Why We Should Judge Characters As Both People and Creations

I wrote this five months ago on, my non-Winx site about this couple. But I wanted to share it here because I feel like this is missing from our conversations about Winx characters. We focus so much on their actions, personalities, etc. that we forget they’re not real people. The writer(s) created them. They chose those traits and behaviors in order to tell a certain story.

That’s why we can’t judge a character the same way we would a real person. It’s also why character analysis, scene analysis, and symbolism matter.

Take it away, Me From Five Months Ago.

Why We Should Judge Characters As Both People and Creations

Characters don’t always have reasons for their actions. There’s no meaning to the clothes they wear and who they stand next to, so analyzing it is overthinking things. People don’t act a certain way to fit a narrative. They just do.

Symbolism doesn’t matter, either, because people don’t represent themes and ideas. If I wear a blue sweater to work, it’s not because blue hints at my personality or emotional state. I threw it on because it was clean or it was cold outside. Someone superstitious might see a meaning to my choice — maybe I feel blue — but it’s not there intentionally.

Those two paragraphs are what I mean by judging characters as people: focusing on how their actions, traits, and dialogue translate to real life. I call it the WYSIWYG method: what you see is what you get.

What’s wrong with it? To quote Irish author John Banville:

Fictional characters are made of words, not flesh; they do not have free will; they do not exercise volition.

Source: GoodReads
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay.
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Real people make their own choices. Characters can’t. Whatever the writer wants them to do, they do it — especially if they’re animated like Aisha and Nex. Their actions are nothing but drawings, and their dialogue comes from humans talking into studio mics.

That’s why we also need to judge characters as creations — products of our imaginations — to understand them. What are their roles? What do their names suggest about them? How do their actions advance the plot? These are the same questions writers ask while developing their stories.

Judging the characters as creations helps us get into the writer’s mind and understand their intentions and methods. No detail is too minor. Just like on the zany reality show The Masked Singer, you never know what could be a clue.

Color Me Impressed

Think of a character who always wears red. If we judge them by the WYSIWYG method — character as a real person — there’s no meaning to that color. Maybe they like it. Maybe they own a lot of red clothes. Big deal.

But when we judge the character as a creation — a product of someone’s imagination — we remember they didn’t pick that color. The writer did. What does it mean?

Well, red symbolizes passion, determination, and energy. If the character is passionate, determined, and energetic, maybe the writer wanted to emphasize that. Red can also make us feel angry or afraid, so it’s a common color for villains, too. (Read about color psychology. It’s fascinating stuff.)

Kiki's Delivery Service: Kiki's mom fixes her dress
Kiki’s Delivery Service: Kiki’s mom fixes her dress

These details aren’t always buried in the writer’s notes. Sometimes, they’re part of the story. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, one of my favorite anime films, Kiki’s mother gives her the iconic black dress because “witches have worn this color for a very long time”. The 13-year-old doesn’t like it, but she accepts it.

Later, her love interest Tombo points it out to his friends. “You can tell she’s a witch because she always wears a dark dress.” Kiki gets mad and stomps away.

Did she have to wear black? No. Studio Ghibli (or the original author) could have dressed her in any color. But they probably chose black because A) we associate it with witches; and B) it makes her stand out from the Muggles, which is one reason she doesn’t like it.

Born in the Purple

Symbolism doesn’t have to affect the plot to be meaningful. Look at Disney movies. The heroes wear pleasant colors like blue, yellow (or gold), and green, while the villains wear off-putting colors like dark red, black, and purple. (The shade can change the meaning, as we’ll see in a moment.) These distinctions have nothing to do with the stories themselves; they’re there to color-code the characters for the audience.

Well, most of the time. One of my favorite examples of symbolism hidden in plain sight is Rapunzel’s lavender dress. Purple has been the color of royalty for millennia. That’s because it used to be expensive to make purple dye, so only the rich could afford it. Naturally, rulers saw it as a status symbol. Some even threatened to kill commoners who dared to wear it!

