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.