Mythology is born in the personification of nature, in the putting of a face onto raw experience. The sun becomes Apollo. The stars dance in constellations. The rivers are moved by water sprites. Zeus hurls thunderbolts, and Poseidon calls sailors to a watery grave. Mythology is not a stylistic choice. Rather, it is human imagination reduced to its biological denominators, and as such, we cannot help but follow its lead. We personify at every turn. Michael Jordan, God of the Nike Air, Michael Jackson, the Sybaritic Shapeshifter, Bill Gates, Father of Bob. We do the same thing on a personal level; Aunt Maria, the long suffering Saint, Little Georgie, King of the One-Liners, Cousin Steve, the Martini Man.
Such personifications may be as simple as the chubby little Letter O, as complex as King Lear, or yourself, for that matter. From numbers to cars to housepets, there is nothing that we cannot personify. Trust me on this, I'm an expert.
In terms of the uses of characters, we find them used to drive all human ends; narrative, educational, entertainment, commercial, political, judicial. In short, characters take any and all imaginable forms for the purpose of achieving any and all imaginable ends. I hope that's a broad enough definition for you?
Having listened in over the years as my daughter gave voice and purpose to her legion of Barbie dolls, I can say that appearance is only one of many variables in determining how a character will be used. In my view, the quest for higher resolution is a path of seriously diminishing returns. Her Barbies remained part of the tribe, even with missing legs, chopped-off hair, and felt-tipped tattoos. In my view then, the iconic aspects of the character were more important in unlocking her imagination, than any sort of life-like-ness. WHAT IS FAR MORE SIGNIFICANT THAN APPEARANCE IN ENABLING CHARACTER IS THE OPENNESS OF THE CONTROL CHANNEL. So long as my daughter had full freedom to give voice and action to those dolls, there was no problem. But, to be perfectly honest, I have seen her perform this same enabling magic with a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, so who can say? No doubt, she is the progeny of experts.
In my view, characters exist as a sort of symbolic shorthand for that which cannot be expressed in any better way. If a simple description can encompass what a character is about, then why go to the trouble of making a character? How could such a character help but be anything more than "cute"? It has no other purpose, than to be decorative.
One potential problem that I have seen however, is the tendency among hard-focus types, to coerce characters into acting like humans. It is imagination's purpose to lead, I believe, not to follow. Characters are not people. They are inventions, and as such it is just plain silly to expect that all they should do is ape conventional human behavior. The French poet Apollinaire was speaking to a similar point early in this century, when he said that the theater was no more the life it represents, than a wheel was a leg. And the novelist Bruce Sterling recently echoed the same idea when he said that forcing the computer to conform to a life-like model is like judging an aircraft by how well it lays eggs. Personification is a magical sort of tool, and as such it should not be used ineptly or indiscriminately. It is this lack of good judgment I believe that keeps the old anthropomorphic debate going round and round. I mean, it's silly enough that I have to carry a handful of presidents in my pocket. What more do I want `em to do - start talking to me? "Hi, I'm George. I'll be your quarter today." Clearly, not everything that can be personified should be personified. You don't need an expert to tell you that.
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