Aristotle’s Poetics is the earliest record we have of theatrical theory. What makes one storyline compelling and another one dull? Aristotle set out to provide the answers. Explaining how and why we sympathize with dramatic characters is challenging: How can we care if the hero of the story is victorious in their mission if we are not able to identify with them? How can we identify with the protagonist’s true character if we can’t read their mind and know their true intents?
Aristotle pointed out that we only know a character’s true character through the choices that they make. If a character delivers a monologue but doesn’t decide or do something, the audience has been given no reason to believe them. Actions alone demonstrate character: “Character is the kind of thing which discloses the nature of a choice; for this reason speeches in which there is nothing at all which the speaker chooses or avoids do not possess character.” (Aristotle, Poetics 4.4)
Screenplay guru Robert McKee puts it this way: “No matter what they say, no matter how they comport themselves, the only way we ever come to know characters in depth is through their choices under pressure.” (McKee, 1997, p. 103)
To personalize this insight, consider your own character in light of this statement by Northrop Frye: “it is not possible to distinguish what we believe from what we believe we believe; our actions alone show what we really believe.” (Frye, 1990, p. 16)
We can try to do a lot of things to convince other people of our true character but, like an actor on the screen, it is our actions alone that give away our true identity. Tangible choices — how we spend our money, time, energy — provide the indisputable evidence of our character. For example, statements like, “I love my children, but I just can’t afford as much time away from work to spend with them as I would like to” is an incriminating self-indictment. Similarly, little else says more about our true priorities than our respective bank statements. Who we are is composed by what we choose.