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Interpretative Character

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The Cheshire Cat, from surreal to spooky to GAH!

"Batman's rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it's certainly no less valid and true to the character's roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy."

People in Real Life are unique, irreplaceable, with their own specific background and personality.

Not so in fiction. Some characters are better known as symbols than as people. Consequently, as long as you keep the basic elements of a character (their essence) you can have infinite variations of the same character. Without those elements, you would have a completely different character rather than a new version.

Any character can undergo some variations Depending on the Writer. But not every character can have major reinterpretations and remain the same character.

For example, take Batman. He has numerous different interpretations. Some are campy, some are realistic but gritty, some are darker, cartoony, etc. But all share the basic elements of a man named Bruce Wayne who dons a bat costume and fights crime. If we saw another character named Batman who stayed at home and argued eloquently on the Internet, we'd have a totally different character, despite the name.

On the other hand, Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean isn't as interpretative. You can't just take any drunk pirate and call him "Jack Sparrow". Anyone who tries to emulate or parody him would need to keep Johnny Depp's mold intact. This character's specific personal appearance, clothes, mannerisms, and manner of speech would need to be kept the same (or exaggerated in case of parody). Disney even admitted that without Johnny Depp, the franchise would be "dead and buried". His characterization may change slightly Depending on the Writer, but there isn't really much room for variation.

Contrast Captain Ersatz, where a variation of an Interpretative Character is introduced as a new character, and Expy, where a new character is designed around the defining tropes of another non-Interpretative Character.

May overlap with Era-Specific Personality. Iconic Characters are the ones most likely to fall into this.

