Characterization

Critical Concepts
Character
Characterization
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What follows is a rather dense discussion. I wouldn’t post it if I didn’t believe that the complexity ultimately serves the cause of clarity. However, at least for starters you may profit from a somewhat simpler treatment of these terms.

“Character”: Disentangling some different senses.

The word “character” derives from the Greek verb charassein, meaning to mark with a cut or furrow. It came to be used for writing with a stylus in wet clay (as in cuniform script) or engraving on a stone surface. Hence Greek term charakter for the distinctive mark thus made – a sense still with us in the idea of a “character” as a letter, a repeatable figure recognizable as such. From this comes the idea of “character” as a “stable nature” or “type,” the notion from which a host of others have differentiated.

In ordinary discourse, the term “character” can take on any of a variety of meanings, depending on the context in which it happens to be used. Consider the difference between the expressions “he’s a real character” and “he has real character.” Both point to something remarkable about the person in question. But the kind of thing that has struck the speaker’s attention is different.

  • The second directs our attention to the person’s ethical qualities and declares these to be virtues, i.e., worthy of admiration: the individual so described is steadfast and reliable. In fact, it is derived from still a third sense common in current speech, in which “character” means “one’s ethically relevant traits,” i.e., the collection of a person’s virtues and vices.
  • The first suggests that the person has a very special way of doing things, perhaps even to the point of eccentricity. We can be invited to look upon the person with anything ranging from amused wonder to consternation or suspicion. Depending on the particular facts of the case, “he’s a character” can mean “he’s a funny fellow” or “a simple case” or “a strange bird” or “doubtful sort.” This is the sort of thing that in German would be said “Er ist ein Typ” and which sometimes but not always gets spelled out more explicitly: Er ist ein komischer Typ or ein beknackter Typ or ein merkwürdiger Typ or ein fragwürdiger Typ. French and Spanish, too, prefer type and tipo, respectively, for this commodious sense of “character” in English.

Neither of these senses of the word “character” exactly corresponds to the pair of terms so frequently found in technical talk about works of literature.

There, the phrase “a character” refers in the first instance to a fictional individual within a larger imaginary situation. In theater, to be a character in this sense of the term is to be among the dramatis personae (Latin for “roles in the play”). This is the sense at work in remarks like the following: “What characters has Paul Newman played in the course of his career?” “It’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the characters in novels so immense as Tolstoy’s War and Peace.” “Dickens has given the world a host of memorable characters.”

Typically the characters in a fictional work are endowed with distinctive personalities, and this fact (together with the long-established sense of a thing’s “character” as its “distinctive nature”) has given rise to an additional sense of the term “character” frequent in literary critical talk. In the course of a longish story, we will meet with several characters (identifiable fictional individuals), but what makes each of them identifiable beyond their proper name (“Ivan Stepanovich”) or some descriptive tag (“the older waiter”) is their distinctive way of behaving, “behind” which we postulate (as their enabling condition) some persisting personality, or “character.” We have then an separate sense of the term “character“: an hypothetical “self” or “nature” expressed by a given individual’s actions. This concept of “character” has been imported back into everyday life. (The preference today seems to be to speak of people’s “personality,” though it is still common to speak of a person’s “character traits.”) Both the everyday senses already discussed above (“he’s a real character” and “he has real character”) are further specializations derived from the concept of a person’s “character” as a more or less stable complex of traits — dispositions, attitudes, opinions, values. In discussions of literature, though, this is perhaps the most important sense of the term “character.” If it is true that Dickens has given the world a gallery of memorable characters, what makes them memorable is their endowment with vivid “characters” in this sense of the term.

For some writers, the central subject of interest in fiction is the variety and workings of “character” in this sense. They are deeply curious about why people act the way they do. This leads them to be interested in figuring out the various ways it is possible for people to misunderstand each others’ behavior, either causally (“why would he insult his niece that way?”) or in terms of signification (“was she right to take what he said as an insult?”). Such authors will expect us to be willing to embark on complicated explorations of their characters’ motivation and assumptions. They will also typically spend a lot of energy trying to construct or portray their characters’ (lit-crit sense 1) in ways that endow them with interesting (convincing and insightfully informative) characters (lit-crit sense 2, the central one). In a little while, we’ll explore some choices writers make in approaching the task of characterization.


Not all literary works are concerned with character.

Before getting into some of the issues that raised by these authors’ favorite sorts of fiction, we need to remind ourselves that many authors well worth knowing are little concerned with exploring the complexities of this dimension of life. All fiction may involve characters (lit-crit sense 1), but not all fiction is focused on character (lit-crit sense 2).

