Joe Lhota and Bill de Blasio (AP Photo/File)

One of the more striking things about Bill de Blasio is that he’s not a “character.” The probable next mayor of New York City isn’t easy to caricature—and I mean that not in a political sense (he’s been easy enough to cast as a Marxist who’ll bring back the grimy, crime-ridden ’70s and cede City Hall to a squeegee-man collective), but in terms of personality. Recent mayors of America’s most theatrical city can usually be held in the imagination with a personal quality or two: Bloomberg, the fussy plutocrat; Giuliani, the pit bull; Dinkins was a beleaguered gentleman; Koch, an irrepressible loudmouth.

Over time and under pressure of a media that will create characters where none exist, de Blasio’s image may change, but right now he doesn’t hit us over the head with a core, ever-so-slightly comical persona. It’s not that he’s bland; it’s more that his prominent qualities—highly intelligent, good listener, cares about those on society’s lower rungs—aren’t grafting onto the usual egghead and bleeding-heart stereotypes. Maybe that’s because his most prominent physical characteristic—his height—militates against casting him as some kind of weak sister. At the same time, though, his non-cartoonishess may be due to him pulling back on that height. “His towering height (he is six foot five) seems to have given way to a compensatingly soft delivery,” Michael Greenberg writes in The New York Review of Books, “as if he has conditioned himself not to intimidate or overwhelm.”

In fact, the real “character” in de Blasio’s candidacy is his family. As Greenberg puts it: “He represents an almost fairy-tale idea of how many New Yorkers wish to see their city: racially harmonious, enlightened, empathetic—a wish that finds assurance, perhaps, in de Blasio’s ever-so-vaguely patrician demeanor.”

De Blasio will go up against his GOP rival, Joe Lhota, in their first of three debates tonight. Lhota, though he comes off as more hard-edged and impatient than de Blasio, isn’t a sharply drawn Noo Yawk type, either. Neither man is nondescript exactly—and they're “descript” enough for the Times today to chart each man’s “Go-To-Gesture” (de Blasio: “Constant Clintonian figure jab”; Lhota: “Arms outstretched for a hug that never comes”) and to advise de Blasio to cut the “didactic delivery” and Lhota to “smile more, mumble less.”

But not being a character has its upsides. These are two smart, accomplished men, and without a cartoon version to get in the way, we might be able to more clearly see their crisp ideological differences. They have strong, almost diametrically opposed ideas on charter schools, stop-and-frisk police tactics, taxes, and visions of the city. Things to look for: Will de Blasio bland-out about real-estate developers, with whom he’s been accused of being too friendly? Will Lhota come off as overwrought and out of touch, trying to pin de Blasio as a socialist, when the city is thirsty to balance its growing economic inequality?

Of course, the real question, in this or any other race, isn’t “Are they characters?” but “Do they have character?” Debates don’t always answer that question.

Leslie Savan discusses the character of Bill de Blasio’s parents.