John Ostrander: Choice, Character, and Freedom
Which would you trust more – what a person says or what a person does? Almost anyone with life experience would say they’d trust what a person does more. Mind you, although we know better we often go with what a person says: con men, politicians and advertisers (that may be redundant) count on that.
It’s what we do with story – character is built upon choices, good or bad, which the individual makes. That’s why the writer puts them in difficult and even life-threatening situations. My late wife Kim used to ask me how I might react in a given situation. My response invariably was, “I don’t know. Ask me when I get there.” I know how I’d like to think I would act but the reality is, until faced with the given situation, I don’t really know. Nobody does.
I don’t believe it when someone says “I could never kill someone.” I think Gandhi was capable of killing given certain circumstances. The likelihood of him killing might be small, but he was human and any human is capable of the act. It’s part of our common humanity; a dark side of it, I grant you, but still part of it.
It’s not only big choices that we make that proclaim who we are (or who a character is); it’s the small ones as well. The artist in a graphic narrative, for example, must decide what a given character might wear. What we choose to wear projects how we want to present ourselves.
“Hold on there, Horsestrangler,” some of you might be saying. “I don’t care what I wear. I just throw something – possibly clean – on and go.” (Guys are more likely to say this than gals who, as usual, know better.) My response is doing so is a choice of its own and makes it own statement; it says “I don’t think that sort of thing is important. It’s shallow and trivial and doesn’t represent who I am.”
Except it does. It rejects certain values and/or it says you want to look like everyone else and blend in. Do you dress for a job interview the same way you dress for hanging with your homies? If so, good luck getting the job. If you’re going on a date with someone for the first time, how do you dress? How do you present yourself? If you had to go to a funeral, what would you choose to wear?
Different characters in comics will dress differently. Peter Parker shouldn’t dress like Tony Stark. Clark Kent shouldn’t dress like Bruce Wayne. I remember that in an early episode of The Sopranos, the producers dressed Tony in shorts and flip-flops for a backyard party to suggest more strongly the underlying suburban setting. Advisers to the show said that Tony would never dress like that – and he never did again.
Why do people wear clothing emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo or the name of their favorite sports team and turn themselves into walking billboards for that product? Because it suggests a certain tribal affiliation the same way that inner city gangs wear certain colors. It proclaims us and marks us as part of a greater, possibly stronger, whole. At least, we may think it does.
That’s a choice that people make and it’s something that writer and artists working in the graphic medium have to keep in mind. There are hundreds, thousands, of ways of communicating to the reader who this character is, what the setting is, what’s at stake and what’s going on.
Are there exceptions to this rule? Yep. Sure are. There are situations when you have no choice to make. You can’t choose which shoes to wear when you can’t afford any shoes. Choice exists only if there is more than one thing from which to choose. Otherwise, you have to take what is given.
There is no freedom where there is no freedom of choice.