Some writers are instead interested in what can be done by playing with plot (contrapuntality, say, or co-incidence that turns out to be rigorously fatalistic or providential) or with the formal aspect of art (frames, stories-within-stories, etc.). Or they may prefer to explore the implications of a metaphysical “possibility” (“what if time, like space, could by labyrinthine, so that there were such a thing as divergent, parallel, and convergent times?” “what would experience be like if one were virtually incapable of abstractions, and were capable of fully concrete perception and memory?”) Or they may be chiefly focused on thinking out what the consequences can be of believing or behaving in certain ways (rather than in, say, the conditions of personality that dispose people to these beliefs or that conduct).

Still others regard the whole notion of character in the se
nse at hand as an illusion fostered by certain cultures (and notably by Western European culture since the last half or so of the 18th Century or, in other theories, since St. Augustine of Hippo [d. 430], or since Plato, or Homer, or, according to yet others, in certain versions of Hindu philosophy). There are thinkers who argue that the notion of “character” as something to be postulated as “behind” behavior as its cause is not merely mythology but pernicious in its effects. The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (d. 1980) criticized the notion of character as a stable essence (determinate nature) behind (and governing) existence (action, conduct, behavior) as one of the chief “mystifications” by which people convince themselves that individuals cannot do otherwise than they do, and must resign themselves to acting out the hidden self with which they have been endowed (by their birth, hence in some versions of the myth by their race).

On this view, the idea of “character” functions to hide the fundamental fact of human ethical freedom, the power to choose to be whatever, ethically, one pleases. (One cannot choose the color of one’s skin, but this is of no ethical significance. One can choose to face facts, to die rather than tell a secret, to quit drinking, to take responsibility for the rules one adopts for governing one’s conduct.) An illusion which denies this fact counsels despair to one who has disgraced himself by a cowardly action (if I ran because I was a coward, there was – and is nothing I can do about it). But it also licenses the anti-Semite and the racist to despise the Other (who, no matter how charitably he appears to behave, is “a dirty Jew” or a “savage nigger”) and to behave inhumanely to that Other (for, if I adopt this perspective, then no matter what I do, I am intrinsically noble in virtue of my indelible status as a “true Frenchman” or “white American”).

Sartre is willing to permit the use of the word “character,” but only on condition that it be assigned a logically quite different meaning and function. It cannot be used to denote a supposed essence (stable and “real”) behind existence (actual conduct, which is, however, merely “appearance” insofar as it is derivative of the “real” productive factor, essential character). It can only serve as a provisional empirical generalization of someone’s behavior. On this view, we can, if we insist, call someone “a coward,” but do so legitimately only on condition that we understand this to mean no more than that up to now he has conducted himself in a cowardly fashion, and that as soon as he chooses to behave in a courageous manner, he ceases tobe a coward.” In this way of speaking, it is not necessary to rule out talk of “motivation” – but only so long as one does not conceive of the “motives behind an action” (even collectively) as “making” the agent “act” as he does. For Sartre, the crucial point is that one can never leave out of account, finally, that it is choice (human freedom) that makes any potentially motivating factor into an actual motive. It is not, he insists, your values that “make you decide” to do this rather than that. It is your chosen allegiance to those values that give them any leverage over your conduct in the first place. Sartre is fed up, in other words, with people who ask to be excused from the consequences of their concrete decisions because their sincere convictions “gave them no alternative.”

Character is nevertheless a central dimension of much literature.

Now it is true that some writers who are fascinated by the dimension of character in fiction also hold the conviction that “character is fate.” But many others are convinced of the opposite. In fact, a particular object of fascination in much literature, especially beginning in the 19th Century, is the possibility of “change in character.” Is it possible that people can, under the pressure of certain experiences, actually end up becoming fundamentally different than they started out as being? Can people “reformulate” their “identity”? These questions are at the heart of one of the great inventions in the genre of the novel, the so-called Bildungsroman, or “novel of education,” as they are in one of the major focuses of psychology in the last hundred years, the theorizing and study of “personality development.” On a smaller scale, they are the staple of “initiation” stories, though they are by no means restricted to this. (The term “initiation story” has come to attach pretty much to stories in which the protagonist is an adolescent. But the possibility and conditions of fundamental change is interesting in connection with people in middle and old age as well.) And though we associate the beginnings of fascination with “personality change” with the broad European cultural movement known as “Romanticism,” we can see interest in something like this much earlier as well. We have only to think of St. Augustine’s Confessions — or, for that matter, the conversion of St. Paul.

Still, curiosity about the possibility and conditions of “change in identity” has been remarkably intense, in fiction and in psychology, during the last century. In talk about literature, this has led to the development of a crude but useful terminological distiction of two sorts of characterization: “static” and “dynamic.” A static character, in this vocabulary, is one that does not undergo important change in the course of the story, remaining essentially the same at the end as he or she was at the beginning. A “dynamic” character, in contrast, is one that does undergo an important change in the course of the story.

