The characters of transmedia storytelling

In the world of fiction, a character’s personality is determined by his or her psychology; a character’s mental and psychological state form the nucleus of his or her personality, the reason why personality and psychology are such central elements in character composition.

In the digital world, however, the determining factors in a character’s personality are his or her actions and appearance. The importance of these two factors is not surprising, considering the visual nature of digital storytelling.

The particular medium used for storytelling is not the only reason why appearance has become such an important factor. Moreover, the style of storytelling demanded by digital mediums is not always in agreement with the expectations of modern consumers, the latter being characterized by interactivity, which is more dependent on active participation and coherence among users (or audience members). The characters’ psychology and personalities are also no longer important, as they’re already cemented in the closed world of text. Therefore, unlike the literary world or previous generations focused on text, or media paradigms when characters and their world must exhibit completeness, the characters that thrive in digital content do not require a finalized personality or universe.

In the games of the digital age, often called the most progressive medium, the value of a character’s psychological state appears to have taken a backseat to other, more superficial attributes. More specifically, in digital content, what is important is how attractive a character is, how skilled he or she is in attaining certain items, and how quickly he or she can level up.

Of course, the digital age is not the first narrative paradigm in which a character’s abilities have been valued above their personality or mental state. In ancient mythology, the most important asset a character possessed was his or her actions; in mythology and folktales, a character is defined by achievements and objectives: Each of these mediums was known to deprioritize their characters’ internal psychology. As humanity progressed towards modernity, however, human reason and psychology became key focuses, as did the quest to investigate them, pushing events and a character’s actions to the fringes of literary concentration. Thus, the internal states of characters, alongside their increasingly complex psychology, became central points in great storytelling. Ironically, however, although we’ve passed through the age of reason, we are returning to the storytelling of the age of mythology.

On the other hand, the age of reason was not the only contributing factor when it came to raising the value of character psychology. The historical progression of written language, or mediums, also played a role. Given that language is a tool for expressing human thought, it naturally evolved to be able to communicate the subtle fluctuations of human psychology. As such, the quintessential art form of language is literature, and in an era commanded by language, images were probably nothing more than expressive additions.

By virtue of being less direct than language, images are known give viewers a greater level of interpretative freedom. It would arguably be much harder to extract a psychological analysis from a photograph than it would be from a novel. However, in the realm of film, where language and images meet, characters encounter a new path of evolution: A character’s psychological state is much more evident in a film with sound than in a silent film, exemplifying how changes in medium determine the importance of a character’s internal state. As mediums develop, both the structure and characters in a story undergo transformations, with some allowing human psychology to be expressed, and some enabling its expression it in clearer and more meaningful ways.

The evolution of character development suggests that, although a character’s appearance and actions are the focus of today’s digital content, this may be a passing phase. Just as the novel evolved, the qualities and details that make up characters in digital media will also transform—what constitute a good character are no longer a concern exclusive to storytelling. What remains is the question of how the visual presentation of a character’s psychology and actions determine the character’s personality.

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This article is from the free online course:

Transmedia Storytelling

Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU)