"Iconic" versus "Realistic" characters

Fiberglass Cyborg

Well-Known Member
Jul 13, 2021
Something I found myself saying in a discussion about "cardboard cut-out" characters on a Facebook group:

"Scott McCloud made an interesting point about character design in comics. He positioned many different designs in a triangular space, where one point was "Realistic", one point was "Iconic" and one point was "Stylised." OK, that was for visual designs, but I think at least 2 of those dimensions apply easily to written fiction. So many much-loved characters have all the emotional depth of cottage cheese. It's not that they're "bad" characters, more that they're written as bold, simplified "iconic" characters."

Thought it might be interesting to discuss here. The diagram can be found in his book "Understanding Comics." To expand on it, McCloud's "Iconic" characters have striking, highly simplified designs that are easily idenitifiable. McCoud says the simplicity isn't just good branding, the lack of specific details also invite the reader to project themself into the character's place. A good example of that is good ol' Charlie Brown.

"Realistic" speaks for itself. Highly detailed linework and shading, inclining as much as possible to photorealism, aiming to give a serious and grounded effect. "Stylised" characters take things in the direct of abstracion, with the artist producing highly distinctive shapes that may not be particularly true to life. Most characters can be placed at a particular point within this triangular diagram, having each of these traits to a varying degree. Any thoughts about how this applies to writing?
I think everything depends on the story you're telling. Is your focus the individual(s) involved and their struggles/growth or is it bigger issues like conflict/war/etc. Are you using humor; is there an element of surrealism (dream-scapes/hallucinations) involved? Each story type gravitates towards a different style, such as real/iconic/stylized.

You can also do things visually that you can't really translate into writing. Or at least it's a lot harder (ie. dramatic posing). I also like it when artists and authors mix and match - juxtaposition can create a lot of interesting storytelling opportunities.
I'm not sure a paradigm framing a visual medium's character design applies to written characters. It would take more effort to describe an icon in enough detail to be distinguishable as such than it takes to describe a realistic one.
I think it is the flaws in characters that make them interesting and easy to identify with. I have a loathing of the one dimensional characters that populate shows like Star Trek. It's OK with incidental characters but your MC 's have to be complex or outcomes will be too predictable. The whole Arnie or Captain Kirk thing lacks humanity
A while back I put out a feeler draft for part one of my YA 'Rykoff'. One criticism was that Commander Rykoff was always able to resolve problems, He was rock solid and it was too easy. Life is not that good to anyone. I thought hard about the criticism and in later situations he F's up sometimes and I have to write more imaginatively to work our way out of things. People die and people are let down.

There is a line in the Anthony Hopkins movie about the kinder transport he is told something something like "You can't save them all, don't blame yourself." and, yeah, that is how it goes for three dimensional heroes.
A while back I put out a feeler draft for part one of my YA 'Rykoff'. One criticism was that Commander Rykoff was always able to resolve problems, He was rock solid and it was too easy. Life is not that good to anyone. I thought hard about the criticism and in later situations he F's up sometimes and I have to write more imaginatively to work our way out of things. People die and people are let down.
Is that a character design problem or a plot problem? The two are reflections of each other, but it sounds like the criticism was that there weren't any real stakes since nothing rose to a level of real difficulty for the protagonist. A story about a dragonslayer isn't interesting if dragons are easy to slay.
I was looking at pages from Damon Knight's book on writing short stories and he talked about ways of making a character stand out(i.e. have another character in the story describe how the main character appears to them as a way for you to see how the character is regarded).

In my opinion--I think characterization depends on what type of story you are telling and what style seems right to you.
I can think of cases where a main character has almost no details or outstanding features, both physically and personality-wise.

Robert E Howard said than when he did Conan stories--he felt as if he was standing over his shoulder and then one say he just walked away.

I took a course on ancient Greek epic poetry once and the instructor mentioned that in the Iliad, there is only one character in the whole work who is described in great physical detail-- Thersites. A very minor character. And yet if you read the work, you cannot help but think how developed and rounded many of the characters are--and it is entirely through the dialogue and specific action.

On the subject of character flaws--this is a bit of a digression but I don't want to make a new thread on it. I have been thinking of this lately--you often hear that a main character without flaws, is boring.
Maybe, maybe not.
I do not see any character flaws in Errol Flynn's Robin Hood--he seems to be an optimistic, gregarious fellow--the only thing that you may call a flaw is that he dislikes the Normans--but then he has one as a girlfriend. But even there--he never says "I was so wrong about how I felt etc."
I don't see any flaws presented. Even when he is fighting he never shows any frailties.

I don't know--is Zorro a character with flaws?
I don't see it--he pretends to be a "fop," but is is that flaw? It's a trick. A comedic flourish.
Sherlock Holmes is eccentric--and he has the albino monkey on his back--but is it really presented as a flaw? How often does it factor into the stories?

I think it entirely depends on the artist and the story they are telling.
Same thing with villains.

Sometimes you hear it said--a good hero needs a bad villain to encounter.
But even that is subjective--sometimes you can have a villain who believes they are a good person when they do bad things--other times a villain who is "bad and loving it" is also compelling.

I have never seen it said before that Captain Kirk lacks humanity. I am sure Gene Roddenberry's dust would be shifting orbital trajectory in the atmosphere if it heard that.

Plus, if you spend a lot of time with a person, their behavior may be predictable. That's the nature of familiarity.
For a single work ok--but for a series--I think there's something to be said for expecting a character to behave a certain way.

