Characters don’t always have reasons for their actions. There’s no meaning to the clothes they wear and who they stand next to, so analyzing it is overthinking things. People don’t act a certain way to fit a narrative. They just do.

Symbolism doesn’t matter, either, because people don’t represent themes and ideas. If I wear a blue sweater to work, it’s not because blue hints at my personality or emotional state. I threw it on because it was clean, or it was cold outside. Someone superstitious might see a meaning to my choice — maybe I feel blue — but it’s not there intentionally.

Those two paragraphs are what I mean by judging characters as people: focusing on how their actions, traits, and dialogue translate to real life. I call it the WYSIWYG method: what you see is what you get. What’s wrong with it? To quote Irish author John Banville:

Fictional characters are made of words, not flesh; they do not have free will; they do not exercise volition.

Source: GoodReads
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay.
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Real people make their own choices. Characters can’t. Whatever the writer wants them to do, they do it — especially if they’re animated like Aisha and Nex. Their actions are nothing but drawings, and their dialogue comes from humans talking into studio mics.

That’s why we also need to judge characters as creations, products of our imaginations, to understand them. What are their roles? What do their names suggest about them? How do their actions advance the plot? These are the same questions writers ask while developing their stories.

Judging the characters as creations helps us get into the writer’s mind and understand their intentions and methods. No detail is too minor. Just like on the zany reality show The Masked Singer, you never know what could be a clue.

Color Me Impressed

Think of a character who always wears red. If we judge them by the WYSIWYG method — character as a real person — there’s no meaning to that color. Maybe they like it. Maybe they own a lot of red clothes. Big deal.

But when we judge the character as a creation — a product of someone’s imagination — we remember they didn’t pick the color. The writer did. What does it mean?

Well, red symbolizes passion, determination, and energy. If the character is passionate, determined, and energetic, maybe the writer wanted to emphasize it. Red can also make us feel angry or afraid, so it’s a common color for villains, too. (Read about color psychology. It’s fascinating stuff.)

Kiki's Delivery Service: Kiki's mom fixes her dress
Kiki’s Delivery Service: Kiki’s mom fixes her dress

These details aren’t always buried in the writer’s notes. Sometimes, they’re part of the story. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, one of my favorite anime films, Kiki’s mother gives her the iconic black dress because “witches have worn this color for a very long time”. The 13-year-old doesn’t like it, but she accepts it.

Later, her love interest Tombo points it out to his friends. “You can tell she’s a witch because she always wears a dark dress.” Kiki gets mad and stomps away.

Did she have to wear black? No. Studio Ghibli (or the original author) could have dressed her in any color. But they probably chose black because A) we associate it with witches; and B) it makes her stand out from the Muggles, which is one reason she doesn’t like it.

Born in the Purple

Symbolism doesn’t have to affect the plot to be meaningful. Look at Disney movies. The heroes wear pleasant colors like blue, yellow (or gold), and green, while the villains wear off-putting colors like dark red, black, and purple. (The shade can change the meaning, as we’ll see in a moment.) These distinctions have nothing to do with the stories themselves; they’re there to color-code the characters for the audience.

Well, most of the time. One of my favorite examples of symbolism hidden in plain sight is Rapunzel’s lavender dress. Purple has been the color of royalty for millennia. That’s because it used to be expensive to make purple dye, so only the rich could afford it. Naturally, rulers saw it as a status symbol. Some even threatened to kill commoners who dared to wear it!

If we judge Rapunzel by the WYSIWYG method — as a real person — her dress is just a dress. She never comments on its color, and neither do the other characters. So it doesn’t matter, right?

It does if we judge her as a creation. Near the end of Tangled, she finds out she’s the lost princess celebrated every year by the floating lanterns. Don’t you think Disney may have wanted us to make that connection?

So purple means nothing to Rapunzel as a person, but it’s still important to her character.

Color Uncoordinated

Cure Earth from Healin’ Good Precure

Sometimes symbolism stands out more when it doesn’t fit the character. In the anime Healin’ Good Precure, the 17th season in Toei Animation’s Pretty Cure (Precure) franchise, the Sixth Ranger, Cure Earth, wore purple. A lot of fans, including me, hated it. What the heck does purple have to do with Earth?

What are the colors of our planet? Blue and green. Blue was taken by Cure Fontaine (French for “fountain”), so green made the most sense. Plus, Cure Earth’s element was wind, and the Japanese associate wind with green. It was the perfect choice, but Toei ignored it.

So Precure fans have recolored her to imagine what could have been. Check out one of my favorite edits here.

Staying in Character

This post was inspired by a conversation I had online. The person I talked to said characters sometimes do things for no reason except that it fits their stereotypes. But that’s not a minor reason — it’s an important one.

What if the quiet girl screamed, “I love everybody!” and bounced around and squeezed everyone she met? That’d be weird, right? It wouldn’t fit her personality, so we’d say she acted out of character.

Whose fault would it be? If we judge her as a person, it would be her fault. But when we say “out of character”, we’re saying the writer made her do something she wouldn’t do if she were real. That’s judging her as a creation — a creation gone wrong.

So saying characters sometimes do things only because it fits their stereotypes is acknowledging the writer’s intentions matter. In this case, they’re making sure the characters’ personalities feel authentic. You can’t use the WYSIWYG method to explain it because real people don’t fit stereotypes!

The Best of Both Worlds

One of my favorite series on YouTube is Ryan George’s Pitch Meetings. It’s a bunch of sketches where George critiques movies and TV shows as a screenwriter pitching them to an executive. When the executive asks why a character does something stupid or random, the screenwriter just says:

  • “Because.”
  • “I don’t know!”
  • ”Whoopsie!”
  • “So the movie can happen.”
  • “I’m gonna need you to get all the way off my back.”

So…for no reason. That’s what a WYSIWYG story would feel like: forced decisions and a messy plot.

To quote Tom Clancy:

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.

Source: GoodReads

Does this mean characters can’t make mistakes or do immature or irrational things? Of course they can. Here’s the paradox of the WYSIWYG method: if a character is written well, their actions will always feel natural. We’ll understand why they did what they did because of their personality, backstory, or circumstances.

It will also feel like they, not the writer, control the story. This is called agency. The WYSIWYG picks up on it, and judging the character as a creation explains how and why it feels like they’re making their own decisions.

See? You can have it both ways!

Final Thoughts

Unlike real life, stories are planned. Even if the characters don’t have reasons for their actions, the writer does. Learning to see stories through the writers’ eyes will help us become better writers ourselves.