Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, LITERATURE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 24 November 2017


Summary and Keywords

Character is a property of narrative and discursive textuality, even as it is also a moral and ethical category referring to individual and collective norms of behavior and motive. This double valence has affected the concept since Aristotle and Plato first began the unfinished, centuries-long project of literary theory. On the one hand, stemming from Aristotle, there has been a tradition of formalist conceptions of character, understanding it as a device used by writers to drive narrative momentum and effect transformations within the discourse. The domain of action, and its variously entailed reactions and consequences, was thought to belong to the agents of narrative discourse by rights, while what was generally called their “character” typically concerned the incidental qualifications and explanations of their actions in speech and thought. Once that distinction is made, however, there are smaller and smaller units into which agency can logically be subdivided, and more and more arbitrary and capricious qualities of character used to flesh out an abstract narratological principle. The histories of formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism attest to this labor of specialization and fissiparous subdivision of the bound concepts of agent and character. On the other hand, stemming from Plato, we see a centuries-long interest in the mutually interactive relations between imaginary persons, or fictional selves, and the fashioning of public or social selves in regimes of education and discipline. The question of the role of literary characters in the formation of good citizens, or indeed delinquent ones, is one that refuses to go away, since it has proven impossible to separate fiction from reality in the complex processes of self-fashioning through which every subject must go. One last matter of interest has exerted more theoretical influence over the concept in recent years, and that is the topic of affects: the qualities and intensities of human feelings can be seen to have had a major bearing on the writing and elaboration of fictional beings, and vice versa, at least since the late 19th century.

Keywords: formalism, structuralism, ethics, realism, modernism, form, plot, affects, functions, subjects, selves, figures


Can a literary narrative be imagined without characters, as Aristotle thought? Perhaps, though it is difficult to imagine how this proscription might operate in fact. In the act of elaborating the variable states of affairs that make up any story, it is likely that there would emerge certain figures in whom the potentiality for deliberative action was located. The very fact of stringing together sentences, each turning on a verb (preferably active), predisposes narrative discourse to privilege purposive acts, the kind of thing we think of as anthropomorphisms of grammar and syntax. Narrative is an art of storytelling that depends upon grammatical subjects that act upon supposed volitions, and it is these subjects we call characters.

Or is it? The history of reflection upon one of the most venerable of literary concepts makes any simple definition of it impossible. Moreover, as a concept, character is far from being native to the discipline of literary studies. Psychology, moral philosophy and ethics, sociology, jurisprudence, pedagogy, and historiography all have vested interests in this notion. In addition, of all the core ideas without which literary study could scarcely operate, none is so disseminated throughout public discourse, so “common or garden variety” at the level of daily speech. Character seems to name something absolutely endemic to the literary enterprise, and yet is so diffracted through the universal that teasing out the specificity of its literary functions and purpose must appear a helpless task.

Character in literary theory derives from the ancient Greek ἦθος‎ or ethos (custom, habit of a place or community), yielding as well the derivative ἠθικός‎ or ethikos (showing moral character).1 This originary confounding of character and ethics is also intimately related to the art of rhetorical persuasion (for in Aristotle, an orator must display goodwill and virtue toward the audience, which on that basis determines the value of any speech2), and thence, too, the arts of ancient Greek tragedy and epic poetry (which are full of rhetoric in that sense). If ethics is the art of deciding what does, and what does not, comport with the abiding mores of a population, then character is the art of adapting to them verbally and behaviorally, often through reference to models and types consecrated by tradition.

Literature was always understood to be potentially dangerous to the extent that it presented characters who often failed to conform to the expectations of the prevailing ethos. Plato’s infamous outlawing of poetry from his Republic hinged on an understanding that poems frequently depicted gods and heroes behaving in less that laudatory ways: bickering, brawling, betraying one another, seducing one another’s favorites, and so on.3 The promotion of such behavior, through the suasion of verse and narrative form, entailed a corruption of character that could be propagated irresistibly through the Republic’s biomass. A polis ought to be constituted only of good and worthy citizens—characters, in fact—and such could not be built on the inglorious models proffered by the poets; far better to ban poetry altogether, and develop other institutions and technologies of what the German Enlightenment would call “bildung,” as for instance true religious worship, military discipline, and Socratic philosophy.

This interest in the mutual causal relationships between literary and social characters, between depictions of fictional persons and the real persons who read them, would persist through the neoclassical invigorations of the Renaissance, through the realist invectives against “lady readers” and their passive Bovaryisms, through Nazi denigrations of “degenerate” represented persons and contemporary Soviet lionizations of heroic proletarians, right down to contemporary alarms about the place of first-person shooters in the social diffusion of violence. It seems that, particularly as the ethos of a social formation like capitalism changes, so too expectations about what fictional characters are supposed to do and be, and what we are expected to do and be with them, alter along with it. It is neither possible nor desirable finally to separate literary from other types of character, since the question of who and what we are as living subjects is profoundly and historically implicated in the question of how characters have been fashioned in texts. However, neither is it advisable to proceed as if the attempt to do just that—to separate literary from other modes of characterization—has not engendered an incredibly rich and diverse taxonomy of functions and discourses specific to literary analysis. The formalist initiative, which arguably begins with Aristotle, by bracketing the larger Platonic alarms about ethos, has produced a profusion of conceptual crystallizations.

Functions, Actors, Actants, and Roles

Characters appear to be richly individuated hypothetical persons, entirely sustained by text, but laminated by so much particularity and inferred qualification that they attain to a kind of virtual subjectivity: a near-parity with existing selves. However, the formalist imperative has approached with caution this rush to “subjectify,” and asked that we suspend our tendency to endow these textual creations with personhood in order to attend to their underlying functions within given narrative frames.

In his Poetics, Aristotle focuses on the formal features of the dramatic art of tragedy, distinguishing plot (mythos) from character (ethos), but acknowledging that the central action of the plot must involve agents, and these agents “must necessarily have their distinctive qualities both of character and thought.”4 Character, in these terms, is simply “what makes us ascribe certain qualities to the agents,” and qualities are for Aristotle secondary, epiphenomenal things, since it is “in our actions that we are happy or the reverse.”5 Characters are thus something like reflexive glosses on the actions they perform, opportunities to focus the audience’s attention on the various choices being made. If “the life and soul” of tragedy is the plot, then characters are simply the bodies required to enact it.6 The history of formalism has persevered with this dichotomy, subordinating the qualitative dimension of literary characters to their functionality as agents within a structured sequence of actions.

