Transparent Characters

Most characters in movies, television, and theater are relatively easy for audiences to read.  Actors learn to use their voice tone, gaze direction, body motions, etc. to clearly telegraph their characters’ feelings and perspective. But in the stories that are told, the characters themselves usually do not understand each other, or themselves, quite so well.   

For example, audiences enjoy seeing one character lie to another; the audience gets many clues that what is said is a lie, but the duped character just doesn’t notice them.  Similarly, characters often have large character flaws easily visible to the audience, such as arrogance or selfishness, but those characters just don’t see their own flaws.   

These acting tricks let audiences enjoy a sense of inside access, of being able to see more into the story’s world than they can usually see in their ordinary world.  But I fear prolonged exposure to such acting tempts us to overconfidence about how well we can read those around us.  We feel we can read ourselves well and read others better than they can read us.  And when we disagree, we think we can usually spot the flaw in their thinking, a flaw they have not even considered. 

Now I do think humans try to simplify themselves in order to be understood, and thereby trusted, by others.  It is hard to trust folks whose actions you can’t at least roughly predict.  But Beware: life is not a movie, and most people can’t actually read themselves and others nearly as well as they think they can. 

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  • Abigail

    Or possibly, life is like a movie. We, like the characters, do not see our own flaws, or the indications that someone is lying. While legal dramas take half a minute to crossexamine, the best of them establish from cross what a real advocate would take a day to establish. The best medical dramas deal with real illness and real situations, even if the doctor decides immediately what to do whereas in real life he would take days or weeks.

    Stories help us understand the world, as well as providing escapism. They expose us to different situations so that we might have some idea when we face that situation in real life. They let us feel emotions vicariously.

    Some stories are merely escapist, reassuring us that there is a happy ending, the bad suffer and the good end up OK- and therefore increase people’s confidence. If the person is unduly cautious, an increase in confidence is a good thing.

  • To be honest I find the trope very tiresome, and it’s one of the things I enjoyed about Twin Peaks: we see a character lying to his wife about how his past is behind him and he’s a reformed character now, but it’s said with all appearance of absolute sincerity. Lynch trusts the audience to follow what’s going on without the need to hold up huge signs during these scenes saying “WARNING: this character is lying!”

  • To be honest I find the trope very tiresome

    Seconded. On the subject of “visual media with good liars/in-character actors”, I nominate the Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Anime.

  • Robin: from where comes your suggestion that people in general are overconfident in their abilities to read themselves and others? I have more doubts than such convictions about myself. What do you know about others?

    Paul Crowley: perhaps Desperate Housewives and House are examples of intelligent shows that appeal to their audiences for similar reasons. There’s shows made for those who need an overwhelming number of cues to understand, and then there’s shows made for those who enjoy not being smothered in overtness.

  • eric falkenstein

    How about this bias: when adults interact with children, even when acting indirectly through characters that speak directly to children (puppets, funny characters), they are always wildly happy and cheerful. Kids learn that it is ‘normal’ to be happy, so when they invariably experience unhappiness, it is even more depressing because it highlights how different they are from everyone else.

  • Michael Stack

    I’ve long thought that it must be incredibly difficult to perform scenes like that as an actor. Your character is lying, but the fact of the lie must be visible to the audience, so there are typically subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) clues given to the audience, usually through the liar’s body language. However, these cues must not be so overt as to make the audience think that the lie recipient can see through the lie.

    I agree with the commentors above – good television is much better today and scenes like ‘character A lies to character B’ are more often played as they would in real life, with the lie recipient (and the audience) unable to determine if the character is lying or not.

  • Brad Horner

    (For Abigail’s comment.) I think the difference is that with a movie, we are outside observers with a quasi-omniscient perspective. We can see the relevant and significant features of a character’s behavior in a movie, but this is not necessarily so in real life. Furthermore, actors in a movie try to make their actions universally understandable to their audience – they are fulfilling a role – but in real life we just do what we want and don’t worry so much about fulfilling generally understood roles.

  • To generalize, we pick up many poor mental habits because the books, news, and video we absorb places us into an epistemic position quite unlike Real Life. For example, people read history books, and then think that a forecast of the future should sound like something they read in a history book – a detailed extrapolation of causal chains, complete with dates and times. “In 2018, China will surpass the US as the world’s leading producer of blah blah blah.”