Not to be confused with Alternative Character Interpretation, Character Derailment, Depending on the Writer, or In Name Only.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: The aforementioned titular character. His interpretations range from the cartoony (Batman: The Brave and the Bold) to the farcical (the 1960s series) to the dark and artistic (the 1989 movie) to the gritty (The Dark Knight, DC Extended Universe, The Batman).
    • Bruce Wayne is Rich. He's been a clownish fake Upper-Class Twit and a hardworking Honest Corporate Executive; as long as the Rich bit is in there, nobody seems to care about the details.
    • Classic Batman stories depict Batman as a mask for Bruce Wayne, while modern versions of the character depict him the other way around.
    • On the villainous side, The Joker. He's an enemy of Batman, but is he a common thug, a vandal who fancies himself an artist, a nihilistic anarchist out to prove everyone's as bad as him inside, a depraved Serial Killer who targets Batman's friends or what-have-you? He kills his victims with a smile, but does he use a fatal injection that tightens their face muscles, curable laughing gas, or does he just slit their faces into a Glasgow Grin? Does he want to kill Batman, drive him as crazy as he is, goad Batman into killing him to prove a point, or does he refuse to kill Batman because he's "too much fun"? Most of this would probably be straightened out by a good, hard look at his backstory, but just what is his backstory anyway?
  • The Incredible Hulk: The series is all over this: is the Hulk an aspect of Banner's psyche brought to life? A completely separate individual? A psychological child (emotionally innocent but easily angered)? Really kind of dumb, of at least average intelligence using Hulk Speak as a verbal tic, or using it to deliberately downplay his intelligence? All of these have been used. Adding to the fun is the fact that the Hulk sometimes manifests as a Genius Bruiser with a ponytail, a Barbarian Hero, or a grey-skinned, morally flexible thug, and the same or similar questions play out.
  • Spider-Man:
    • Aunt May's been depicted a few different ways, ranging from a frail old lady with senile tendencies, a strong-willed Mama Bear capable of holding her own in tough situations, and a former hippy, and her exact age depends on the continuity, with some depicting her as an elderly woman in her advanced years, or as young as her early 50s. Whether she's like a grandmother or a mother figure to Peter also depends.
    • The Kingpin's been interpreted three different ways; there's his traditional portrayal as the polite and charismatic monster who speaks with an urbane affectation seen in the comics and other media, the socially awkward, Psychopathic Man Child seen in the Daredevil TV series and the MCU, and the hulking thug with a New York accent and more prominent mafioso vibes seen in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. What remains consistent about him across all media is that he's intelligent, manipulative, wealthy, Wicked Cultured, and just plain wicked, with good publicity and lots of people in high places under his payroll.
    • Norman Osborn: Just how evil is he? Is the Green Goblin a split personality threatening to completely take over the helpless Norman Osborn in a Jekyll & Hyde type fashion, or just a mask he uses to commit crimes? Is Norman Osborn a ruthless, cunning sociopath who cares about no one but himself, or a terribly flawed but well-meaning man suffering from stress and mental health issues who truly does care for his son? Does the Goblin transformation drive him insane, or was he already mad to begin with, and if that's the case, is the Green Goblin simply a reflection of his true self? Does Norman wear a costume and mask and throw pumpkin bombs as the Green Goblin, or does he transform into a hulking, pyrokinetic monster who throws fireballs? And is the Green Goblin a Laughing Mad type villain, or a raging beast?
  • Superman:
    • The titular character is Powerful and The Good Guy™. But how powerful is he? Is he a patriotic character, or does he transcend nationalism? Is he mostly alien, or mostly human?
    • Superboy. He's a young version of Superman, but has been Superman in his youth, a son of Superman, or a clone of Superman. In Young Justice, Superman was very disturbed by his existence, but in the Smallville version, Superman accepted him with open arms even after he became evil.
    • In an interesting parallel to Batman, classic Superman stories depict meek, bumbling reporter Clark Kent as a disguise for the strong, courageous hero Superman, while modern stories depict the kind, humble, down-to-earth farm boy Clark Kent as his true self and Superman as an alias through which he does good.
    • It's generally accepted that there are three phases of Lex Luthor: 1) a world-reviled criminal mastermind and war profiteer; 2) a Mad Scientist; 3) an absurdly rich Corrupt Corporate Executive with a certain level of good publicity. The latter has arguably been the most popular portrayal for the last three or four decades, but as long as you make him smart, bald (even if only in the last five minutes) and Superman's enemy, he's likely to fall into one of those three categories.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
    • The titular characters as a group tend to have different characterizations depending on adaptation and medium; they're vengeful ninja warriors in the original Eastman and Laird comics, goofy, wisecracking, catchphrase-spouting do-gooders in the 1980s cartoon, and an amalgamation of both in most other adaptations. Leonardo and Raphael tend to change the most, with Leonardo written as either a straitlaced, dorky everyman or a calm and stoic fighter who takes his duties as a leader and a ninja very seriously, and Raphael as a Deadpan Snarker with a laid back personality, a hotheaded grump, a Boisterous Bruiser, or a violent, brooding Anti-Hero. Michelangelo and Donatello generally stay the same, Mikey being the outgoing "party dude" and Donatello being the nerdy inventor, though there are still differences between each adaptation; Michelangelo's depiction as a party dude generally depends on what's considered cool and hip at the time. Mikey from the 80s and 2003 cartoons is a surfer dude, and Mikey from the 2012 cartoon and 2014 film generally acts like a millennial. Donatello ranges from being a high-strung, stereotypical geek to being the most mellow and mild-mannered of the four.
    • The Shredder. He's been portrayed as a bumbling cartoon villain, a brutal ninja warlord, an armor-clad alien monster, a man wearing full-blown Powered Armor, and even a set of Animated Armor himself.
  • Wonder Woman: The titular character has had many interpretations, ranging from a patriotic freedom fighter (Golden Age), a very lawful but less assertive hero who defers to her male teammates (Silver Age), a Lady of War on par with Xena, Ambiguously Bi, a Badass Normal super spy, a Straw Feminist, and a calm and mature authority figure (most modern incarnations tend to be a mix of this and Lady of War). It's been pointed out by one writer that one of the reasons Diana has so many interpretations is that every writer and artist has their own idea of the perfect woman.