Vladimir Propp, whose Morphology of the Folktale (1928) had a profound impact on subsequent structuralist literary analysis, based his pioneering findings on the compilation of over four hundred folk tales in Alexandr Afanás’ev’s Naródnye rússkie skázki (Russian Folktales, 1855–1864)—especially the fairy tales. It is critical to acknowledge this restricted basis, because the folktale as such has very little interest (as a rule) in developing the qualitative complexity of its characters: the subjective dimension, the self-consciousness and dense weave of conflicting motivations found in the novel form, is missing here in a rather radical way, in preference for simple plot devices and action sequences. It is thus that Propp can claim that a holistic view of the folktales reveals that the “names of the dramatis personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change” from tale to tale.7 This allows him to train his analytic sights on these limited and invariant functions: “Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale.”8 Viewed from this elevation, the folktales resolve themselves into so many combinatorial variations on an extremely delimited number of such functions. There is generally a donor presenting a magical agent to a questing hero (set in motion by a dispatcher), who with the aid of this agent and a helper is able to defeat a villain seeking to interfere with a princess (and usurp her father’s lands and property), and a late-appearing false hero who wants to cash in on the hero’s illustrious deeds. Strung out among narrative nodes of lack, deceit, villainy, trial, struggle, transformation, departure, and return, these invariant functions supply what Propp thinks of as a fundamental grammar of the fairy tale. The details of who exactly does what to whom are secondary and can be filled in later. Not that Propp wishes to undervalue these elements at the level of reception: “The nomenclature and attributes of characters are variable quantities of the tale. By attributes we mean the totality of all the external qualities of the characters: their age, sex, status, external appearance, and so forth. These attributes provide the tale with its brilliance, charm, and beauty.”9 It is just that they supply nothing essential to the narrative logic of the story. If we think of the functions and their spheres of action as the underlying langue of the récit, the filigree of characterization turns out to be essential to the parole itself, the discourse in which any narrative is actually fulfilled. Here the formalist separation between plot and character comes into greater focus as a modality of the separation between structure and discourse, between abstract patterns of arrangement and interaction, and the capricious weave of language in which such patterns get articulated.

The abstraction of character into so many fixed functions is a well-nigh mathematical undertaking, incapable of interpretation; of course, what we might call quasi-interpretive decisions take place in the allocation of given roles to certain agents, but there can be no particular meaning inherent in the narrative pattern itself, stripped of all particulars. It is among the variable elements, of name, mode of appearance, and dwelling, as well as speech style, gestus, and dress (among innumerable others), that national, provincial, and even local significances are embedded—though even here, as Propp ventures, “certain abstract representations lie” at the core of even the most specific and localized character. Interpretations of fairy tales, he wagers, will tend to discover that the various attributes of characters boil down to stubborn ideal figures, suggesting that “the fairy tale in its morphological bases represents a myth.”10

Folktale character for Propp is thus elaborated in the interstices between impersonal narrative devices, on the one hand, and chthonic mythical paradigms, on the other. And this same braided distinction between the abstract functions and insistent figurations implicit in all primitive characterization informs the work of Propp’s most distinguished heir, the French-Lithuanian theorist Algirdas Julien Greimas. Drawing on one of Propp’s most innovative discoveries—that a character can either be completely coextensive with a sphere of action, be involved in several spheres of action, or form one of several contributions to a single sphere of action11—Greimas goes much further in his atomization of functions. Proposing the concepts of actors, actants, and figures as differential levels of abstraction in the breakdown of character, Greimas redoubles the distinction between plot and character by suggesting that character itself can be similarly bifurcated: he insists on “a distinction between actants, having to do with narrative syntax, and actors, which are recognizable in the particular discourses in which they are manifested.”12 Actors are those molar and synthetic entities whom we cumulatively invest with the various characteristics that distinguish one from another in the discourse of a narrative, while actants are the purely functional syntactical elements that effect change within a narrative structure. This allows for the circumstance that a single actant “can be manifested in discourse by several actors,” as well as the converse, that a single actor can “constitute a syncretism of several actants.”13 For instance, when Darl, Jewel, Cash, Vardaman, and Dewy Dell Bundren “ford a river” in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), they are functioning as a single actant; but when Darl “burns a barn,” “talks to Vardaman,” and later “boards a train for Jackson,” he is an amalgam of several distinct actants.

The relationship between the two levels is rarely a stable or isotopic one; rather, “if the concept of actant is of a syntactic nature, that of actor, at first sight at least, is not. The latter concept is, instead, of a semantic nature. An actor functions as an actant only when it is put into play by either narrative syntax or linguistic syntax.”14 A strong reading of a text is one capable of negotiating the breaks and contradictions between these two simultaneous dimensions, attending to the syntactic level in order to identify the lapses in isometry between name and function, and to the semantic level in order to appreciate the dialectical syntheses achieved by the discourse. Character emerges from such a reading as a remarkable textual achievement whose complexity is not completed even by these two levels. For there emerges a third dimension in Greimas’s account: the figure, what he calls a kind of “nominal lexeme” open to all kinds of manipulation by the syntax, but never exhausted by it. A character is, more than a set of transformations in the narrative structure and an aggregated set of qualities in the discourse, also a kind of “nuclear figure from which certain virtualities develop, certain sememic trajectories that permit its placing in context.” That is, any given tale “is nothing more than a very partial exploitation of the considerable virtualities the lexematic thesaurus makes available to it. As a given instance of discourse unfolds, it leaves on its way a string of rejected figures of the world that nonetheless continue to live out their virtual existence, always ready to be reactivated.”15

The figural dimension of literary character opens onto mythic and cultural levels of signification that cannot be reduced to formal concerns alone; they bring inexhaustible “virtualities” into play that need never be realized in the discourse, but which hover as latent possibilities of theme and motif, here touched upon by the discourse, there actuated by certain actions. This kind of actuation is very simple in the domain of folktale, where figures like fisherman, dairy maid, groom, and so on, exude strong narrative potentialities based on a repertoire of semes associated a priori with what Elizabeth Fowler calls strongly coded “social persons.”16 Things get decidedly more complicated in the domain of the novel, whose central characters do not derive from stock social roles, but are “progressively created by consecutive figurative notations extending throughout the length of the text,” incomplete until the last page and retroactively galvanized by the reader through a feat of memory.17 And yet, even here we might wish to argue for a figural matrix out of which the novelistic actors draw much of their recognizability, and whence the actants derive some of the logic of their acts. Characterological salience is the product of a multidimensional operation, whereby syntactical actants are sutured to discursive actors by means of a deployment of figures deeply embedded in cultural repertoires.