  • Raj

    I like this point that you make: “It is hard to trust folks whose actions you can’t at least roughly predict.”

    Therefore, we attempt to read people by placing their behavior in the familiar, which is unfortunately in the cast of movie characters swirling through our heads. Conversely, I do think many of us unconsciously imitate our favorite character(s) in an attempt to write a favorable narrative; so, to some extent, people do read us “accurately.”

    I think your logic should be extended to personality tests and the like that “tell us” what we are.

  • David Robinson

    It’s not necessarily someone’s people-reading hubris that bothers me so much as the resulting narrative. As we’ve seen in the election and the financial mess, narrative tends to make experts out of a lot of people. Some of this may be earned, of course: If my finances are on the line, I am going to learn as much as I can as quickly as possible. But how much can I quickly learn in fields where even the experts are not experts according to other experts? A lot of the pre-packaged truths read like narrative, and those get adopted rapidly, but over time you can put together enough of those narratives and they break apart like a bad alibi.

    A lot of actors, incidentally, don’t play the lie. They wrap themselves up in the circumstances of what the truth really is, and then try to make the lie seem true. As ethereal as it sounds, if you do it right, you give yourself away. The contrast is that in the real world lying requires stepping outside of the circumstances so that you can ignore the truth.

  • Mauve

    I think Robin’s observations are spot on with regard to bad television and movies — i.e., most of both. I’ve always regarded it as a hallmark of good television and movie-making that I don’t completely know what is going on, what motivations characters really have, and that I can’t predict what is going to happen.

    The good shows really make you think and work at trying to fully grok them, and even then, the conclusions and predictions you come to are tentative and often overturned in the future, just like in real life. For example, in “Six Feet Under”, while you often feel that you have insight into Nate or David or Brenda or Ruth or Claire or Keith in a way that each character doesn’t have with regard to himself/herself, I never really felt that I had much greater insight into the characters than (at least some) other characters within the show already did. Nate was completely impenetrable to himself, but Brenda understood him quite well, and I don’t think I understood him better than she did (while she for much of the show was completely oblivious with regard to herself). Likewise with the other characters, each of whom was generally pretty well understood by at least one other character, but not in the unnatural (clairvoyant) manner of bad television and not by most of the other characters. They could all surprise each other, and often did. Each of the characters had their issues and their own cognitive biases, and each of them was good at recognizing certain biases (in certain other characters) and understanding some other characters, and each had huge blinders with respect to some other characters and some issues. It is of course much easier to be less superficial in a show like “Six Feet Under” that deals with much more of life than just the standard television view of life that you see in “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Brady Bunch” and pretty much most shows since.

    I’m not sure about the underlying thesis though, that the artificial transparency and simplicity of television lead us to have unrealistic expectations about how much we understand ourselves and other people in real life. I think rather that television reflects the underlying overly simplistic and superficial that people already have. This is the age-old debate of whether media reflect reality or media influence reality. Of course the influence/reflection is in both directions in general, but with respect to this issue, I think it’s more a case of media reflecting the reality that people falsely believe is the case. I think media reinforce the underlying biases, and perhaps in that respect, things are worse than they would otherwise be if there were no television or movies (or books or oral storytelling, etc.), but superficial media portrayals are only affecting the least significant digits, rather than actually determining the most significant digits. I do think it quite likely though that television and film media would serve to increase the inertia of individual biases so that if for some reason people were ever to begin to improve their understanding of themselves and the world and see how much less they really know, then these media would serve to dampen this change and make the change slower than it would otherwise be.

  • Sebastian –

    It took me a moment to figure out what you meant, because the first thing that entered my mind was the fact that the children in Higurashi almost always have their eyes covered as a dramatic clue whenever they’re saying something untrue. This is actually not as important as the lies that the adult characters tell, without any visual clues.

  • I am told that, despite a common belief by police that they are capable of reading suspects, when tested they fare no better than civilians. Same thing holds for other law enforcement and investigation groups, even elite ones.

    To systematically do better than chance, people need special and intensive training; see this for examples.

    Perhaps a contributing factor is that police and similar investigators are often confronted by people trying to deceive them, and even without a true capacity to detect lies and evasions, if they guess they’re being lied to they’re probably right.

  • I couldnt agree with you more!!!