Our Characters, Ourselves: 'In Character' From NPR From Darth Vader to Scarlett O'Hara, the best fictional characters reflect something about who we are and how we got here. In Character, a six-month series from NPR, explores indelible American characters from fiction, folklore and pop culture.
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Our Characters, Ourselves: 'In Character' From NPR

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Our Characters, Ourselves: 'In Character' From NPR

Our Characters, Ourselves: 'In Character' From NPR

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Fictional characters are part of our national DNA.

(Soundbite of montage)

Mr. MEL BLANC: (As Bugs Bunny) What's up, doc?

Ms. SCARLETT O'HARA (Actress): Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. CLAYTON MOORE: Hi-ho Silver…

Ms. MARY TYLER MOORE (Actress): I really don't know why you're here, Mr. Grant.

Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS (Actor): (As Gordon Gekko) Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.

Mr. DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) D'oh!

Mr. GREGORY PECK (Actor): (As Atticus Finch) But remember, it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Mr. REDD FOXX (Actor): (As Fred Sanford) You hear that, Elizabeth?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOXX: (As Fred Sanford) I'm coming to join you, honey.

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor): (As Voice of Darth Vader) I am your father.

BLOCK: From Darth Vader to Scarlett O'Hara, the best characters reflect something about who we are. Today, we launch In Character - a new series exploring characters from novels, movies, television, popular culture.

To kick off the series, NPR's Elizabeth Blair examines what makes a great character and what it takes to create one.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Linda Edelstein teaches in the master's program in counseling psychology at Northwestern University. She says she and her students put fictional characters on the couch.

Professor LINDA EDELSTEIN (Counseling Psychology, Northwestern University): We don't have any common person that we can talk about or common problem that we all have experienced in the same way. By giving them a good movie, then we all have identical experiences. We all see the same set of characters, and then we can talk about them as if they're a family that's coming to therapy.

BLAIR: One of the characters Edelstein uses in her classroom is the perfectionist Beth Jarrett from "Ordinary People" by Judith Guest. It tells the story of a suburban family coping with traumatic events, including the death of the Jarretts' oldest son. In the 1980 film version, Mary Tyler Moore plays Beth Jarrett.

(Soundbite of movie "Ordinary People")

Ms. MARY TYLER MOORE (Actress): (As Beth Jarrett) This is my family. And if we have problems then we will solve those problems in the privacy of our own home, not by running to some kind of specialist every time something goes wrong.

Unidentified Woman: (As Waitress) Are you folks ready to order?

BLAIR: What makes Beth Jarrett a great character, says Linda Edelstein, is her authenticity.

Ms. EDELSTEIN: She's very, very emotionally restricted. She's worried about appearances. She's very buttoned up. And her own restrictions ultimately destroy the entire family.

BLAIR: Fictional characters have illuminated human behavior for centuries. Take Achilles from the "Iliad" and Odysseus from the "Odyssey." Bill Mullen is a classics professor at Bard College. He believes that everyone is born either an Achilles, the raging, passionate fighter who dies young; or an Odysseus, the calculating strategist who survives.

Mullen says he is partial to Achilles, because he believes the mythological soldier exemplifies the psychological trauma of war.

Professor BILL MULLEN (Classics, Bard College): He shows us how to go through every terrible emotion on the battlefield, including the loss of his best friend and subsequently his going berserk. And when he goes berserk, he commits human sacrifice. He's merciless to everyone. And what the essential wisdom of the poem is, I think, is that he comes back from that state and learns to be human again.

BLAIR: Scholars today believe that the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" were kept alive by several generations of illiterate singers. Mullen says Achilles and Odysseus taught people what they needed to survive and thrive emotionally, but not because they were role models. For a character to mean something to us, he or she must have something else the Greeks knew about: an Achilles' heel, says Mullen.

Prof. MULLEN: Aren't we really interested in seeing how someone who we do admire nevertheless has weaknesses? And how with those weaknesses he develops, how he comes out on the other side?

BLAIR: Many characters are defined by their imperfections or their problems. Take "Desperate Housewives."

(Soundbite of TV Series "Desperate Housewives")

Ms. EVA LONGORIA (Actress): (As Gaby Solis) Okay. This is getting really weird. I think we should go to the police.

