Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 6(B): Character and Thought

June 30th, 2013 by

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.

7 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” – Part 6(B): Character and Thought

  1. Hey Scott, my German translation is again a bit different from your text. The first part of tragedy is called “orchestration” or “staging” and instead of “plot” they are writing about “myth”.

    The notes explain what Aristotle means by character and “perception” (instead of “thought”):

    * CHARACTER: The customary behavior of human beings
    * PERCEPTION: The intellectual properties of a human being, their ways of perception, their resulting insights about life including the expression of it in dialogue

    You are really spot-on with your interpretation. It’s the subconscious and the conscious parts of characters that are defining actions in a story.

  2. pgronk says:

    >>CHARACTER: The customary behavior of human beings

    Well, yes, and more than that:

    Poetics, Chapter 6: “Character is that which reveals moral purpose,showing what kind of things a man chooses ( “seeks” in some translations) or avoids.”

    To wit, their goals and needs [positive and negative] in relation to the plot.

  3. pgronk says:

    I think that whatever Aristotle meant by Thought in his “Poetics” can be understood in reference to his treatise on rhetoric.

    Indeed in Chapter 19 of the Poetics, Aristotle says: “Concerning Thought, we may assume what is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech…proof and refutation; the excitation of feelings…”

    And what is rhetoric? The art of persuasion, getting someone else to agree with your point of view, to do what you want them to do. Whatever Aristotle meant by “Thought”, it is active, not merely passive; it is goal-oriented.

    And “Thought” is what we are supposed to put into dialogue in a script. Ideally, every word of dialogue is supposed to have a purpose, to advance the speaker’s goal in that scene. Or as David Mamet put it: “People may or may not say what they mean… but they always say something designed to get what they want.”

    1. That’s a very good point, pgronk! Dialogue seems to be a mystery even for writers.

      It may help people to know about the fact that every little word uttered by a character is bound to have a purpose.

      1. John Arends says:

        Right on, pgronk and Sven, regarding “Thought.” If going for one word that bridges Aristotle to Mamet, it boils down to “Intent.” As you’ve nailed, Mamet’s origins in theater, where so much action is propelled by the dialogue itself, the force driving that rhetorical language of persuasion is the inner want of the character.

  4. Hi You Guys,

    Well, my first thought on reading this section was, this seems to land right at the crux of the writer’s conundrum regarding plot/structure/character: action rises from character, so the character/s must drive the plot, via action. For some reason (most likely because I just saw Whedon’s awesome new movie version of “Much Ado About Nothing”!), this made me think of the play within the play in “Hamlet,” when Hamlet has the players put on his revised version of “The Mousetrap,” whereby he hopes to trap his uncle/step-father into giving away his guilt by his response to the play. Hamlet’s own paranoid, intellectual character drives his actions there, because another character – say, his foil Fortinbras – probably would devise a very different test to assess the guilt of Claudius, if indeed he even paused to make such an assessment before exacting the ghost’s required revenge – so it made me wonder if maybe Aristotle is proposing that each character’s individual acts must serve as a revelation of that character’s internal compass/thoughts vs. outward behavior, as they continue their individual journey, as well as provide a means by which to help forward the story’s overall plot?

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