As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.
For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
To download “Poetics,” you can go here.
Part 6(B): Character and Thought
Now as tragic imitation implies persons acting, it necessarily follows
in the first place, that Spectacular equipment will be a part of Tragedy.
Next, Song and Diction, for these are the media of imitation. By ‘Diction’
I mean the mere metrical arrangement of the words: as for ‘Song,’
it is a term whose sense every one understands.
Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies
personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities
both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify
actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are the two
natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all
success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the
action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents.
By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain qualities
to the agents. Thought is required wherever a statement is proved,
or, it may be, a general truth enunciated.
This is interesting because one thing I have heard said about Aristotle is that he perceived Plot to be preeminent above all else when it came to narrative. Here, however, his argument — “Plot is the imitation of the action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents” — necessarily implies that a story would have no plot without “personal agents” who “possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought.”
Some Aristotelian expert is going to have clear that up for me. Perhaps Plot may be the most important element of a story, however there is a necessary, even prior positioning of “personal agents” or what we in the screenwriting trade call characters.
The use of that term could get a little confusing seeing as Aristotle has a different definition for Character and a specific meaning for the concept of Thought:
* By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain qualities to the agents: This sounds an awful lot like what we may describe as a character’s personality traits or per Carl Jung the nature of their psyche.
* Thought is required wherever a statement is proved, or, it may be, a general truth enunciated: I’ll need some help with this because if Character means personality traits, it would seem to follow that Thought pertains to the inner mind of a personal agent. So the former is the way they present themselves to the External World in terms of their persona, the latter a reflection of their Internal World.
This may not be at all what Aristotle means — again I welcome the insights of those who have studied Aristotle and could shed some light on the subject matter — but it seems to suggest that at least at one level, he is making a distinction between the Internal and External aspects of a personal agent, and their connection to the personal agent’s actions.
“…for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are the two natural causes from which actions spring.”
If that is accurate, then it drives home to screenwriters the importance of linking “personal agents” (characters) to actions, and the Internal World of beliefs and ideas as well as the External World of personality and habits to those actions, and as importantly exploring both realms to fully understand the actors in our story universe.
A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times.
How about you? What do you take from Part 6(B) of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?
See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.
For the entire series, go here.