Roland Barthes’ poststructuralist twist to this operation is to collapse the multidimensionality and depth of the Greimassian model into a flatland of equivalent codes. For Barthes, there are in any extended narrative (but particularly the novelistic realism represented by Honoré de Balzac) the multifarious actions performed in what he calls the “proairectic code,” the various characteristic “semes” settling upon the proper names of characters, the “patronymic code” of these names themselves, the peculiar intonations and connotations of their respective speech genres, and, most enigmatic of all, the figure as such, “an illegal, impersonal, anachronistic configuration of symbolic relationships” that we recognize again from Greimas’s notion of figure and Propp’s “certain abstract representations.”18 There is here a horizontal separation between the enactment of minor transformational functions in the proairetic code (for instance, opening doors, mounting horses, drinking wine, etc.) and the traversal of identical semes across the proper names themselves, which is for Barthes all that “character” is. In this, Barthes follows Todorov, who wrote that “the grammatical subject is always without internal properties; these can come only from its momentary conjunction with a predicate,” and insisted that the same was true for narrative character.19 In effect, Barthes sunders the question of action from the business of character itself. “The seme (or the signified of connotation, strictly speaking) is a connotator of persons, places, objects, of which the signified is a character. Character is an adjective, an attribute, a predicate (for example: unnatural, shadowy, star, composite, excessive, impious, etc.).”20 (p. 190) The classical realist text is engineered around an “ideology of the person,” which the proliferation and concentration of semes under the proper name cements in form and function.

As soon as a Name exists (even a pronoun) to flow toward and fasten onto, the semes become predicates, indictors of truth, and the Name becomes a subject: we can say that what is proper to narrative is not action but the character as Proper Name: the semic raw material (corresponding to a certain moment in our history of the narrative) completes what is proper to being, fills the name with adjectives.21 (pp. 190–191)

This stark distinction between character as an ideological filling-in of a Name with predicates, and narrative action that impersonally and meaninglessly goes on “in the background,” is a perfect inversion of Aristotle’s model; for him, character was a consideration secondary to the primacy of action. For Barthes, grappling in earnest with literary modernity, that can no longer be considered the case. The modern may well be defined as the era of a certain narratological eclipse of action by character, as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes most palpably clear as an epochal turning point.

Character, Genre, System

Perhaps it is better, then, not to begin in a state of pure abstraction but to accept that narrative is shaped, not around invariant, universal patterns and functions, but around specific formal requirements, that thereby differ markedly between folktales and novels, ancient Greek and Renaissance English tragedies, dirty jokes and saints’ lives. Character may be more effectively understood not as a more or less arbitrary palimpsest of syntactical functions and discursive qualities, but as a specifically engineered construction designed to achieve particular ideological ends and connote desired values within a more or less consistent set of textual parameters.

One way to begin thinking about this in detail is to accept that those figures of which Greimas and Barthes write are best visible in the terms of what used to be called “myth criticism.” Northrop Frye’s extraordinary tabulation of these figures in his Anatomy of Criticism connected the specifically adapted qualities of certain kinds of agential figures to the generic habitations inside of which they are called upon to move. As Frye wrote,

All lifelike characters, whether in drama or fiction, owe their consistency to the appropriateness of the stock type which belongs to their dramatic function. That stock type is not the character but it is as necessary to the character as a skeleton is to the actor who plays it.22

Now underlying the thick impasto of qualities, semes, and language types are not the mechanical sinews of proairesis or the actantial functions but the skeletal stock-type outlines, plucked from the appropriate genres, on which such elaboration takes place. Every narrative, no matter how modernized, ironic, or antigeneric, must partake of this matrix of types. Each type brings with it a bottomless fund of potentiality, or virtuality, some partial realization of which the text delivers through its discourse.

Frye is not suggesting that character is reducible to type; only that there can be no categorical distinction between them, since one lurks inside the other like Walter Benjamin’s dwarf inside the chess player.23 Propp’s fundamental narrative agents—hero, villain, princess, donor, and so on—appear in this context as a grouping specific to eastern European fairy tales, whose characters spring from a set of generic constraints peculiar to that genre. It is a different character set from that of epic, which is different in turn from that of romance, of tragedy, of satire, and so on; and what matters in each group is the distributed functions, interrelations, and fates set in store for the various types who make it up. It is just that we are no longer necessarily engaged in uncovering the universal conditions for characterization, only particular constellations governed by laws that shift from genre to genre, locality to locality, culture to culture.

The shift toward a more differential model of generic characterization discloses a potentially vast new space for analysis, each genre and subgenre bringing with it a distinctive system of relations and typical actions that can be tabulated and plotted, prior to the far more perplexing task of then making sense of generic cross-fertilizations, multigeneric pastiches, and so on, let alone the supposedly postgeneric textuality of modernity. The wager of this kind of approach is that there is no character in fiction who cannot be shown to be a composite of stock types ultimately derived from genres now ancient or immemorial; and it is a wager that, say, the ruminations of Raymond Chandler on the “knight errant” figure of the hard-boiled detective, or James Joyce’s casting of Leopold Bloom as Odysseus, or the foundling figure in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, would appear to make good.

This line of approach dovetails well with what Mikhail Bakhtin called the dialogism of the modern novel—that distinctive blend of discourses that mediates the social heteroglossia of modern society’s relatively democratic organization. Bakhtin is at great pains to show that dialogism is not to be equated with dramatic dialogue, but inhabits the speech zones of individual characters, where it can be seen that any putative “unity” of voice prevails only weakly and intermittently over a jumble of speech genres appropriated from the circumambient ideological climate.24 Bakhtin calls the resultant effect of character a “sociology of the consciousness” itself,25 since it is generally possible to perceive where this or that genre of discourse emanates from in the text; the “character zone” is more a point of intersection of such genres than a source and origin of the thoughts it holds. Or better still, a character is “essentially the literary incarnation of a field of vision. He [sic] is constituted by a specific purview made up of certain points of view, but is also constituent of others. [Characters are] zones of influence which infiltrate, as it were, other zones.”26 These observations hold equally well for a strong generic view of the problem. Characters are not invented sui generis out of the wishes of a writer; those wishes are already shaped and informed by the objective social conditions of literature itself, very much including contemporary character systems. So the multivoiced condition of modern characters is, in part, a layered effect of the novel’s ability to cannibalize a range of generic procedures into one structural organization. What a character says, how she thinks or reflects, the various semes that gather to her name, all this amounts to a spectroscopic analysis in the medium of language of the various constituent components of her genetic and ideological make-up, the inconsistent residual stock types and what Fernando Ferrara calls the “social personalities” available for representation on the social market itself.27

