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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."
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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.

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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.

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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 

    Comics 
  • The aforementioned Batman. 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).
  • Superman: He's Powerful and The Good Guy (tm). But how powerful is he? Is he a patriotic character, or does he transcend nationalism? Is he mostly alien, or mostly human?
    • Taken Up to Eleven with 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.
    • Another interpretative aspect is the question of whether the strong, courageous Superman is his true self and the meek, bumbling Clark Kent the facade, or if the humble, down-to-earth Clark Kent is his true self and the larger-than-life, god-like Superman something of a mask through which he does good. In an interesting contrast to Batman, classic stories go with the former, while most modern stories go with the latter.
  • Wonder Woman 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.
  • 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, or does he refuse to kill him because he's "too much fun"? And just what is his origin anyway?
  • 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 bald (even if only in the last five minutes) and Superman's enemy, he's likely to fall into one of those three categories.
  • The Incredible Hulk 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.
  • The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 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, adorkable 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 Kingpin's been interpreted three different ways; there's his traditional portrayal as a polite and charismatic monster who speaks with an urbane affectation, a socially awkward, Psychopathic Man Child in the Daredevil TV series, and a hulking thug with a New York accent and more prominent mafioso vibes 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.
  • 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.

    Films 
  • 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 Casanova super spy who drops a good Bond One-Liner. Anything else is up for interpretation.
    • It doesn't help that some interpret the inconsistent casting of the character as actually being different characters entirely - all sharing the codename "James Bond".
  • Zorro has been variously portrayed as lighthearted, vengeful, political, campy, or romanticized, depending on the filmmaker and era.
  • SpiderMan 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 a strict Thou Shalt Not Kill code and unending honor towards even his enemies. Andrew Garfield's take is more of a snarky loner who starts off as much more of an Anti-Hero, actively mocking and bullying some of his enemies and being willing to let some die. Tom Holland plays up his youth and inexperience, coming across as awkward and a Motor Mouth, even in combat situations, and is far less effective than the other two with his blundering often making things worse (this version is widely considered the closest to the comics).

    Literature 
  • Alice in Wonderland : At her core, she is the Only Sane Man; an Every Girl 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?
  • 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 and a Wicked Witch who approaches Dorothy when she arrives in Munchkinland. The Wizard of Oz is a scary illusionist and big fat liar. The things they do and how they accomplish them vary quite a bit with each interpretation.
  • Sherlock Holmes. His interpretations on screen have ranged 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.
    • For that matter, 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.
  • 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 Trickster 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.

    Live Action TV 
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Doctor themself. At their core they are an eccentric but heroic elderly 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.
    • 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.

    Video Games 
  • The various reincarnations of Link and Zelda in The Legend of Zelda series. Though this has an in-universe justification for the various interpretations.
  • Carmen Sandiego. She's the red-coated nemesis of the ACME Detective Agency and the ringleader of V.I.L.E. Since the early '90s, her Back Story 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.

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

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • 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 Screwy Squirrel 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. Take Rainbow Dash for instance; Rainbow Dash at her core is a female pony with a rainbow colored mane. However, her G3 incarnation is a girly girl fashionista who only cares about clothes. Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic on the opposite is an athletic girl who is well known for her awesome physical feats and couldn't care less about fashion. The reason why My Little Pony characters are such good examples of interpretative characters is because they are all, in the end, defined only by their name, color scheme and hip-symbol (at least in FiM, it's called a cutie mark). That is why a character like Rainbow Dash can have one personality in one version and a completely different personality in another version while these radically different interpretations are still considered variations of the same character.
  • Transformers is the same. 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 smaller names are used (Starscream's never not gonna be The Starscream, but minor characters may never get the same portrayal twice. And there've been so many that the writers may truly be unaware that waaaaaay back in 1987 there was a guy in one issue in one comic by that name.) A couple big names:
  • 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.
  • 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.


Alternative Title(s): Phoenix Character

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