Ms. FELICITY HUFFMAN (Actress): (As Lynette Scavo) And tell them what? We don't even have the note anymore. We gave it to Paul.

Ms. TERI HATCHER (Actress): (As Susan Mayer) Then you're going to have to get Zach to tell you something so we have more to go on.

Ms. MARCIA CROSS (Actress): (As Bree Van De Kamp) Girls, you don't understand. This poor kid is scared out of his mind.

Ms. LONGORIA: (As Gaby Solis) Oh, for God's sakes, Bree, you're a woman. Manipulate him. That's what we do.

Ms. CROSS: (As Bree Van De Kamp) But how?

Ms. LONGORIA: (As Gaby Solis) I don't know. How did you usually manipulate Rex?

BLAIR: Marc Cherry is the creator and executive producer of "Desperate Housewives." He says he drew on a familiar type.

Mr. MARC CHERRY (Executive Producer, "Desperate Housewives"): The ultimate desperate housewife for me is Lady Macbeth. She's a woman who wants power and wants position and all these things, and so she spends, you know, that entire play manipulating her husband. And she has such a drive to do it. And I always think about a character like that because I've met so many women, especially working in show business, who, for whatever reason, they don't think they can get it themselves but they will darn well make sure their husbands get it for them.

BLAIR: Now, it's doubtful that most of the women who resemble Lady Macbeth have convinced their husbands to kill for career advancement. Yet, we all recognize these dark urges. Even the most terrifying villains have millions of fans.

Mr. ANTHONY HOPKINS (Actor): We all have that from our childhood fantasies, dark at the top of the stairs and the boogeyman.

BLAIR: That's Anthony Hopkins in an interview with WBUR reporter Andrea Shea. Hopkins played Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant, grotesque serial killer in "Silence of the Lambs."

(Soundbite of movie "Silence of the Lambs")

Mr. HOPKINS: (As Dr. Hannibal Lecter) A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

BLAIR: To play the part, Hopkins was somehow able to tap into something inside himself that most of us wouldn't touch.

Mr. HOPKINS: And for some reason, I knew how to play it - the unknown shadowy person, which is very attractive and erotic as well. I've always had a sneaky fascination with the shadowy world that's in us all.

BLAIR: Novelist Thomas Harris, who created Hannibal Lecter, is a former crime reporter who rarely gives interviews. Lecter is a complex character with a rich back story that gives context to the horror he commits. And that, says Stewart Stern, is the work of a writer who knows what he is doing.

Mr. STEWART STERN (Co-writer, "Rebel Without a Cause"): The writer has to know everything from birth to wherever they are when he picks up the pen.

BLAIR: Stewart Stern co-wrote the screenplay for "Rebel Without a Cause," the 1955 movie starring James Dean. It was one of the first mainstream movies to reveal the angst-driven teenager as emotionally vulnerable.

(Soundbite of movie "Rebel Without a Cause")

Mr. JAMES DEAN (Actor): (As Jim Stark) You're tearing me apart.

Ms. ANN DORAN (Actress): (As Carol Stark) What?

Mr. DEAN: (As Jim Stark) You, you say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again.

BLAIR: To create believable characters, Stewart Stern says he spent a lot of time hanging out at a juvenile detention center, talking to teenagers and their parents. Today, Stern teaches screenwriting in Seattle. He says he tells his students to really get to know the people they want their characters to become before they start writing.

Mr. STERN: Because you have to see what the trauma was, what it was and what the wound was that came from it and what the personality flaw was that came from the wound. And if you don't know that, then you can't really write the character. You don't have to tell the audience what your discoveries were. But you have to have it in your body when you're writing it or you don't know what will come out of their mouths.

BLAIR: Fictional characters often do the things we couldn't, wouldn't or shouldn't. The superhero flies. The wisecracker says things we think about saying but don't. And the villain does the unthinkable. And when we get to know them, we learn something about ourselves.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

BLOCK: In Character, our series on famous fictional characters, will air on all NPR News programs over the next six months. You can learn more about the series and tell us about your own favorite heroes, villains or sidekicks at our Web site, npr.org.

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