Character systems are not merely generic, for that matter, but increasingly (with the spread of secularization and the market for fiction) internal to particular novels and novelists. The emergence in the 19th century of distinctive authorial oeuvres—the Dickensian, Balzacian, or Trollopean corpuses, among others—depended in good measure upon the stabilization of characterological systems peculiar to each. These systems can be analyzed according to relations between major and minor characters, the distribution of distinctive qualities across each group, their uneven spatial dispositions, and occasional transpositions or transferences across the great divide between them. Such systems have been comprehensively mapped by Alex Woloch in his milestone study The One vs. the Many, with particular reference to Charles Dickens and Balzac. In either case, Woloch notes a relative expansion of the supporting cast of so-called minor characters, whose swarming pressure on the text’s center of gravity indicates several dynamics simultaneously. First, these rogues and eccentrics serve to set off the distinctive space of the protagonist, with its relative normalcy and conventional moral concerns. Second, their mode of appearance and disappearance in the narrative milieu gestures at a vast and more or less non-navigable story world that the discourse is constrained to leave opaque, in preference for the simplicity of the protagonist’s tale. Third, the resultant narrative assymetry trains readers in habits of distinction and exclusion that are arguably homologous to the isolated, self-interested conditions of survival in a bourgeois social space. And fourth, relatedly, they shoulder the burden of narrative work in these novels, thereby configuring in literary terms the essential division of labor between bourgeois subject and proletarian workforce.28 Woloch’s model is suggestive in a number of ways, showing that characters must never be considered in isolation from one another, but as integral parts of an overall textual system; their salience as figures, their appetency as agents, and their semic complexion and discursive heterogeneity all draw significance from the uneven structure of relations in which they are enmeshed.

Modernity and Depth

But already we are hopelessly entangled in nonformal and extra-literary concerns, namely in the dynamics of history itself and specifically the nature of so-called modernity, with its restless melting of fast-frozen social relations. If folktale and myth, where most of the hard structural analysis was rooted methodologically, are endemic to traditional, patriarchal, feudal, and/or despotic social formations, capitalism puts an end to all such invariant modalities of narrative form, and sets in train a revolutionary series of developments in which character could hardly have remained untouched. What happens in European narrative forms, from Geoffrey Chaucer through Miguel de Cervantes, François Rabelais, Daniel Defoe, and the rest of what Ian Watt canonized as the “rise of the novel,” is an ever-increasing complexification and negation of the rudimentary folk and romance prototypes, a progressive shift away from what Greimas calls “objectivized actorial structures” toward “subjectivized” ones,29 and a growing emphasis on the semic ornamentation of an “ideology of the person” rather than on feudal-heroic models of honorable action. This wholesale reinvention of literary character has been amply attested to and modeled by the critical tradition, and more often than not related to that coeval process, the invention of social subjectivity itself.

Elizabeth Fowler’s treatment of the problem of character in early modern England, from Chaucer to Edmund Spenser, hinges on a conception of social persons—“models of the person, familiar concepts of social being that attain currency through social use”—that extends the repertoire of characterological figures prodigiously by admitting “a crowd of ghosts”30 from the social as well as the purely literary lexicon. A literary character summons such specters from the available catalogue, but not in a straightforward way. Rather, the character is something like a Venn diagram of a number of social persons, some of them quite different and even incompatible. It is this very inconsistency that endows the character with what Fowler calls density: “Social persons are, by definition, simple and thin; positioned among a number of them, a character takes on complexity and weight.”31 The argument is, naturally, that such complexity and density increase with the growth of modernity and the consolidation of capitalism as a logic of social organization. For capitalism proceeds by way of increasing specialization and atomization, an ever-expanding index of narrower social functions and roles; social persons proliferate with the expansion of market relations, and thus provide literary characterization with a more and more extensive repertoire of figures to be blended into some plausible one.

The motley profusion and indiscriminate blending of individuated social imagoes in literary character led to treacherous conditions of legibility for readers, and thus, in a reflexive and metatextual operation, for characters in narratives as well. The 18th-century Anglophone novel tended to privilege questions of character as epistemological enigmas intrinsic to the central story. For instance, Fanny Burney’s eponymous Evelina (1778) struggles with the “character” of Lord Orville’s letters (character here in both senses of personal quality and the nature of his handwriting) in an emblematic quest: “Evelina’s labor in reading the character of the letter writer is continuous with her labor toward self-knowledge,” and thus with the reader’s efforts to navigate the reefs and shoals of character formation in a new age of internalization and privatization.32 The emergence at this juncture of a new stylistic tendency toward la style indirect libre (free indirect style) in narrative discourse—a language caught exquisitely between depiction and reflection, narrator and character, objectivity and subjectivity—has been much debated. Its subtle modulations “from a minutely observed but external plane of description to an interior plane within [a] consciousness”33 represent an economic means of stabilizing a given viewpoint within the narrative as at once exceptional (privileged) and limited (partial), and thus rebalancing the increasingly uncertain relationship between narrator and character. In Michael McKeon’s assessment, this compromise smooths “the abrupt shift of differences into a differential continuum that significantly enhances the effect of an incremental interiorization and privatization,”34 since the privileged viewpoint precisely remains inaudible to other characters in the story.

The private trials of epistemological doubt and hermeneutic anxiety that free indirect discourse makes narratively palpable are of interest to no one but the reader, and open upon a vertiginous “virtual interiority” that subsequent literary labor will only excavate further. Gustave Flaubert wrote to his fellow novelist George Sand, “One should, by an effort of the spirit, transport oneself into the characters, not draw them to oneself.”35 That effort’s technical name was, precisely, style indirect libre, or what Dorrit Cohn calls “narrated monologue.” Cohn observes that “narrated monologues . . . tend to commit the narrator to attitudes of sympathy or irony; [and] because they cast the language of a subjective mind into the grammar of objective narration, they amplify emotional notes,”36 the affective claims of literary characters. But there are other advantages and effects, not least the dawning sense that this very language game is a novel form of philosophic thought in itself: for as prose develops ways and means of negotiating the invisible border between a private characterological perspective and a public narrative voice, so too it is obliged to bring into cognition certain hitherto unsuspected properties of consciousness itself. It could be argued, for instance, that Hegelian philosophy, with its openly sympathetic identification with a privileged character called Geist, is unthinkable without the novelistic modes of discourse that allowed characters to take up the reins of narrative voice within the purview of the narrator.