    Fan Works 
  • Horde Champion:
    • The Horde Champion's only canon traits are hyper-competence and blind loyalty. Anevay keeps both of these traits while expanding on this by introducing her psychological issues and neglect.
    • Sylvanas retains her PTSD and tendency for masks but is generally shown without it more often when around characters she trusts (Anevay and Nathanos).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Godzilla over the years has been portrayed as a villain hell-bent on destroying all of humanity, an Anti-Hero force of nature, and as a heroic Jerk with a Heart of Gold.
  • James Bond. At heart, he's The Charmer super spy in service of the British crown who drops a good Bond One-Liner, beats up bad guys, loves Martini cocktails and has a Walther handgun. Anything else is up for interpretation.
    It also doesn't help that he's been played by so many different actors, each with their own distinct portrayal of him; he's been played as smug, with a roguish charm. Warm, sensitive, and caring (at least towards some of his love interests). Stoic and traumatized from a life filled with loss and bloodshed. Light and campy. And outright callous. It all depends on the era and actor. And while he's certainly an anti-hero, what kind of anti-hero depends, again, on the era and actor.
  • Spider-Man has been interpreted very differently across the three recent film adaptations. While all of them are young working-class stiffs who generally act heroic and are effective and skilled superheroes, their personalities are quite disparate. Tobey Maguire portrays him as meek, serious and a bit of an Extreme Doormat with No Social Skills, with an incredibly strong Guilt Complex that plagues him across his films. Andrew Garfield's take is more of a Deadpan Snarker with a Motor Mouth who starts off as much more of an Anti-Hero who actively mocked his enemies, before developing into a more friendly character. Tom Holland plays up his youth and inexperience, having grown up with a world that already has superheroes unlike the previous iterations, while also portraying him as more of a Science Hero, with this youthful energy often causing more problems that he must then solve which helps him grow into a more experienced hero.
  • Zorro has been variously portrayed as lighthearted, vengeful, political, campy, or romanticized, depending on the filmmaker and era.

    Literature 
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio: The titular character is, at his core, a childish puppet whose nose grows when he lies and who wants to Become a Real Boy. But is his mischievousness out of genuine selfishness, or because he doesn't know any better? Does he have a healthy father-son bond with Geppetto, and if not, are they able to work things out? And does he actually manage to earn his wish? Many adaptations have answered these questions in their own way.
  • Alice in Wonderland: At her core, she is the Only Sane Woman; an everygirl in a Cloud Cuckoo Land. But is she an innocent yet somewhat typical little girl among fuzzies, a mad girl exploring the dark recesses of her own psyche, or an unconventional woman who's actually stumbled into another plane?
  • Le Bossu: Lagardère is a very good swordsman and swears to raise Aurore de Nevers, avenge her assassinated father Philippe and restore her right on her family's titles and wealth. The 1944 and 1959 films make him a noble by birth who doesn't lose composure and barely gets to know Nevers before his death, and they don't bother exploring the Parental Substitute aspect that much, while the 1997 film, On Guard, had Lagardère grow up in the streets among the common folk, become a close friend of Philippe de Nevers before his death and show the most concern for Aurore's upbringing.