In “Player-Facing Scenarios”, I discussed one approach to thinking about the interaction of story and character. I described an ideal, where it is not possible to disentangle the two in a meaningful way, and offered a few ways of thinking about the relationship. In broadest summary, the more central a character is to the narrative, the harder it is to summarise events without mentioning them. This is always a matter of emphasis, but I think when summarising the events in a detective novel, you’re more likely to describe the method of the crime than the procedure of uncovering the sordid details. To an extent, the investigation is always a little haphazard in terms of the order it occurs, but the true story of the crime can occur only one way – that’s the point of detection. I think we can use this prism to separate out two films that have a very similar basic story: Raiders of the Lost Arc and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
In any summary of either film, I think we’re apt to place Indiana at the centre. Dr Jones goes here, does that, fights this, survives the other thing, and so on. Yet, if we look carefully at what actually happens, we will quickly see that while Indiana Jones interferes with each step of the Nazi plan in Raiders, the overall story happens fairly much as it would if he were not involved. The Nazis still find the medallion, they still find the chamber, they still find the Arc and they still get slaughtered by divine retribution. He’s a total failure because he doesn’t substantially redirect the action. In Crusade, he fails again, but in a far more important way. It is he who uncovers the key clues that lead the Nazis to the Grail, and he successfully evades the booby traps and identifies the Grail. Yet again, it is the greed of the Nazis that undoes them, as they try and take the Grail from its resting place. Without him, the story does not happen as it does. He has gone from a side-show to being a protagonist.
I think it’s appropriate to describe Indiana Jones as a Pulp Hero and as an Iconic Hero. He does not particularly change during or as a result of either of these adventures, he’s not supposed to. Such characters change the world, not the other way around. We could think about the difference between the two films as a difference in the strength and application of that iconic identity, or we could think about it in terms of differing levels of story maleability. Raiders is an inflexible story, Crusaders the opposite. In either case, Indiana Jones is well suited to the demands that the story is making of its protagonist. He is a story-facing character, built with the needs of the story in mind.
So, if Indiana Jones isn’t necessary for the story of Raiders, at least in the constrained way I’m using it here, why have him at all? I don’t think there is any chance that we would watch an edit of Raiders with Indiana Jones edited out, but I think that with only a handful of additional bridging scenes it would probably be possible. Indiana is the entry point of the audience to the story. We identify with him, or at least, we find him interesting. Without such a strong central character, I think the film would feel dramatically inert. As the protagonist’s importance to the story diminishes, the need for glamour increases. I think we can accept a far less interesting protagonist in dramatic stories where the character undergoes change or plays an essential part in the story.
I think this kind of logic guides the design of most detectives. Detectives like Wallander, Frost or Dalgleish are designed almost as dramatic protagonists, and a large part of the narrative effort in their fictions goes toward exploring the effect that crime solving has on them. We are interested in dramatic characters and our interest is bolstered for each of them by giving them some iconic aspects. Poirot or Holmes are almost entirely iconic. Holmes in particular seems to me always acting too late to do anything but tidy up after a story. Both Holmes and Poirot have energetic assistants that they are always restraining from action as part of their iconic constructions. We remain interested because they are sufficiently distinctive for their tangentiality to be almost unnoticed, just as nobody is concerned about Indiana’s lack of power in Raiders.
As a post-script, I’d like to link this back to roleplaying games. I think that if you watch the kinds of mortal characters people choose to play in New World of Darkness, you’ll tend to see fairly normal psychologies. As protagonists in so-called “personal” horror, the expectation is for dramatic character arcs with which the player naturally identifies. The player expects “player-facing” type scenario design. On the other hand, equally anecdotal experience with those playing Call of Cthulhu would imply that characters become increasingly outrageous, as players construct more iconic-oriented identities for characters to cope with the dual forces of a short lifespan and the need for a story-facing approach to character design. Characters become odder in order to remain sufficiently engaging for the players to ride along with the story.