That leaves the vexing question of the proper name as such, which has known such variegated fortunes in the history of narrative texts. From the allegorical types collected in John Bunyan’s great work (Pliable, Wanton, Mr Worldly Wiseman, and so on) and their echoes in Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (Mssrs Listless and Flosky, and the Reverend Mr Larynx) through the grotesque exaggerations of Dickens’s dramatis personae (Thomas Gradgrind, Noddy Boffin, Uriah Heep, and the rest) to the absurdities of Thomas Pynchon’s nomenclature (Oedipa Maas, Teddy Bloat, and Mike Fallopian), there has been a tradition of resistance to the stolidly named characters of the realist tradition. But even these have their history, and their logic. Names, given that they are the most palpable of the lexical anchoring devices in rationalizing the unitas multiplex of narrative agents, are extremely important to the shifting economy of character itself. As Barthes writes,

To call characters, as Furetière does, Javotte, Nicodème, Belastre is (without keeping completely aloof from a certain half-bourgeois, half-classic code) to emphasize the structural function of the Name, to state its arbitrary nature, to depersonalize it, to accept the currency of the Name as pure convention. To say Sarrasine, Rochefide, Lanty, Zambinella . . . is to maintain that the patronymic substitute is filled with a person (civic, national, social), it is to insist that appellative currency be in gold (and not left to be decided arbitrarily).37

These subtle variations have profound effects in a narrative where the protagonist’s name may be repeated hundreds of times. And they tend to indicate clear historical breaks, between an aristocratic order of distinction and uniqueness, and a bourgeois order of masses and anonymity. Catherine Gallagher writes about the difference between the generation of Defoe who were “making moves in a previous language game that assumed a correspondence between a proper name in a believable narrative and an embodied individual in the world,” and a slightly later generation (Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, etc.), who “articulated a new assumption for a new form: novels are about nobody in particular. That is, the proper names do not take specific individuals as their referents, and hence none of the specific assertions made about them can be verified or falsified.”38 The difference between a Robinson Crusoe and a Tom Jones may not seem that great, but at the time it was momentous, given that it pushed literary characterology away from nuggety peculiarity toward a generic bourgeois typicality. What names such as Pamela and Clarissa underwrote was “a nonreferentiality that could be seen as a greater referentiality. What distinguished the new writers from libelers was the insistence that the human referent of the text was a generalization about and not an extratextual, embodied instance of a ‘species.’”39 This in turn provided for a new degree of mastery over a shifting and transformative social terrain. Characters in such texts are capable of a broad, and not a narrow, identification, and their names serve to remind the reader of their entirely generic consistency.

Terms such as “typical,” “ordinary,” and “generic” have pride of place in the critical literature on protagonicity in the bourgeois novel. And this has again to do with the transition from a feudal to a bourgeois horizon of meaning. In Georg Lukács’s study The Historical Novel, Walter Scott’s pioneering use of “a more or less mediocre, average English gentleman” as the protagonist of his historical romances is singled out for praise: “That he builds his novels round a ‘middling,’ merely correct and never heroic ‘hero’ is the clearest proof of Scott’s exceptional and revolutionary epic gifts,”40 and what is unsurpassed in them is their “portrayal of the decent and attractive as well as narrow-minded features of the English ‘middle class.’”41 Their typicality and averageness allow for a remarkably open play of forces within their represented thoughts; in them, as opposed to the truly heroic, committed historical personages, “the extremes whose struggle fills the novel, whose clash expresses artistically a great crisis in society, [come] into contact with one another.”42 The great figure, meanwhile—the general or charismatic prince—only has a minor role in these fictional dramas, since he is already “finished” and complete as a psychological subject. This inversion—of major historical for minor novelistic character, and vice versa—in the systemic arrangement of Scott’s characterology marks a watershed in the establishment of a bourgeois narrative sensibility. It was crucial for a “nobody in particular” to occupy the central position, and for the various “somebodies” of a fading heroic order to assume subordinate structural roles, because in the new dispensation of professional functions and duties, being a “somebody” was not an available vocation for the middle class.

In this general redistribution of characterological valences and qualities that helped to deepen the constructed interiority of the protagonists (since they were circumscribed from acting in any but the most modest sense, relative to their romance forebears), one principal effect was the so-called roundness of their imaginary physiognomies. In E. M. Forster’s well-known antinomy, it “is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humour and appropriateness,” whereas the flatness of a Dickens or H. G. Wells character is clinched by the singularity of his or her style, and the limitation of their sphere of action: “Flat characters were called ‘humorous’ in the seventeenth century, and are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form, they are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round.”43 This is a simplification of some of the history already rehearsed here, but it permits us to expatiate at greater length upon its social and historical conditioning. For in antiquity, as with Aristotle’s definition, a character was always defined by a more or less consistent and singular trait. As A. O. Rorty summarizes,

characters are set in bas relief; they are their individual powers and dispositions. [What matters are] the traits manifest in the ways they fulfill prophecy and work through their inheritance . . . Characters are, by nature, defined and delineated. If they change, it is because it is in their character to do so under specific circumstances. Their natures form their responses to experiences, rather than being formed by them.44

This kind of radical simplicity, which is also manifest in the folktale and romance forms, could hardly be applicable to modernity, where, as we have seen, since Chaucer characters have been pieced together out of a far more heterogeneous array of qualities and imagoes. Still, neoclassicism persevered with the inherited simplicities of antiquity in order to work prodigious effects on the stage in particular. So, for Walter Benjamin, Molière “does not seek to define his creations by the multiplicity of their character traits. On the contrary, psychological analysis is denied any access to his work . . . Character is unfolded in [Molière’s characters] like a sun, in the brilliance of its single trait, which allows no other to remain visible in its proximity.”45 As the bourgeois stage settled into a complacent holding pattern, this “elementary way of viewing people” was perpetuated via a mechanistic view of the human being as “an automaton, . . . an individual whose nature had once and for all set firm or adapted to a certain role in life.”

