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Lebowitz, "Creating Characters in a Story-Telling Universe" (abstract)

  • Michael Lebowitz. "Creating Characters in a Story-Telling Universe." Poetics 13 (1984): 171-94.

UNIVERSE was a story-telling program under development at Columbia University in the mid-eighties. This paper describes the first stage of development, the creation of a group of characters that will serve for the second stage of development, the story-telling itself. The model here is the TV soap opera, in which a large number of characters play out multiple, simultaneous, overlapping stories in perpetuity. This first stage of UNIVERSE deals with characters as information in tabular form: numerical ratings, yes/no answers, fill-in-the-blank connections to other characters. In explaining how he and his colleagues decided what types of information to include in the tables, Lebowitz refers to a wide range of research on the cognitive processing of narrative. (His citations would probably be useful to anybody interested in this topic.) The basic method is to start with a stereotype and then to embroider upon it by adding personal history and interpersonal relationships. Lebowitz notes that interesting results can be obtained by combining two or more stereotypes. The program can perform some fairly simple manipulations of the data. For example, when the programmers want something to happen in a story, they can search the database for an extant character who serves their purposes, or they can order up a new character based on a few essential qualities. They can also run algorithms that imbed old stories in the character tables and call attention to gaps in personal history.

What's striking about UNIVERSE is how little work the computer is doing, and how much human judgment is required. This program must be a primitive ancestor of the novel- and screen-writing software on the market today; the newer stuff is surely more elaborate, but one wonders whether it's really any better at relieving the burden of creativity. (Steve Schroer.)

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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: http://umn.edu/home/mh/ebibss2.html

Comments to: mh@umn.edu

Created 21 May 1995

Last revised 17 September 1996