If Sherlock Holmes doesn't display a know-it-all attitude, then you are missing something because you expect him to say "elementary my Dear Watson."
I think there's something to be said for expecting a character to behave a certain way.
A friend of mine only likes to read about characters like this. In each story they are predictably themselves, and don't undergo any real growth or change. James Bond and Modesty Blaise are good examples. They largely do nothing for me, because characters changing is what interests me. (I like the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Holmes as a character isn't the most interesting thing about them for me.)
Another thing in the Damon Knight character development method was that you imagine the character doing normal things--daily routine things--and how that shows the character away from a plot situation.
I.e. Sherlock Holmes in his study, playing the violin would be an example.
I would say the mystery situation in a SH story is the most compelling aspect, probably.
The reader wants to learn what the mystery is. Sherlock Holmes is a guide for that. If he was less sure of himself--if he was more uncertain--less of an authority--would the serial mystery work?
What if a SH ended with him giving his explanation and then Watson or someone else says: "no no that's all wrong--this is really what happened."
I haven't read any Poirot or Miss Marple to compare--but the same could be asked--how much of an all-knowing authority figure are they?
Maybe there's something to the mystery genre that just lends itself to a certain kind of character?

The Murders in the Rue Morgue--the unemployed amateur detective character in that is also eccentric and he becomes a voice of authority.

And then--how intellectual can an adventure character be if the story is more action than calculation?

But perhaps I digress too much.
How many of us in real life have anything approaching an interesting backstory? Generally speaking, they tend to have interesting and/or eventful pasts, whereas most 'real' people have humdrum lives. It's the very backstory that attempts to make them believable and relatable that usually has the opposite effect.

It's great to read two dimensional characters, and it's great to read more rounded; both can work if inserted into the right story.

There are very few 'well rounded' characters that I feel that I could identify with or consider to be believable because of their backstory; Arthur Dent is one. Generally speaking, the less we know about characters, the believable and realistic they become.
Kirk is not a literary character. Isn't this a writing discussion?
Are we talking about characters that change versus characters that don't? Most detectives only change slowly, after multiple volumes, because the emphasis is on "another case for X the detective". Then there are "iconic" figures like Mad Max and The Man With No Name, who are often weakened by having all their mystery explained away (see Boba Fett). Robin Hood and The Man With No Name are barely characters at all: they're figures who dress and act in a certain identifying way.

The problem to me comes from a false equivalence of "rounded character" and "weakling". Pike Bishop from The Wild Bunch is a rounded character, who has regrets, doubts and even a sort of morality, but is also a ruthless killer. The fact that Deckard in Blade Runner is outclassed by Roy Batty doesn't make him "weak" - that's like saying that a man who can't beat up a tiger with his fists is feeble. I think some of the strongest characters start from an archetype and flesh it out somewhat, like Philip Marlowe. However, this has to be done carefully (also see Boba Fett).
How does the portrayal of characters, by actors, apply to a discussion of writing literary characters?

There is no such thing as a written "iconic" character. It's an ill-fitting concept taken from a different media.

I wish we could have writing discussions that about writing, based on writing concepts and use written examples. The fact that a TV show has a script does not mean that what you see on the screen is the same as a story in a book. The connection between the two is tenuous at best.
I think I'd refine this theory to the following chart for characters in a story*



There's two levels of realism described going on.

There's the level of detail with which something is shown.

And there's the degree to which that detail corresponds with reality.

For example... oh, I don't know, pick Song of Ice and Fire, Wheel of Time, and Dresden Files. All three series have a seriously high level of detail regarding their characters - how they look, their histories, their motivations, their likes and dislikes.

By and large, SoIaF seeks a fairly high level of perceived mimesis for a fantasy book. Highly arrogant noble lords, limited social mobility, hideous scars. Dresden Files... well its main character is a 7 foot tall wizard who dresses like he's in a western and walks around Chicago with a wizard's staff and has the morals of a boy scout. It's fairly idealised. Wheel of Time is between the two of them.

There is no particular superior method for characters in general, but there is for particular story types.

If you want to write a lean plot-based story - action-adventure, mystery, whatever - then your characters pretty much have to be broad strokes. You don't really have the word count to go into great depth with them and even if you do, you risk slowing your story down. You might also find the audience of a lean plot-based story don't really want a great deal of surprise about who their protagonists are too.

At which point, you need to learn how to make broad stroke characters work.

If you're writing some great sprawling soap opera - epic fantasy, space opera, and so on - you need more from your characters.

If you're writing character orientated, well, that one is kind of obvious.

If you want a high fantasy, wish fulfilment, age of wonders type thing... then your characters will need to be fairly idealised. Low fantasy in a very faithful historic setting, then maybe there's a limit to how many seven foot tall demigods with bright green hair and no flaws.

I think that's where this sort of theory comes in. Helping an author understand what type of story they're writing. You don't necessarily have to stick religiously with one type of story, or one type of character, but understanding what is going to happen when you go freestyle is necessary.

*I said story rather than book because you're not winning this one, @Swank. The anglosphere understanding of literature is so heavily tied up with theatre (or TV or movies) that it is both very natural to use examples of one in the other, it's also something that can be done fairly freely because they share most of the same principles. Throw in the fact that we're trying to use the most recognisable examples for these - which are obviously frequently screen media - and of course people are going to use screen characters.
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