In drama, every character has two roles in the drama itself, outside of the dramatic role in and of itself: these roles are “actor” and “object.” There’s a lot of term confusion, because in drama an actor is one who plays a role, and in context here it’s the same term but a different interpretation. Let’s see if I can make it easier by shifting genres; I might even come up with new terms as I go.
(New terms are now “Octo-monkey” and “mrfblizer.” No, no, I don’t like those terms after all. I’ll try again.)
Grammar time! (Can’t touch this.)
Let’s look at a sentence. A sentence has three basic pieces; a subject, a predicate, and (potentially) an object. With “Sam stalks Sharon,” you have “Sam” as the subject – the doer; and “stalks” as the predicate, the verb; Sharon is the object, what is being stalked. There are lots of different forms, of course; you could say “Sharon is stalked by Sam,” a direct inversion, which highlights why the grammatical terms fail; the one who is active in this inversion is Sam, the object of the sentence, not Sharon, who is the subject.
It’s about who’s active in the sentence, which leads back to the original term, of “actor.” One who acts. The object is one who is acted upon, the passive participant in the sentence.
The key here is that great drama has each character presented as both actor and object. A hero whom nothing affects has little drama; he’s just there to provide context for explosions, gunfire, etc, but there’s no drama there. Superman is traditionally like this; he’s dull because nothing can affect him, really. Kryptonite would have to be rather common to introduce any real drama for Superman, and as a result, it was far too common because the writers realized that they’d rather pepper the earth with this material (enough to have annihilated civilization through reentry) than deal with a cardboard superhero who bored people to tears. (They failed.)
A character who affects nothing is dull, too. That’s the princess always in need of rescue. She has no skills, nothing to contribute except to serve as what the hero has to rescue in order to be, well, a hero. Princesses are always beautiful because otherwise… why would you bother? (“Let’s go save the troll…” doesn’t roll off the tongue.) It’s dull reading, a dull concept, and a horribly negative stereotype, at that. Objects are cannon fodder for the script. They typically don’t even get names except as reference points for the actors in the drama.
Ideally, you have characters as both actors and objects. A hero who loses, gets wounded, has fears – this is a hero someone can identify with, because we all lose, we all fear, we all get injured, we all have doubts. And the hero can win, too, he has the power (implied, or explicitly) to change the circumstances around him.
By being someone who can be affected, he is presented as an object. By being someone who can affect other things, he is presented as an actor. Without both components, he’s a horribly boring cartoon.
This is a slight modification of a concept presented by Martin Buber, in his book “Ich und Du.” Translated as “I and Thou,” the book presents an Actor/Object concept in terms of relationships rather than, well, the results of relationships.
To Buber, there are two kinds of relationships: I-It and I-Thou.
An I-It relationship is one in which observation is passive; there’s no investment. It’s experienced, only. The use of the term “relationship” is misleading and overloaded; it’d probably be better classified as passive observation.
An I-Thou relationship is exactly that: a relationship. I affect you, and you affect me, in an I-Thou relationship. I address you somehow (even if it’s a passive address, like thinking you have a nice watch or something.) When you become a Thou, you become real to me and it’s difficult for me to harm you, because the relationship is reciprocal.
A Thou is not easily an enemy.
So my Actor/Object concept ties very strongly to the I-It and I-Thou concepts. (I was unaware of Buber’s book when I thought through it.) The difference is that the Actor/Object concept focuses on each role, whereas I-It and I-Thou focus on the relationships between characters.
The things I want to watch are both Actor and Object, affecting others and affected by others. It’s someone who forms I-Thou relationships with others.
But… didn’t I say that a Thou is not easily an enemy? I did. In drama, though, it’s necessarily quite common, just as it occurs in real life despite our best efforts.
The things I can’t stand to watch are pure Objects – people who exist as cannon fodder. Princesses in need of rescue. I’d far rather experience the clichéd action girl.
This has applications far beyond drama; whatever you do, if you try to think of what manages relationships to become I-It or I-Thou (as needed) you can exert an incredible amount of control over the perceptions of your audience.