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has Willy Wonka: At his core, he is a brilliant, reclusive, lively Mad Scientist of candymaking who has highly Skewed Priorities when it comes to the fates of those who enter his world and don't heed his warnings, owing to his unique way of thinking, and a Trickster Mentor seeking a successor. Adaptations and their actors have built on this in a variety of ways: Gene Wilder plays up The Wonka aspect to the hilt, even deliberately scaring the Golden Ticket tour group for fun. Johnny Depp plays him as a Manchild whose years of isolation from the rest of the world result in him having trouble just speaking to, much less interacting with, his visitors in ways they would regard as "normal". In the 2002 audiobook version, Eric Idle plays up the character's boundless energy, which makes him something of a mad optimist even in the darkest moments. In the 2013 stage musical, Douglas Hodge plays him as a Mad Artist / Mad Scientist hybrid with a Sugar-and-Ice Personality: He's usually frosty towards the tour group, focusing on the business at hand rather than getting to know them, and to the bad seeds he shows stealthy contempt and, when they meet potentially deadly fates, truly blithe indifference. Yet he's sensitive to creativity and beauty, capable of showing great kindness and warmth to those who can appreciate and understand his way of thinking.
  • Parodied in the Kim Newman short story "Coastal City", which pokes fun at superhero comic tropes. The Commissioner Gordon is uncomfortably aware that he can vary between being useless, a trusted ally, or a J. Jonah Jameson-esque Inspector Javert depending on which hero he's dealing with at the time. He's also notes that the woman working in his office looks like Sharon Stone and is on the force, but he swears she used to look like Ginger Rogers and just be his secretary.
  • Hannibal Lecter: The titular character is, at his core in the original novels, an eloquent Serial Killer with a tendency to devour his victims. From there, things differ as his actors have all treated their roles as the character with their own quirks — with Brian Cox adding emphasis to his arrogance, Anthony Hopkins highlighting his superficial charm, Gaspard Ulliel portraying him as a Knight Templar Big Brother and Sociopathic Hero, and Mads Mikkelsen approaching him as if he was a supernaturally competent demon in human guise.
  • The Wizard of Oz has thousands of different interpretations for all the characters. They all have their cores; Dorothy wants to get back to normalcy, the Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Man wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion wants courage. There is a Good Witch who wants to help Dorothy and a Wicked Witch who wants to hinder her. The Wizard of Oz is a scary illusionist and big fat liar who wants the veil to stay up. Why (and sometimes how) they do this, however, is up to their current writer's interpretation.
  • Sherlock Holmes:
    • Sherlock Holmes himself. His interpretations on screen range from Basil Rathbone's mildly eccentric English gentleman, Jeremy Brett's bipolar genius, Robert Downey Jr.'s intellectual Badass Bookworm and Benedict Cumberbatch's borderline autistic savant; all of which can be totally justified from the original texts.
    • Dr. Watson. Just respectively you've got Nigel Bruce's bumbling comic relief, Burke/Hardwicke's accomplished surgeon, Jude Law's long-suffering Deadpan Snarker, and Martin Freeman's out-of-his-depth closet adrenaline junkie. Again, any of these could be fairly gleaned from reading the books.
    • Lampshaded in Paul Cornell's short story "The Deer Stalker", in which Holmes and Watson are hunted by a sinister force that's "decontextualizing" people, stripping them down to their essential characteristics and causing everything else about them to constantly fluctuate. Previous victims include Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, Calamity Jane, and Alice.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Doctor themself. At their core, they are an eccentric but heroic immortal figure with a time machine. However, every Doctor will be different from their other incarnations. Tom Baker, who played the Fourth Doctor, often says that the premise is so open to interpretation that no-one has ever "failed" as the Doctor and no-one ever can. It's even lampshaded by the Tenth Doctor in his first full episode:
      Sycorax Leader: Who exactly are you?
      10th Doctor: Well, that's the question.
      Sycorax Leader: I demand to know who you are!
      10th Doctor: (mock-imitation of Sycorax Leader's voice) I DON'T KNOOOW!! (back to regular voice) See, that's the thing. I'm the Doctor, but beyond that, I… I just don't know. I literally do not know who I am. It's all untested. Am I funny? Am I sarcastic? Sexy? (winks at Rose, who looks away, embarrassed but smiling) Right old misery? Life and soul? Right-handed? Left-handed? A gambler? A fighter? A coward? A traitor or a liar? A nervous wreck? I mean, judging by the evidence, I've certainly got a gob.