This bourgeois concept of the immobility of the soul was transferred to the stage, which has always been dominated by the bourgeoisie. There a character became a man who was fixed and set, who invariably appeared drunk or comical or sad.46

Meanwhile, capitalism inevitably evolved more complicated personal categories like selves, individuals, and subjects, and literary character was obliged to supplement its repetitive singularities with more and more different qualities, opening up regions of tension and ambivalence, indeed outright contradiction. “Suppose you should contradict yourself,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson; “what then? . . . A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . . With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”47 Modernity carved out new depths in character that were filled in, not by an expansion of existing properties, but by sheer multiplicity and difference. In due course, one of the great characters of 19th-century poetry would concur: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).”48 Psychologists like Henry Maudsley and Théodule Ribot echoed the anti-philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in their hypothesis that the human soul was more an aggregate of inconsistent warring drives than a simple substance. Nietzsche declared the Christian “atomism of the soul” invalid:

the belief that the soul is something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, that it is a monad, an atomon . . . must be thrown out of science! . . . But the path lies open for new versions and sophistications of the soul hypothesis—and concepts like the “mortal soul” and the “soul as subject-multiplicity” and the “soul as a society constructed out of drives and affects” want henceforth to have civil rights in the realm of science.49

Franco Moretti asks us to “remember that the Bildungsroman—the symbolic form that more than any other has portrayed and promoted modern socialization—is also the most contradictory of modern symbolic forms, [and] that in our world socialization itself consists first of all in the interiorization of contradiction.”50 What Forster called “roundness” can also be shown as a disintegration and rearrangement of classical “flatness,” not into globular salience, but into a thwarted inconsistency. And with Sigmund Freud’s theory that the human subject was incapable of knowing more than a thin isthmus of its own psychological composition—the taut strip of ego articulating its superego with its unconscious or Id—modernity had finally discovered its ideal conception of the person.

While round characters continued to populate the pages of liberal humanist fiction (of the sort that Forster wrote), more circumstantial and provisional characters were hatched between the covers of so-called modernist literary texts: characters openly inconsistent, unresolved, inwardly divided, and outwardly baked. As W. H. Harvey once complained, the “retreat from character” in modernist novels played to the “uneasiness, suspicion, embarrassment or downright contempt” that sophisticated literary critics harbored in their hearts for the readerly love of characters.51 But roundness is an aesthetic effect of compromise, polish, and shading, turning multiplicity into an illusion of depth and stability; and multiplicity (of traits, qualities, characteristics, drives, etc.) can also be developed in the direction of sheer heterogeneity, as August Strindberg famously declared in his preface to Miss Julie:

As modern characters, living in an age of transition more urgently hysterical than the one that preceded it, I have depicted the figures in my play as more split and vacillating, a mixture of the old and the new . . . My souls (characters) are conglomerates of past and present stages of culture, bits out of books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, torn shreds of once fine clothing now turned to rags, exactly as the human soul is patched together.52

And with this prolonged assault on the unity of the soul—or the inner consistency of character—there came an inevitable decline in the potency of the narrative functions the protagonist was called upon to enact. There is in Lev Tolstoy, in Joyce, in Robert Musil, in Benito Pérez Galdós, in Faulkner, as in so many other writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a radical acceleration of the process mapped in its emergence by Alex Woloch, namely the proliferation and rise to prominence of the so-called minor characters, the distribution of narrative actions or actants across an ever-widening pool of available personnel, and thus a relative eclipse of the importance of the protagonist herself. This, what Fredric Jameson calls the “waning of protagonicity” is also an effect of the relative “characterlessness” of the new central actors themselves, itself a radicalization of that ordinary, unremarkable, and generic quality in which these bourgeois protagonists had been conceived. The “movement of the putative heroes and heroines to the background, [while the] foreground is increasingly occupied by minor or secondary characters whose stories (and ‘destinies’) might once have been digressions but now colonize and appropriate the novel for themselves,” is a remarkable feature of the novel in its declining phase of social relevance.53 With the rise of a new industrial culture and the social masses it was called upon to entertain, the novel was obliged to allegorize its collapse in fortunes (thanks in large part to the emergence of the cinema, and after that, television) by admitting more and more characters into its frame, thus drowning out what had always been its raison d’être at the level of form: namely, its protagonist’s socially symbolic plot. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), with its cast of over 400 named characters and a legion of the unnamed, can stand as a punctual moment in the fortunes of literary character: while its protagonist (the improbably named Tyrone Slothrop) effectively fades away into inexistence, the vast ensemble of minor characters swarms, chafes, and scratches away at the very limits of the form. Such was “the deconstruction of character” in late modernity.54

Affects and Afterlives

Pynchon’s cavalier way with his protagonists is of a piece with the contemporary theoretical movements of structuralism and poststructuralism, whose purpose was to reduce character to its component literary elements: acts, transformations, and qualifications. Their great warning was that readers were too susceptible to the rhetorical manipulations of the narrative discourse—to tone, voice, figural language, and patterns of imagery—to see character for what it essentially was: a technical achievement predicated on a web of impersonal functions. The limitations of this kind of self-willing delusion are evident in the work of many critics, not least Arnold Weinstein, who claims that “by endowing fictional characters with the attribute of a self,” by moving uncritically “from language to referent” and back again in his study, he is showing how fictional persons and real people share the same struggle for the supreme fiction of selfhood.55 Critics’ participation in what Jameson calls garden-variety “ethical” criticism—an “essentially psychological or psychologizing” interpretive procedure, which reads texts for the chivalric quests undertaken by their characters for an achieved personal identity—is long standing, well attested, and deeply problematic.56 And yet, there is little point in denying the obvious fact that, whatever the formal and technical underpinnings, millions of people just do “read for character”; that effects of characterization are not simply formal and self-contained, but enjoy a richly textured affective and emotional dimension beyond the text itself. Indeed, the capture of readers’ interest and willingness to identify with their creations is part of the formal agenda of most writers, and focused most particularly in the ways their characters are written.

Still, on the question of affective investment and return, we remain fully in the domain of social history and relativism. As John Frow puts the matter,

The question of the affective binding-in of readers to texts is inseparable from that of the historically shifting regimes that govern our identification with or against fictional characters or avatars: learning how to read character is directly bound up with the practice of the self, of recognition of other selves, and of forming an emotional bond with fictional “selves,” and these practices work in distinctively different ways in different genres and in different historical and cultural formations.57

There is no one way to read and interpret Hamlet’s represented behavior, just differing modes of investment in that fictional personage by historical subjects confined to changing cultural norms and regimes of sense. And here too, just as we detected a deepening or rounding of literary character as capitalism rose and flourished, so too in the history of reading we note a shift from neoclassical moral absolutism, to practices of sympathy and empathy (Shaftesbury and Laurence Sterne), to a frenzy of sentiment in the age of Victorian melodrama, through an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of moral, ethical, economic, political, and psychological models of selfhood and identification (including impersonality and depersonalization) in the 20th century. There may be rough alignments between these regimes of affective economy and contemporary textual norms of characterization, but the vortex of literary history is one in which residual and emergent formations swirl against the pull of the dominant, and where archaic models (Achilles, Ulysses) find themselves in currency alongside futuristic projections of selfhood (in science fiction, for example).

