Last time we discussed character castes and how the further you get down the totem pole the less memorable the characters are to audiences. They are only defined by their roles, so as to make them more recognizable, screenwriters employ the “limp and an eyepatch” to give these miniscule characters something for the audience to remember.
But we obviously want our Protagonists and Main Characters to be even more memorable. Yes, these top two positions on the character pyramid need to be multi-faceted and dimensional, but it never hurts to have one defining trait, role, skill or item that defines them.
I mean really, where would Luke Skywalker be without his lightsaber, Gandalf without his magic, Lisbeth Salander without her autism, Nurse Ratchet without her politeness, John McClain without his sarcasm, or Hannibal Lecter without his charm?
When composers score a film, characters often have their own musical theme, and the author can employ the same thing via the epithet.
Epithets get a bad rap these days, mostly because the word only appears after “racial,” but in the olden days it was more of a title, “glorified nickname or sobriquet. An epithet is linked to its noun by long-established usage.”
In effect, it’s a trait that is so intrinsically tied to the character that it can almost stand in for the character, e.g. a defining trait.
The poet Homer was a great lover of epithets for his characters, and to this day I can’t think of either Odysseus or Achilles without hearing either “wise Odysseus” or “swift-footed Achilles” in my 10 grade English teacher’s voice*.
Effectively, both Odysseus and Achilles had traits that stuck out so much the author wanted to remind the audience about them every so often, hence employing the epithet throughout. That is not to say either of these Protagonists/ Main Characters were shallow: They each had so many memorable traits they earned numerous epithets.
Marta and Luca (and Isabelle)
Coming up with other epithets for famous characters has proven difficult at the moment since they’re usually done subtly enough the audience doesn’t realize they’re there. Because if they pop up too much they become repetitive and grating. So I’ll just use a few from my own work: Luca has a signature grin, which is often brought up when invoking his character, just as Isabelle has her barked laugh, Marta her dead stare, and Graff his bummers cap with a bullet hole through the middle of it.
In all of these examples, the epithetted (totally a word!) trait is an exceedingly important one in understanding the character, but it IS NOT THE ONLY DEFINING TRAIT! Because, as we learned last time, only Secondary and Tertiary Characters should be defined by a single trait/ role.
But bad Protagonists and Main Characters defined by a single trait do exist, and I maintain in these cases it’s more of an Affectation. In effect, the character meant to lead the story is really just a single trait. The best example that immediately leaps to my mind is Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood (I wrote “Sucky” the first time, which might be my Freudian Slip showing). I believe the character was meant to be a mix of psychic and outsider as she navigated her urban fantasy abode, but she really was pretty much defined by her McGuffin-like draw to the rest of the characters. She was “irresistible” to every male (and a few females I think), to the point that it really was her only memorable trait.
Neo from The Matrix is another affected character in that there was no nuance to him; he only existed to “know Kung Fu.” He was simply a chosen one vessel through which baddass fight scenes might flow.
Sometimes though, regretfully, good Protagonists/ Main Characters go bad and become affected as time goes on. As much as I love me some Luke Skywalker,** he’s probably the best example of a character succumbing to affectation. When introduced in Star Wars, he was a whiny farm boy who was a fairly good pilot and wanted off the backwater rock he lived on to rescue a princess in distress; all great character facets. But by end of Return of the Jedi, all Luke consisted of was a jedi. Gone were all his personality traits and emotions as he existed as an empty, affected vessel to swing around his laser sword.
And yes, that indictment comes from a fan who lived and breathed those movies for a good portion of his life. And still loves the original trilogy to this day.
So, when writing, make sure to keep your character’s defining epithet in mind at all times. But watch it closely lest it devolve into affectation.
Footnote: I also swear there was one about “their oars smote the sea” or something to that effect, but I can’t find it. So if anyone knows what’s triggering that memory of mine, PLEASE let me know.
** My personal yardstick for how much a character matters to someone is how often they’ve dressed up as them as a Halloween costume. For me it’s a tie between Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker at two times a piece. Though I should probably also point out I was legally an adult for both Luke occurances…