Not the right ideas about character

Working on the book – at least for me – is a constant process of trying to figure out which ideas are worth keeping, and which aren’t. Sometimes I hold really tightly to ideas that aren’t worth keeping, or that I just can’t keep, and then these ideas lead me down confusing and time-consuming rabbit holes where I end up learning a lot about how supercomputer processors work or something (actual example from my dissertation research). Cool! – but not really the point.

The chapter I’ve been working on lately is Chapter Four, which is about how preparedness materials use the vocabulary of resilience to talk about characters and characterization. I look at how characters, specifically the character of the hero – that most resilient of characters – pop up in 9/11 anniversary speeches, online games designed to teach kids about natural disaster preparedness, and the CDC’s zombie pandemic public awareness campaign, and I try to think through the particular investment of preparedness materials in character, broadly construed.

I don’t know if you know this, but lots of people have written about character in literary studies (and in film studies, and in game studies). One of the things that’s led me astray in this chapter is my tight grip on the idea that I need to read everything out there on character. If I just read it all, I thought, things will snap into place. I will know what I am trying to say.

But it hasn’t really worked out that way. In fact, my effort to read and synthesize everything out there on character has not only created more confusion and anxiety about what it is I am actually trying to argue in this chapter – it has also led to the creation of some overly complex conceptual frameworks. For instance, one idea I had for the structure of the chapter was that I would apply different “models” of characterization – like a moral exemplar model of understanding character, or a typological model – to the chapter materials and delineate how these models “failed” to fully capture what was happening with character in the context of preparedness. This would then allow me to elucidate what I’m informally calling “the zombie model of characterization” using the CDC materials – a model of characterization that depends on the form of identification but without its content.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that, once again, I am dealing with more than kind of media in this chapter: I am dealing with speeches, online games, and graphic novels. I read everything I could find about character in film studies (close cousin to games and graphic novels), game studies, and comic studies, and I boned up on some foundational film theory about identification, and some newer stuff on identification in games and comics.

This approach didn’t work for a variety of reasons, but one of them was that I was just trying to do too much. I was setting up these models of characterization and citing everything I could think of, and in so doing, I kept getting sidetracked by things like the issue of personhood; and how literary criticism at various points has insisted on reading characters as people, or not, and what that means; and what the transcendental subject is and how it relates to psychoanalytic theories of identification in film studies; and what a hero is, and whether or not a hero is an archetype or a character, and whether or not an archetype is a character; and how identification works in comics; and how the moral and literary/fictional understandings of character are intimately intertwined; and the etymology of character; etc etc etc. I kept losing the thread.

Finally, my partner released me from this misery by saying, “Forget about everyone else. Let the materials you are writing about do your theorizing for you. You are not trying to apply someone else’s theory or history of character to your materials; you are showing how preparedness has its own theory of character.” This, of course, is absolutely right.

Realizing this took a load off of my shoulders. I wasn’t responsible for knowing and regurgitating everything ever written about character. Instead, I was responsible for articulating what preparedness materials say about character. The main argument of the chapter became clearer, and it was simpler: 1) Demonstrate that we need to think about “the resilient character,” not just “the resilient subject” (a persistent figure in critiques of preparedness by security studies scholars) because this reveals a different story about preparedness and resilience: the story is not only – or even not primarily – ideological; it’s also about identification with explicitly fictional “heroic” characters; and 2) But this “identification” (and I’m not yet convinced I want to call it that) is bizarrely empty of content: it is not about identifying with particular qualities or features of the hero, but rather simply reproducing the form of the hero without end (hence “the zombie model of characterization”).

I’m still working on it, and I’ve not yet figured it all out, but I am getting closer. I have the sense this is the way to move forward with this chapter. And yet. The more I write, the more I realize that one of the more difficult parts of it for me is the grief I feel for my wrong, or bad, or just unusable or infeasible ideas. Writing things down necessarily means not writing so much more. It means shedding all of the words I could write, all of the ideas I could tackle – shaking them off. I struggle sometimes to feel like I am equal to the task of writing this book.

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