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Once a Mob, Twice a Group, Now a Person: the Background as One Character


(Now I finally understand the reason as to why I save animu on my hard disk since recently: It enables me to grab interesting high-quality screenshots without redownloading the episode! Woohoo!)

For those who are wondering as to my choice of title, this will be an editorial/essay, and as such, it will have an interesting title that sounds like it might mean something important, when in reality it’s merely a title that sounds like it might mean something important, that is not actually interesting at all.

Look, I even add a colon so that it’s twice as long!

I was recently talking about how a collective group of people (whether it’s just a trio of nameless gangsters, an entire student body, all of those nameless businessmen in the background, or even humanity as a whole) could behave like just one character – a collective character, if you will.

I’ll go through three (which is basically /the/ magic number nowadays) different thought processes in this post: looking at what a ‘character’ truly is, connecting single to collective characters, and exploring some examples of collective characters. They will be mixed throughout the post, so there’s a disclaimer that this post probably won’t make sense.

So, what is a character?

A character has things that characterize them – traits. For example, a cat’s traits are that it has whiskers, it is small, and it runs on four legs. A human’s traits are that it has a developed brain, it has four long limbs, and it stands on two of them. Mushyrulez’s traits are that he is lazy, elitist, and tries too hard. Traits can be effectively anything that define a character.

A character can also do things – a cat can run, a human can work, Mushyrulez can sleep. They can perform an action. A character can also have things been done to them – a cat can be fed, a human can be paid, Mushyrulez can be kicked into a well off the coast of Finland. They can be the object of an action.

Thus, a single person can obviously be a character – they obviously have character traits, they can obviously do stuff, and others can obviously do stuff to them.

What about a group of people?

Let’s focus on traits, first.

A mob of angry people’s trait is being angry. A mob of ignorant people’s trait is being ignorant. A group of regular people’s trait is being regular. Thus, a mob of angry people will behave angrily; a mob of ignorant people will behave ignorantly; and a group of regular people will behave regularly.

The main requirement for a collective character is homogeneity – every member of the collective is the same.

If this doesn’t make sense, imagine that you take any member of a group and switched him with any other member of the group. If there’s no difference between the two scenes, then he’s part of the group. What do I mean by no difference? I mean that switching the members around won’t matter – even if the scene did change, the producers won’t have to rewrite any later scenes. In fact, this completely counteracts chaos theory – even such a big move as switching two people doesn’t produce /any/ effect, at all.

Thus, a collective character works in unison. It’s pretty obvious – if you had a hundred clones of yourself, that were all exactly the same, they would behave the same way. For example, in Kagami no Kuni no Harisugawa, a collective character was chasing Mao. The entire mob of people all had exactly the same traits, and switching any character with any other one would not produce any difference. It doesn’t matter which member of the group was at which position, or which member of the group said what. Every member of the group wanted Mao, and that’s what mattered.

However, say some member of the group actually started something with Mao. That person would then not be a member of that group anymore, as if you switched anyone else with him, different things would happen.

Of course, the final thing that I’d like to mention along this line is that not only does a collective character /act/ (perform an action) in unison, they also /react/ (receive an action) in unison. For example, if suddenly somebody fired guns into a crowd, the entire crowd would run away in fear – acting as a collective character. It doesn’t matter that one guy was screaming and another guy wasn’t, or that one guy ran towards the right while another ran towards the left. If you swapped them, there wouldn’t be any difference.

A collective character can receive our emotions – a not-real example would be in a story about humanity, that doesn’t have ‘normal’ characters, but focuses on the collective character of humanity. Perhaps it could show humanity progressing through the ages, until eventually aliens kill the planet or something – at the end, even though there’s no ‘normal’ characters to relate to, we can still feel sad that the collective character of humanity dies.

This homogeneity only applies to the three things I mentioned – traits, performing an action, and receiving an action. If you have a group of three regular people with different coloured hair and gender talking to each other, with another person talking on a phone, those four people still form a group of regular people, since talking on a phone is a regular activity, and since having different coloured hair won’t change the person’s ability to perform and receive the same actions as everybody else.

However, if this is a story in which talking on a phone is a very irregular activity (or a story in which having yellow hair makes you superpowered), or the person talking on the phone is named and is doing something that the other members cannot do, then that person is not part of their group.

For example – in Moshidora (aka Jodruck), Minami is accosted by hordes of club members who wish for her to manage their respective clubs. You’d think that they’re all different, as they seem to have different traits, can perform different actions (the track team can’t cook, but they can run; the cooking club can’t run, but they can cook), and should react differently to actions being performed on them (the choir will run away from an attack, while the karate club will beat their attacker up). However, that’s not true.

