Character as function
When it comes to the construction of characters, their backgrounds, interactions and choices will vary depending on whether a story is character-driven (as in commercial or literary fiction, like Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE) or plot-central (as in genre fiction, like fantasy or dystopian – think THE HUNGER GAMES). Whilst the former emphasises conflict through emotional interaction, with real-life issues like birth, death and heartbreak often driving the story, the latter is centred around enemies and quests, and the character’s internal struggles must take a backseat to these external goals.
(Of course, no story can be defined as wholly character- or plot-driven; what makes a novel successful is striking a balance of the two that complements its characters’ emotional progressions [or handicaps] and interactions. Many works straddle this line, particularly within the paranormal romance genre.)
In this way, plot-driven stories require their characters to be more than fully realised human beings (or angels/demons/super-powered, mild-mannered, thinly-veiled Christ figures): they are tools for the advancement of the plot, and for the readers’ comprehension of it. To highlight this concept of character serving as function, we’ll look at two plot-driven genre texts: the HARRY POTTER series and Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION.
Harry, as both the series’ protagonist and magical world initiate, serves as a tool for the reader to experience and learn about the world he is drawn into, functioning as the reader proxy. Through Harry and his external quest – specifically, in the first book, to protect the Philosopher’s Stone – we are introduced to Hogwarts and to Lord Voldemort, around which Harry’s emotional conflicts (including his parents’ deaths, at the hands of Voldemort) are shaped. More importantly, Harry, the initiate, has a character – a function – from whom to source answers to the questions his initiation raises. As such, Dumbledore (the instructor) and Hermione (the informer) can be seen as two of the most important characters, plot-wise, throughout the HP series. Both provide Harry with direct and indirect answers and information that are often key to his external quests – whether it be overcoming Voldemort or chasing down the Hallows. Hermione and Dumbledore complement each other as functions: in Hermione, Harry finds less authority but better access, whilst Dumbledore has more authority but with limited access.
INCEPTION, similarly, employs this initiate-informer dichotomy to guide its viewers through Nolan’s often-complicated dream world. (Somewhere on the web I saw this described as “holding the viewer’s hand”, which I think is a good description. The plot is complicated but well delineated, and we are left questioning things long enough to be curious but not too long as to become frustrated.) Whilst Cobb, as the instructor and protagonist of the film, is key to our comprehension of the world of subconscious espionage, it is Ariadne who facilitates the revealing of such information, simply by asking – by functioning as the initiate (and hence, again, the viewer proxy).
The major difference between the two is the relative initiation of the protagonist in each, with Harry totally clueless to the magical world’s existence and Cobb fully immersed in his. Hence, Ariadne is necessary in INCEPTION to act as the initiate and to be guided through the dream world by other characters, those already initiated (like Cobb).
Both initiate and instructor are key character functions for dispensing information, for drawing the reader into the world you’ve created, and most significantly, for advancing the plot. Without Hermione, Harry and Ron would likely have ended up as snake-bait or squished by a murderous plant; without Dumbledore, Voldemort would have pwnd half of Europe by now and Harry would still be lying in a forest (sans heartbeat); without Ariadne, we’d have even less of a clue what the eff is happening in Cobb’s subconscious. Complicated plots require double the work from your characters: their questions and knowledge must drive the story from conflict to conflict, from clue to clue. We need both initiate and instructor to answer our questions and to ask them for us.