Composite character

Composite character

A composite character is a character composed of two or more individuals, appearing in a fictional or non-fictional work. Two fictional characters are often combined into one upon adaptation of a work from one medium to another, as in the film adaptation of a novel. A composite character may be modeled on real historical or biographical figures in either type of work.

Sometimes composite characters are created in journalistic works, but such use raises ethical questions.


Fictional examples

  • Major Frank Burns as portrayed in the 1970 film M*A*S*H, is a composite of Captain Frank Burns and a Major Hobson in the original novel. The composite character was carried over into the TV series.

Non-fictional examples

  • The character Bobby Ciaro in the biographical film Hoffa[1]
  • Several characters in the movie 21.[2])
  • The character Henry Hurt in the docudrama Apollo 13 is portrayed as a NASA public relations employee assigned to the wife of astronaut Jim Lovell, and who also is seen answering reporters' questions. This character is a composite of the NASA protocol officer Bob McMurrey assigned to act as a buffer between the Lovell family and the press, and several Office of Public Affairs employees whose job was to actually work with the press.[3]

Use in journalism

While creating composite characters for a fictional work is a useful tool, doing so in journalism is considered to be like any other passing off of fiction as fact and is, in general, considered to be unethical.[4] Nonetheless, writers have been known to employ this type of creative non-fiction. In 1944, The New Yorker ran a series of pieces by Joseph Mitchell on New York's Fulton Fish Market that were presented as journalism. Only when the story was published four years later as the book, Old Mr. Flood did Mitchell write, "Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past."[5] Mitchell assigned his character his own birthday and his own love for the Bible, Mark Twain and columnist Heywood Broun.[6] Similarly, John Hersey is said to have created a composite character in a Life magazine story as did Alastair Reid for The New Yorker.[7] More recently, Vivian Gornick admitted in 2003 to having used composite characters in some of her articles for the Village Voice.[8]

It remains a somewhat open question to what degree journalistic standards of newspaper reporting apply when one is writing for a magazine.[7] In his introduction to Mr. Flood, Mitchell wrote, "I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts."[7]

War and propaganda

Composite character may a real or fictional person to effectively immortalize this person. One legendary example is the case of Spartacus, a commander during the Third Servile War, where all captured slaves admitted to be him. A modern example is the sniper Juba of the Islamic Army in Iraq during the Iraqi Insurgency who claims to have killed 143 US soldiers. With the arrest of two men claiming to be Juba and the high kill rate, Juba is considered[by whom?] to be a fictional person composed of several snipers.

Notes and sources

  1. ^ Canby, Vincent. "Hoffa (1992)". New York Times Online. Retrieved 2009-02-21. 
  2. ^ Bennett, Drake (April 6, 2008). "House of Cards". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-02-21. 
  3. ^ Kluger, Jeffrey; Jim Lovell (July 1995). Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (First Pocket Books printing ed.). New York: Pocket Books. pp. 118, 209–210, 387. ISBN 0-671-53464-5. 
  4. ^ Mindy McAdams, " Against dishonesty in journalism: Creating composite characters"
  5. ^ Jack Schafer, "The Fabulous Fabulists: Mencken, Liebling, and Mitchell made stuff up, too. Why do we excuse them?", Slate, June 12, 2003
  6. ^ Christopher Carduff, "Fish-eating, whiskey, death & rebirth", The New Criterion November, 1992
  7. ^ a b c Meghan O'Rourke, "Literary Licence: Defending Joseph Mitchell's Composite Characters", Slate, July 29, 2003
  8. ^ "Unethical writers love the power of creative non-fiction", WTPO News, January 13, 2006

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