As we move further away from traditional social relations and stable models of personhood, and closer to a contemporary neoliberal horizon defined by what Richard Sennett calls the radical “corrosion of character,” the once-clear moral purpose of fictional character—to provide examples, positive or negative, of how to adjust to the mores of a social formation—collapses into anomie and redundancy. If, as thinkers from Plato to Barthes have contested, literature, and its systems of characterization, are something like a technology of the subject—a complex instrument for testing and normalizing ways of being and relating as individuals within an overarching moral economy—then the simple plus/minus calculations of an Aristotle no longer seem applicable. Narrative agents, he wrote, “are necessarily either good men or bad . . . It follows therefore that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are.”58 The affective work of character, here, is the propagation of a proper level of goodness, through either positive or negative instance. Stimulating the desire to emulate what is superior to us, and impugn what is inferior, character is a well-nigh irresistible mimetic device. Sir Philip Sidney also insisted that if “the Poet doe his part a-right, he will shew you in Tantalus, Atreus, and such like, nothing that is not to be shunned; in Cyrus, Aeneas, Vlisses, each thing to be followed.”59 As opposed to the historian who “beeing captiued to the trueth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from well dooing, and an incouragement to vnbrideled wickedness,” Sidney holds that “a fayned example hath as much force to teach as a true example,” if not more; and this “force to teach” is precisely the capacity for movement and being moved that poetry enjoys exclusively.

And that moouing is of a higher degree then teaching, it may by this appeare, that it is wel nigh the cause and the effect of teaching. For who will be taught, if hee bee not mooued with desire to be taught? and what so much good doth that teaching bring forth (I speak still of morrall doctrine) as that it mooueth one to doe that which it dooth teach? for, as Aristotle sayth, it is not Gnosis but Praxis must be the fruit. And howe Praxis cannot be, without being mooued to practise, it is no hard matter to consider.

Character, then, is the chief instrument of the poet in the art of movement, of securing an affective investment from recalcitrant social subjects who would otherwise resist the dry and enervating doctrines of moral philosophy.

So is it in men (most of which are childish in the best things, till they bee cradled in their graues): glad they will be to heare the tales of Hercules, Achilles, Cyrus, and Aeneas; and, hearing them, must needs heare the right description of wisdom, valure, and iustice; which, if they had been barely, that is to say Philosophically, set out, they would sweare they bee brought to schoole againe.

Such classical and neoclassical certainties about “right conduct” and the moral suasion of aesthetics come unraveled in modern social regimes, when, on the one hand, what it is to be a good subject is no longer clear (or at least, it is open to challenge and debate), and, on the other, affective investment assumes many different, and sometimes wholly perverse, new forms. It is a striking fact that one of the monumental fictional edifices of the modern era, that of the Marquis de Sade, was conceived along precisely the neoclassical lines stipulated by Sidney—a rich and complicated tapestry of moral absolutes, illustrated through characterological example and scenic elaboration. Only here the moral stipulations were those of evil itself; and across the spectrum of Romantic literary production, there is a string of ethical exemplars—Don Juan, Orc, and so on—labeled “demonic heroes,” who rebel against social norms and moral taboos, and thereby elicit prodigious new affective responses from readers. Alongside this curious formation, we have the various traditions of the anti-hero, the schlemeil, the man without qualities, the idiot, the loser—all of which are developments of the bourgeois novel’s decisive characterological innovation, the nobody in particular—circulating in strange and devious paths through textual modernity.

For it is an obvious fact that modern readers’ reasons for investing in literary characters are no longer constrained to the emulative or censoring moral “returns” of the classical system. Instead, it would appear that the drift of character away from any stable ethos, and toward a teeming multiplicity of “social persons” and incompatible ethical traits, has freed up entirely new intensities of affect that fictional characters themselves can only loosely contain. One argument has been that as the conventions of heroic plot and noble action have been progressively withdrawn from modern textuality, and the protagonist thus demoted as a cardinal agent, narrative discourse has had to discover altogether new resources for affective stimulation and reward. Divorced from moral exemplarity, these new functions (which we can associate under the heading of “affectivity”) then circulate outside the cause-and-effect logic of classical narrativity, and are drawn instead to the “inner world” opened up by modern ideas of consciousness. In this new dispensation, the character is no longer charged with weighty burdens of narrative responsibility, but balloons inward as a seismic registering apparatus for new and nameless intensities of the body: affects proper.

In that case, it will be appropriate to associate [the] rise of affect with the emergence of the phenomenological body in language and representation: and to historicize a competition between the system of named emotions [stemming from the classical system] and the emergence of nameless bodily states which can be documented in literature [from] around the middle of the nineteenth century.60

Characters in this new order of things do not “do”: they “feel,” furnishing opportunities to the writer and the reader to capture in language some unprecedented phenomenological condition as it appears and vanishes for the first and last time. A Woolvian character is less an instrument for actuating a complex network of actants than it is an occasion for literary language to configure a sensibility that has never before existed, and never will again.

But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; the white and the blue, barred with black branches. Sounds made harmonies with premeditation; the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds. A child cried. Rightly far away a horn sounded. All taken together meant the birth of a new religion.61

Let this passage stand metonymically for an entire tradition of characterization in which not the ego, not the self, but the “unself” is presented under a proper name, as a confluence of sensory and affective intensities uncoordinated by any center of command. One’s reasons for becoming affectively implicated in this passage are the same as Septimus Warren Smith’s: an irresistible desire to flee the ordinances of the self into the virtual infinities of worldly immanence, conjured by a syntax divorced from ends and means. Modern character is often situated in the extraordinary possibility of “he, too, made that statement,” a virtuous piggybacking on vibrant webs of being; it invites readers to surrender their known coordinates—moral, practical, and theological—and discover an affective resonance with states that are no longer merely human.

