, not their brain. So lies don't matter (because nobody will pay attention to them), but feelings do matter.
If you dig back a few decades you will find all TV action-shows, all Science Fiction, and most Romance depicted the STRONG character as the one who followed Intellect, determined and cross-tested facts, and "did the right thing" regardless of how they felt about an issue, regardless of the emotional loss or pain they might cause themselves or anyone.
Today the definition of what illustrates "strength of character" has done a 180.
However, the actual writing craftsmanship is still the same!
"Strong Character" in fiction is defined by the integration between the character's emotional life and the character's external, fact-based life.
The concept "Integration" means essentially that two elements merge to form a third, and that the proportions of each ingredient are defined so that the "third" they create has a recognizable consistency. That's a marketing thing. Large markets are created by producing consistent products that are all the same -- if you buy Tide to wash your clothes, and buy another package with exactly the same LABEL next month, you expect the new package to contain the same washing-power. Likewise with books - if it says Science Fiction Romance or Paranormal Romance or Vampire Romance, it better deliver just like all the others under that label.
So today's market is looking for characters who have an unshakeable dedication to following their feelings and ignoring all intellectually ascertained facts.
It is the UNSHAKEABLE trait that is the defining ingredient in "Strong Character."
No matter what happens, that integration point between intellect and emotion will not change in that character -- not amnesia, not maiming, not disabling, not disease, not helplessness, not imprisonment, not torture, not anything will alter the proportions of Intellect and Emotion behind plot-moving decisions and actions.
That integration point is stable, meaning the character is both sane and admirable.
It's the exact same writing technique -- the exact opposite message.