If we judge Rapunzel by the WYSIWYG method — as a real person — her dress is just a dress. She never comments on its color, and neither do the other characters. So it doesn’t matter, right?

It does if we judge her as a creation. Near the end of Tangled, she finds out she’s the lost princess celebrated every year by the floating lanterns. Don’t you think Disney may have wanted us to make that connection?

So purple means nothing to Rapunzel as a person, but it’s still important to her character.

Color Uncoordinated

Cure Earth from Healin’ Good Precure

Sometimes symbolism stands out more when it doesn’t fit the character. In the anime Healin’ Good Precure, the 17th season in Toei Animation’s Pretty Cure (Precure) franchise, the Sixth Ranger, Cure Earth, wore purple. A lot of fans, including me, hated it. What the heck does purple have to do with Earth?

What are the colors of our planet? Blue and green. Blue was taken by Cure Fontaine (French for “fountain”), so green made the most sense. Plus, Cure Earth’s element was wind, and the Japanese associate wind with green. It was the perfect choice, but Toei ignored it.

So Precure fans have recolored her to imagine what could have been. Check out one of my favorite edits here.

Staying in Character

This post was inspired by a conversation I had online. The person I talked to said characters sometimes do things for no reason except that it fits their stereotypes. But that’s not a minor reason — it’s an important one.

What if the quiet girl screamed, “I love everybody!” and bounced around and squeezed everyone she met? That’d be weird, right? It wouldn’t fit her personality, so we’d say she acted out of character.

Whose fault would it be? If we judge her as a person, it would be her fault. But when we say “out of character”, we’re saying the writer made her do something she wouldn’t do if she were real. That’s judging her as a creation — a creation gone wrong.

So saying characters sometimes do things only because it fits their stereotypes is acknowledging the writer’s intentions matter. Here, they’re making sure the characters’ personalities feel authentic. You can’t use the WYSIWYG method to explain it because real people don’t fit stereotypes!

The Best of Both Worlds

One of my favorite series on YouTube is Ryan George’s Pitch Meetings. It’s a bunch of sketches where George critiques movies and TV shows as a screenwriter pitching them to an executive. When the executive asks why a character does something stupid or random, the screenwriter just says:

  • “Because.”
  • “I don’t know!”
  • ”Whoopsie!”
  • “So the movie can happen.”
  • “I’m gonna need you to get all the way off my back.”

So…for no reason. That’s what a WYSIWYG story would feel like: forced decisions and a messy plot.

To quote Tom Clancy:

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.

Source: GoodReads

Does this mean characters can’t make mistakes or do immature or irrational things? Of course they can. But here’s the paradox of the WYSIWYG method: if a character is written well, their actions will always feel natural. We’ll understand why they did what they did because of their personality, backstory, or circumstances.

It will also feel like they, not the writer, control the story. This is called agency. The WYSIWYG method picks up on it, and judging the character as a creation explains how and why it feels like they’re making their own decisions.

See? You can have it both ways!

Final Thoughts

Unlike real life, stories are planned. Even if the characters don’t have reasons for their actions, the writer does. Learning to see stories through the writers’ eyes will help us become better writers ourselves.

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Power of Charmix
Power of Charmix
October 6, 2021 4:50 pm

I’m a theatre major in college right now, and one of my classes is play analysis. We talked about something called fictional elements vs. functional elements. In theater, fictional elements are the world of the play, and functional elements are the world of the stage. A theatre example might be having a big ensemble song without your main character. Fictionally, it is telling the audience what other characters think about the situation and mixing up the pacing; functionally, it gives your main actor a break and the other actors something to do.

If we were to apply this idea to Winx, fictional elements would be the world of Magix, and functional elements would be the world of Rainbow and marketing. Fictionally, the Trix come back every season because they hold a grudge against the Winx and are power-hungry and determined. Functionally, it’s for nostalgia and because they’re practically a running gag at this point.