Here we have to be a little cautious not to let this literary critical jargon mislead us. First of all, these terms are meant to be purely descriptive, not evaluative. That is, “dynamic” characters are not necessarily better, in narrative art, than “static” ones. The question, from the aesthetic standpoint, is whether a portrayal is what is called for in light of the work as a whole, and whether it is done skillfully or ineptly, interestingly or boringly. (Indeed, even a persistant bore can be portrayed in an interesting — for example, quite comic — fashion.) Even in works intensely interested in the way in which personality can reformulate itself, subordinate characters are likely to be “static,” if for no other reason than that to do otherwise would be to distract the reader from what the story is designed to get us to notice. In this special literary-critical use of the terms, “static” is not, for example, synomymous with “sterile” or “hung-up” or “stultified.” (When an author “develops a character” as “static,” that does not mean, at least not necessarily, that we are faced with a case of “arrested development.”) Similarly, “dynamic” in this usage says nothing about whether a character is what is popularly referred to as a “dynamic personality” — i.e., an individual with a power of impressing others, energizing them to action or compelling their admiration. (Such a person appearing in a fictional work, in fact, might well provide an instance of a “static” character in the

And from the ethical standpoint, as well, it is important not to suppose that “dynamic” characters are superior to “static” ones. Whether any change — in personality or character, just as in society, or medical condit
ion — is good or bad, depends on two distinct kinds of factors: the framework of values within which we assess states of affairs, and what happens to be the initial state of affairs. This means that a change in personality may be for the better — but it just as well may be for the worse. And the same goes for a refusal to change: this may signify an intellectual or moral failure, but it may be just what is called for. After all, if we are confronted with a temptation, the hope is that we can muster the resources of insight and resolve to resist giving into it. If a fictional character does this, he or she is a “static” character, and this “stasis” of character in the face of circumstance is a virtue.

In fact, it is precisely because change in identity can be good or bad, depending on circumstances and on the framework of evaluation, that it is often useful to classify plot in terms of characterization.


Mapping the relations among these different senses of the term.

As we have already noted, the idea of character as a bundle of traits or dispositions has been imported from fiction into everyday life. We also noted that it is from this general idea that there have evolved the more general conceptions of “being a character” (being quirky in some respect), of “having character” (ethically admirable bundles of traits), and of “having a character” (in the more general ethical sense of exhibiting virtues and/or vices). All of these, we said, are logically different from each other – and from the two senses that predominate in discussions of works of literature.

Having said this, however, we have to note that the three everyday senses of the term “character” are often relevant in discussions involving the second (and most central) sense in which the term functions in literary critical discourse.

After all, a major reason storytellers and readers are interested in the workings of character in the sense of “what makes a person tick” is because they have a moral curiosity: Among the traits that typically engage our interest, in fiction, are those of ethical relevance, including those that go to make up a person’s “character” in the general moral sense. And certain standard combinations of these have such a proven power of arousing our laughter, our admiration, or our contempt, that they appear again and again in literature, often because authors are inspired to imitate and adapt successful precedents from their own reading. Hence the phenomenon of stock characters.

Recall again those idioms “he’s a real character” and “he has real character.” Note that in neither of these phrases is “real” opposed to “fictional.” The force of “real” in the first case is rather to declare that the person is “quite definitely striking” in his ways. Its equivalent would be something like “extremely.” That is, the opposite of “being a real character” is either “well, sort of being a character” or “not being especially eccentric in one’s ways or particularly striking in one’s style of conduct.” And the opposite of “having real character” is “having poor character” or “no character.” Nor does this latter mean “lacking identifiable qualities or even necessarily being unpredictable,” since one may be (say) expected to be unreliable in keeping promises or telling the truth.

Thus it is logically possible (though almost always stylistically foolish) to say something like “Falstaff is a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry the Fourth, Part One, who, though he’s quite a character, basically lacks character, being an instance of the stock character known as miles gloriosus.” This would be an overly cute way of saying that Falstaff is one of the fictional personages in that play, portrayed on the conventional model of the braggart soldier, who is charming and funny but, in the end, recognized as ethically unsound.

For the same reason, one can say of a fictional character that he lacks character (is morally weak) or is not properly to be described as “a character” – that the set of traits with which he is endowed by the author do not include anything properly describable as eccentricities).


Return to List of Key Critical Concepts.

Return to home page for: English 251 / English 233 / English 320.


Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome. Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

Contents copyright © 2000 by Lyman A. Baker.

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

This page last updated 30 April 2000.

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