    Mythology & Religion 
  • The Bible: There's a plethora of ways to interpret Satan, from monstrous to human-like. For Christian creators, the only requisite is that you depict him as ultimately evil and someone who rejects God. It's common to allude to his former angel backstory but not mandatory. Alexandre Cabanel's The Fallen Angel keeps the three aforementioned elements but is liberal in about everything else. For one, it draws a lot from Greek Tragedy, being a Tragic Hero whose Fatal Flaws (ambition and hubris) land him in the worst situation possible, aka being cast from Heaven, so he can only weep in the end. Another artistic liberty, albeit a rather common re-interpretation, is that Lucifer is an attractive Winged Humanoid.
  • In Classical Mythology: Pick any major god, and you'll find them smiting someone for a petty reason in one story and acting benevolent in another. Zeus is the patron of things like justice and Sacred Hospitality, but by modern standards, he's also a serial rapist. Part of the reason that Everybody Loves Zeus is a trope is because he's so often terrible, but was also The Good King as far as his worshipers were concerned.
  • Many figures from Arthurian Legend — even going back to the medieval sources, characters can vary wildly. Much Arthuriana is created to make a political and/or moral point, which means that it will change with the times and authorial viewpoint.

    Video Games 
  • Carmen Sandiego: The titular character is the red-coated nemesis of the ACME Detective Agency and the ringleader of V.I.L.E. Since the early '90s, her Backstory always involves her being a former ACME detective. Within those parameters, pretty much anything can be changed, including how much (if any) goodness is left in her.
  • Many original characters created for the Dragon Ball video games like Mira, Towa, the Supreme Kai of time and Fu have different interpretations in every video game they appear in.
  • Every one of the standard Final Fantasy recurring characters — mascots like Chocobos and Moogles, summoned monsters like Shiva, Ifrit and Bahamut, and monsters like Mandragora and Cactuar get reinterpreted along the aesthetic of every entry they appear in. This does lead to some weird effects, sometimes — Final Fantasy XV contains both a 'serious' interpretation of Ultros (Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV) and a goofy version in line with his usual interpretation (A King's Tale: Final Fantasy XV).
  • Most of the controllable characters in Kentucky Route Zero such as Conway, Shannon, and Lula are left to have their details filled in by dialogue choices.
  • The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise has run for almost three decades as of this writing, and has had tons of revisions, and retools to the series setting, lore, and design sensibilities. In The '90s alone, it had no less than seven different continuities running concurrently, all of them with their own specific incarnations of Sonic and his supporting cast.
  • Super Mario Bros.: Mario. Given the sheer longevity of the series and the amount of creative teams in charge of each game, his personality and traits are subject to change depending on whatever circumstances he finds himself in. Luigi, on the other hand, developed a more solid, definite personality as the series went on.

    Webcomics 
  • Jenny Everywhere, a character who was made for the sole purpose of being inserted into any continuity through any interpretation.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • G.I. Joe, being by the same company as Transformers and often sharing its creative staff, handle characters the same way. Some characters have nothing in common beside sharing a name for the sake of trademark retention (so Rampage, the rough vehicle driver from G.I. Joe A Real American Hero has nothing to do with Rampage, the unhinged arm dealer from G.I. Joe Extreme), some characters had more or less consistent portrayals among the various continuities (every incarnation of Destro is a mask-wearing Scottish arm dealer, every incarnation of Roadblock is a Scary Black Man) and others are in-between, having the basic of their design and role nailed down but wildly different backgrounds and portrayals.
    The biggest example of the later is Cobra Commander. Over the years, Cobra Commander has been portrayed as a used car salesman who went insane after losing everything, a shrill goofball eventually revealed to be a spy sent by an ancient underground civilization, a ruthless cyborg warlord, a bloodthirsty maniac playing dumb, and more.
  • Out of all the Looney Tunes characters, Daffy Duck falls into this the most because his personality depended heavily on the director of the short and the decade of the classic era, ranging from an utterly insane screwball to a greedy, selfish and unlucky narcissist to something in-between.
  • Mickey Mouse. Seeing as how there isn't really a "definitive" story for him, like Disney's fairy tale characters, he's very much this. Throughout his history, he's been portrayed as a troublemaker in the early days, a Vanilla Protagonist Nice Guy, a badass Big Good, and even a Corrupt Corporate Executive in parodies.
  • My Little Pony is a big example. The characters are all, in the end, defined only by name, color scheme and markings. If the character has an identical name and similar design to a character from earlier media, they're considered to be a new version of the same character, even if their personality is completely different and their design has a couple of differences. For instance, Rainbow Dash is a female pony with a blue body, a rainbow mane, and a rainbow design on her hip — G3 Rainbow Dash is an Earth Pony fashionista whose mark is a typical arch-shaped rainbow between two clouds, but My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has her as an athletic Pegasus pony who isn't that interested in fashion, while her mark is a rainbow lightning bolt emerging from one cloud. And other times, they outright reuse a name for a completely different character — for instance, there are several completely unrelated ponies named Cupcake.
  • The Scooby-Doo gang to varying degrees. As the straight men of the group in the original incarnation, Daphne and Fred have been subject to the most revision, with Fred rocketing between reliable leader and blustering goofball and Daphne as danger-prone damsel, quick-witted Action Girl and kooky Cloud Cuckoolander. As more specific characters, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby have experienced far less variation; Velma remained a cheerful, easygoing genius until Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated turned her into a Daria-esque snarker with a sweet spot for Shaggy.
  • Transformers has a habit of defining its characters very loosely, with any characters who share a name and some major traits being considered the same one regardless of any obvious differences beyond those. And then, you have to differentiate between "new version of character X" and "new character with a name we've heard before slapped on it". The Powers That Be aren't too particular about how less prominent names are used, with there being so many characters that it's entirely possible that a writer may create a new character without realizing that their name had already been used somewhere else. Major characters are more consistent, but still not very, as seen with ones such as these:

 
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Alternative Title(s): Phoenix Character, Interpretive Character

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The Shredder

He's been portrayed as a bumbling cartoon villain, a brutal ninja warlord, an armor-clad alien monster, a man wearing full-blown Powered Armor, and even a set of Animated Armor himself.

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