Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 15(C): The Example of Good Portrait Painters

December 22nd, 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 15(C): The Example of Good Portrait Painters

Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the
common level, the example of good portrait painters should be followed.
They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make
a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the
poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other
defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it.
In this way Achilles is portrayed by Agathon and Homer.

These then are rules the poet should observe. Nor should he neglect
those appeals to the senses, which, though not among the essentials,
are the concomitants of poetry; for here too there is much room for
error. But of this enough has been said in our published treatises.

I’m sure our Aristotelians will be able to put some historical context to this point Aristotle makes and provide some deep insight.

Me? I confess I laughed out loud when I read this: “So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it.”

Or in Hollywood speak: “Could you make the character more sympathetic?”

It’s an age-old battle between writers and suits.

Writers know that the greater the distance for a character to travel in their psychological and emotional journey, the better. It makes for better drama and a more satisfying resolution of the story. So most writers’ instincts pretty much default to starting our stories with – in particular – Protagonists in a decided state of Disunity, whether the character is aware of this fact or not. This is where the infamous “character flaw” that always gets kicked around in development circles has its roots.

The suits tend to operate from a different perspective. They are concerned about many things, of course, but here are two big ones: (1) Is the Protagonist one audiences will care about? (2) Is the Protagonist an actor will want to play?

And that’s the root of the tension: Writers starting the character as far away as possible psychologically from where they need to end up and the good folks on the other side of the desk worrying a character that flawed may be off-putting.

“Can’t you make her more likeable?”

You know, like a “good portrait painter.” The character can be “true to life,” but please, make them “beautiful.” They may be “irascible” or “indolent” or have other “defects,” but for the love of God make sure they are “ennoble.”

I have had a variation of this discussion dozens of times. Go here for just one example.

That said, there seems to be more latitude in this regard the last 5-10 years or so with the emergence of so many anti-heroes as cultural icons, especially on TV (The Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy). Perhaps we are in a dark mood at a trans-global level, I don’t know. But even if you are working with an anti-hero who may not be particularly sympathetic, the pressure is there to at least make him/her empathetic. We may not approve of their world view, but we need to understand it, grasp its logic within the character’s place in the story universe.

If you’re gonna make the character a pig, at least put lipstick on him/her… you know… like a good portrait painter.

A related point to Aristotle’s idea of beauty. I’d love to see our Aristotelians weigh in on the subject because to me beauty is perhaps the single most important touch point for contemporary storytelling. For starters, when we experience beauty, we are lifted out of the mundane and transported somewhere special, a modern approximation of the ‘sacred’. Next beauty transcends the boundaries of human experience. Tragedy or comedy, high brow or low brow, big events or tiny moments, something can happen within any genre which we experience as beauty.

My guess is Aristotle had what I guess we could call a more traditional sense of beauty, reflective of his time and cultural milieu… as in how good portrait painters know how to make a subject “beautiful.” But as I suggested above, contemporary stories can have beauty emerge across the breadth of human experience.

So that would be an interesting side subject arising from this part of “Poetics”.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.

How about you? What do you take from Part 15(C) of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

For the entire series, go here.

8 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 15(C): The Example of Good Portrait Painters

  1. What struck me about this passage, with regard to its relevance to modern screen craft, is how the creation of memorable, compelling characters may begin with the screenwriter, but ultimately, such characters result from the collaboration of several artists – writer, casting director, actor, director, cinematographer, costume designer, makeup artist. . .one of my favorite examples of such collaboration comes near the end of “Black Narcissus” when, with the assistance of fantastic dramatic lighting and lurid makeup, Kathleen Byron as the fallen nun Sister Ruth appears twisted with lust and soul sickness, just before (spoiler alert) her nun fight to the death with Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr).

    And it seems to me that, given how brave actors must be, to be willing to peel off their own skins and inhabit those of the characters they portray, the least screenwriters can do is try to write characters that challenge and reward that courage; perhaps creative folks need to back each other up regarding the need for characters to be complicated and compelling, rather than merely likable, in the same way that some science folks have been willing to throw down alongside Einstein, for the belief that imagination outstrips intellect any old day.