Their traits are all the same – they all want Minami’s help, and they’re all part of a school club. Their actions are all the same – they’re all crowding around Minami to request help. Minami could talk to any one of them and they’d probably say the same things. I may seem like I’m just twisting my words around to sound true, but realize that homogeneity applies here – if you switched any club member with any other club member, nothing changes!

However, they start becoming separate clubs when Minami goes to the details – the track team cannot cook, after all, and the cooking club cannot run. Nevertheless, if Minami never offered to help any of them, they would all stay exactly the same.

This editorial isn’t really an anime post, but collective characters generally get used in visual media more (such as manga and anime), as you can see the background characters in them (most collective characters are background characters – in fact, I can’t think of one example where they /aren’t/). Books generally don’t have collective characters, as authors don’t usually waste words to write about background characters. However, real life does have a lot more to say about collective characters…

For example, the recent Canucks riot. As long as you didn’t know anybody personally involved in the riot, you could switch anybody in the riot around with any other person in the riot and nothing would seem to change. In real life, things /will/ actually change, though (chaos and all that), but we can just imagine it doesn’t.

It is also possible for a collective character to split into more collective characters – if a group of people were conflicted about a decision, they would split into two groups of people.

In the 1981 Brixton Riot, there were three different collective characters – the rioters, the mediators, and the police. Each mediator could be switched with any other mediator and it would be the same, but switching a mediator and a rioter would obviously produce differences.

Collective characters really are real-life things, as evidenced by the many theories behind them. To be honest, I got this whole idea from Isaac Asimov’s Psychohistory, but there are many other genuine theories surrounding this. I actually didn’t read any of the articles, as they were too dense :s

On a completely different note, what if a member of a collective character suddenly does something that nobody else does? For example, in an army, somebody suddenly yells “CHARGE!!!”, or somebody else yells “PUT YA GUNS ON!!!”.

One possibility is that that yeller suddenly becomes a character right at that instant, and merges with the group again later on. This isn’t really likely, as why would he become a character just to say one line? Most of the time, a named character yells “PUT YA GUNS ON!!!” instead of a member of a collective character. Sometimes, the person who yells “CHARGE!!!” actually /becomes/ a character /because/ he yelled “CHARGE!!!”. This is exceedingly rare, and I can’t name any examples off the top of my head.

The second, more plausible possibility is that in a collective character with enough members, somebody would /have/ to say that, and that person merely represents the possibility of the group yelling “CHARGE!!!”.

To get what I mean, imagine an army with twenty people. Each person is exactly the same, so the army is a collective character. If each person has a 5% want to yelling “CHARGE!!!”, then you would expect that one person in the army would yell “CHARGE!!!” – when that person yells “CHARGE!!!”, he has a 100% want to yell “CHARGE!!!”, and everybody else has a 0% want. 100% divided by 20 people? 5%. The person yelling “CHARGE!!!” /embodies/ the army’s want to yell “CHARGE!!!”, and is still a part of a collective character.

In Kaminomi, only one person (who was even named – Ryo) started attacking, and he even had a special baton. Yet, he’s still part of that collective character of three people, as he merely embodied the collective character’s want to start attacking.

In case that still doesn’t make sense, just go with the homogeneity thing – if you swapped the person who yelled “CHARGE!!!” for any other person in the army, it would still be the same.

(danbo link)
Hetalia: countries aren’t just collective characters, they’re ACTUALLY INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERS


We treat crowds too lightly – we cast them aside as merely the background, not even a character. We hardly mention them, even in anime blogs that spend paragraphs upon paragraphs talking about a picture of a coffee cup in an old apartment that was mentioned in a flashback cutscene of a commercial inserted by gg. Sure, a main character can be developed, and crowds can’t – they can’t stay together long enough to, they’re too fleeting, ephemeral. Nevertheless, they’re just as interesting and crucial – the background of a painting can say much more than the painting itself.

I think I’ll write more posts like this.

5 responses

  1. Crowds have their good and bads. Crowd mentality on the other hand sometimes though…ugh.

    2011/08/02 at 00:41

  2. What do you mean?

    2011/08/02 at 00:43

  3. seinime

    Like you said, riots. And sometimes bystander mentality.

    2011/08/03 at 00:12

  4. …Sigh, almost immediately after this post was published, riots in London… I hope I didn’t cause that through some weird quirk of fate…

    2011/08/08 at 23:46

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