Applying this to what you’re saying, fictional elements are like judging characters as people, and functional elements are judging them as part of a story. Fictionally, Aisha’s fairy outfits are blue and green to represent her powers; functionally, they alternate between blue and green depending on Bloom, Flora, Tecna, and Roxy’s outfits.

So, let’s apply this to Aisha and Nex. (Sorry for the long-winded intro, I just like to make sure I thoroughly explain stuff.) Everyone looks at Nex fictionally, almost as if they (the audience) are a character in-universe. Like, if you went up to Nex and asked him if his paladin uniform was intentional contrasting symbolism to Aisha’s outfits, he’d just be like “…that’s just the uniform of my school. Neat coincidence though.” But when we look at things functionally, we (the audience) know that he was created to be Aisha’s love interest, and so we can speculate about his creators’ intentions.

This isn’t to say that fictional elements aren’t important. You have to balance the two. When you only focus on fictional elements, then you lose a lot of opportunities for depth and tend to get “tunnel vision,” only looking at one scene at a time instead of the bigger picture. But when you only focus functionally, your characters will often do and say things that don’t feel natural. (Prime example: when authors have characters say “as you already know…”) You have to pay attention to both perspectives at the same time and juggle them. It’s the responsibility of creators and critics alike to keep both in mind.

Will N
Will N
Reply to  Tori
October 10, 2021 11:44 pm

I have a few theatre puns here, but you haven’t scene them yet. Alright, I’ll make like Snagglepuss and “exit stage left!

In all seriousness though, I really do like the theatre comparison for how to judge characters. It applies so well to Aisha and Nex, but also Fred and Daphne. Fictionally: Fred and Daph are the responsible team parents of the group…even if Fred’s got his head in the clouds most of the time recently and Daphne is a walking plot device to a degree. Functionally however Fred is meant to be the group’s moral booster while Daphne is meant to be the Audience Analog…and this is why Scooby shows without Fred and Daph are significantly lower (insert joke about Fred and Daphne getting all the ratings here), and why shows with them are higher rated. When it’s just Shaggy and Scooby, there’s no one for the audience to connect with, and without Fred there’s nobody to cheer them up when they get scared. Velma on her own without Fred and Daph can also be grating because sometimes smart people can be too intense for more average people and vice versa. The 80’s tried using Scrappy in this manner but it didn’t work, so Daphne came back as a regular and became her modern self as a Reporter with a black belt and Batwoman purse in 1983 with occassional Fred and Velma in 1984. 2006 Get A Clue did not learn their lesson about why splitting up and not looking for clues didn’t work. Always felt it was weird for Get A Clue to not include Daph as a regular for the WNSD era’s spin off where again she was a walking plot device with a Batwoman purse. Would have fit right in with GAC.

D Ahsia
D Ahsia
October 13, 2021 4:25 am

Color coding is a little weird honestly, can’t think of many persons that will always wear the same color by accident, even in traditional clothing there is always variations using same style. What is more natural is to buy more clothes on your favorite color leaving one with more opirtunity at using the same color more than once per weak.
And talking aboit symbolism, maybe cure earth happens to be herself but with the earth power so her power and wardrove has little in common, can pictyre a convo going like
– you should really put some green clithes on the cure form to match your powers
– Nah, I like purple
– … what if you add some flowers and trees motives then?
– ehmm, thanks no, not my style
– or maybe brown as in earth?
– why is everyone bothering me with my dress? I alredy said that I like purple
– *sight* “”

oh, and friend groups tend to bound regardless of the bad traits of the friends, so by the time one becomes less arrogant is easy to ignore cause the fact of sticking around together the change is not shockingly noticeable, other think is that they can’t view their past to make comparatives on how they were and how they are now so yep, the character arc unlock is for the viewer to make it’s conclusions.

Will N
Will N
Reply to  Tori
October 13, 2021 2:36 pm

So there’s a wind related joke with Cure Earth’s personality…maybe the same as a candy’s name? Sounds like she would get along great with recent years Stella and also “Serena”.