    1. Scott says:

      Concur, Melanie, 100% re what we owe actors with the characters we write.

      I had a lengthy discussion with an actor once complaining about some of the scripts he was reading. Bottom line comment: “If the writer doesn’t know a character’s motivations, how am I supposed to know?”

      So bare minimum, we owe them that: Clarity on the core essence of each character, their goals, wants and needs, etc.

      But beyond that, Melanie, your note about actors being willing to “peel off their own skins” brings to mind one of my favorite way of thinking about characters: Multiple layers. There is the persona they present to the External World [and that can have several ‘masks’ they don depending upon circumstances]. Then there is the deepest foundation of their psyche (Core Essence), and that can include their shadow, the dark impulses. But in BETWEEN all that are multiple layers of being and consciousness. Like an onion.

      So we, as writers, need to peel off the skins of our characters and dig into their multiple layers of being.

      Obviously we can’t include everything in our stories, that’s too much. But we can identify key motivators and psyche aspects, hone in on the ones we think can work in the context of our story, and use that as the basis of who the character is.

      That way we give actors something to work with. Beyond that, the plot emerges.

      Thanks for that, Melanie!

  2. pgronk says:

    The title character in Euripides’ tragedy “Medea” is a nasty piece of work. Implacably outraged that her husband Jason has dumped her for another woman, she takes revenge by killing all their children. And she gets away with it; at the end of the play she makes good her escape from the scene of the crime in Corinth.

    So, does Aristotle take Euripides to task for making her such a horrible character, for being so unsympathetic (to at least 1/2 of the demographic: men) for her m.o. of revenge?


    For getting away the crime unpunished, making good her escape?


    Aristotle takes Euripides to task on a technical point, for using a deus ex machina gimmick to effect her escape. Whether it was a deus ex machina is arguable, imho, but the germane point is that Aristotle does not criticize Euripides for his characterization of Medea.

    Two modern examples: who is the more interesting character in “Fatal Attraction”? Who drives the story, makes it so interesting, so compelling? The foolishly philandering husband, Dan Callager, or the woman who becomes totally obsessed with him, Alex Forrest? Who is the more interesting character in “The Dark Night”? Who drives the story, makes it so interesting, so compelling? Batman or Joker?

    Is Daniel Plainview a likeable guy in “There Will be Blood”? And Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” — that character is merciless, totally unsympathetic — and irresistibly fascinating, compelling to watch every second he’s on the screen.

    (And consider the main characters in two current films, “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Nebraska”.)

    Why are bad guys and gals, scoundrels and psychopaths so fascinating to watch? Maybe they are not noble characters, per Aristotle’s one criteria, but they amply live up to the other criteria of being “above the common level”.

    1. Jon says:

      I also think Aristotle is using “ennoble” here in the sense of instructing the dramatist to make the character grander, more god-like, more *more*, rather than sympathetic. Really, it’s the opposite of sympathetic almost- aspects of the character are relatable, but the character is “superhuman” thus less personally relatable. But surely the “could you make the character more sympathetic” hollywood-speak is a thing, but it’s a biz thing not aesthetics.

      Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy” is a good one to read that’s relevant here imo.

  3. pgronk says:

    >>>But even if you are working with an anti-hero who may not be particularly sympathetic, the pressure is there to at least make him/her empathetic.

    What fascinates me about “Breaking Bad” is how skillfully Vince Gilligan’s writing team mapped the trajectory of his character, how (to use psychobabble) he succumbs to his shadow instead of integrates it.

    The beauty is in the process, not the final product.

    1. Scott says:

      Jon, that’s a fair point. Setting aside sympathy angle, that’s another thing in Hollywood thinking: Write a part big enough for name actors. Less important nowadays where CGI tends to dominate movies, but still a concern. And so like the example I linked to in the OP, this particular actor had a BIG self-image. Equally important, he had a BIG image of what he thought movie audiences thought his image was.

      So your point re Aristotle — ennoble = more *more* — is also relevant to Hollywood today.

      Thanks for that observation!

    2. Scott says:

      pgronk, wonder if Breaking Bad is proverbial case of lightning in a bottle, hard to duplicate. But you’re right: The shadow won out. He achieved unity with his Dark Side.

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