This late development of character into an identification with the outside and the unknown—with qualities and traits that belong to no ethical system—is of a piece with one of the perdurable formal features of all characterization: namely, a character’s necessary lack of completion, his or her radical insufficiency as a represented being. William Gass has remarked that “Characters in fiction are mostly empty canvas. I have known many who passed through their stories without noses, or heads to hold them; others have lacked bodies altogether, exercised no natural functions . . . and apparently made love without the necessary organs.”62 “It would be possible,” suggests Martin Price, “to make long lists of all the attributes of characters that are never supplied. [However, t]he fact is that we do not miss them.”63 A. D. Nuttall’s explanation of why this is so is a famously conservative one: “By a curious irony this incompleteness, this want of finality in formulation achieves a greater naturalism than the most meticulous description.”64 Price pushes the point somewhat further: “The incompleteness or want of finality that Nuttall cites is created not simply by the quantity of traits but by the puzzling or inconsistent nature of those that are most conspicuous.”65 It would, however, be more interesting and illuminating to suppose that the inevitable construction of a literary character around a central void or lack, his or her necessary incompletion and inconsistency, is the key to what engages our affective energies and commitments. Affective investments in character could thus be explained by an inordinate longing to identify with images of that innermost nothingness (as Jean-Paul Sartre once supposed) that is our own freedom. Our freedom, above all, not to “be ourselves,” but to host alien qualities and attributes that have nothing to do with us. Sharon Cameron has observed of Herman Melville’s characters,

Something—an excess that does not pertain to character—nonetheless passes through it, making characters permeable to attributes that are not uniquely theirs and that are even antithetical to their attributes, as, for instance, a murderous impulse passes through Billy [Budd]. Melville’s writing thus engages in an arduous effort to take attributes and characterizations and, by making them applicable to what they weren’t initially attached to, to deprive them of the capacity to mean again in a social way. Character remains intact but inconsequential—not transcended but surpassed.66

One of the most significant lessons of the history of literary character is that it has transformed from a unitary consistency of motive, defined and delineated by a core trait or ethical imperative, into a “negative capability” in which any affect or impulse can momentarily flare. Character is, now, much more than a set of attributes or an arresting synthesis; it is a form through which a certain exteriority and excess can pass, and in which is felt the innermost lack of social subjectivity. And here, at the boundary between the proper and the improper, the social and the literary, the felt and the observed, the significant and the meaningless, we must end.

Discussion of the Literature

The critical literature on literary character extends from Aristoltle to Elizabeth Fowler, and cannot be reviewed in any other than a cursory manner. Recent developments on the topic often involve what can be described as a sociological inflection of formal analysis. The structural relationships between one (protagonist) and many (minor characters), for instance, is read by Woloch as an allegory of social relations between middle-class subjects and the working-class people whose work makes their subjectivity possible.67 Alternatively, Fowler reads the tension between the singularity of character, and the variety of social persons assembled within that character, as a symptom of the shifting relations between social professions and legal personhood in the early modern period.68 From another direction, Susan Manning reads the evolution of literary characterization in the Romantic period through the confluence of social, political, and philosophical forces in the transatlantic economy of the early 19th century.69 This insistent sociological inscription is a welcome relief from the arid structuralist deserts into which the great work of Propp and Greimas had led the field by the late 1960s, and a corrective to the sheer deconstruction of character pioneered by post-structuralists such as Barthes and Hélène Cixous.70 Alongside this sociological and historical inflection, there has prospered a significant strain of cognitive-scientific approaches to literary character, on the one hand,71 and an adaptation of contemporary affect theory to such questions, on the other.72 Parallel developments in the field have included considerations of the extra-literary afterlives of beloved characters (in commercial paraphernalia and “fan fictions”), as well as the relatively new phenomenon of fictions written expressly for the purpose of extending the “lives” of characters beyond the bounds of a single volume, in texts generally written by different authors and with different purposes in mind.73 In addition, character has been considered in its purely extra-literary dimensions, especially in the domain of the cinema, and in the theatre.74 Specific author studies have generated useful and often compelling analyses of their peculiar character systems, with Dickens, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare the most frequent analysands.75 Moreover, particular characters have also generated their fair share of critical and theoretical speculation, none more than Antigone, Bartleby, and Hamlet.76 Meanwhile, contemporary narrative theory has continued looking for new ways to sophisticate and complicate the theoretical understanding of character in a narratological framework.77 Only one major work of totalizing character theory has appeared in this period to offer a commanding overview of the entire domain, and that is the masterful Character and Person, by John Frow.78

Further Reading

Bersani, Leo. A Future for Asyntax: Character and Desire in Literature. New York: Little, Brown, 1976.Find this resource:

Docherty, Thomas. Reading (Absent) Character: Towards a Theory of Characterization in Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Felski, Rita, ed. “Character.” Special Issue of New Literary History 42.2 (2011).Find this resource:

Fowler, Elizabeth. Literary Character: The Human Figure in Early English Writing. London: Cornell University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Frow, John. Character and Person. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Fuchs, Elinor. The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theatre After Modernism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Levenson, Michael. Modernism and the Fate of Individuality: Character and Novelistic Form from Conrad to Woolf. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Lynch, Deirdre Shauna. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Margolin, Uri. “The What, the When, and the How of Being a Character in Literary Narrative.” Style 24.3 (1990): 453–468.Find this resource:

Murphet, Julian. “Character and Event.” SubStance 113 36.2 (2007): 106–125.Find this resource:

Palmer, Alan. Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Phelan, James. Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Price, Martin. Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg, ed. The Identities of Persons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Schneider, R. “Toward a Cognitive Theory of Literary Character: The Dynamics of Mental-Model Construction.” Topics on Film and Literature 35.4 (2001): 607–640.Find this resource:

Smith, Murray. Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Vermeule, Blakey. Why Do We Care about Fictional Characters? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) The ninth definition of the word “character” in the OED clearly displays this heritage: “The sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a people, viewed as a homogeneous whole; a person’s or group’s individuality deriving from environment, culture, experience, etc.; mental or moral constitution, personality.” “Character”: 9a.

(2.) “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible . . . Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.” Aristotle, Rhetoric, §2, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 2, ed. and trans. Jonathan Barnes, Bollingen Series 71.2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 2155.

(3.) Plato, The Republic, book 3, 390b–391e, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 1027–1029.

(4.) Aristotle, The Poetics, §6, in The Complete Works, 2320.

(5.) Aristotle, The Poetics, §6, in The Complete Works, 2320.

(6.) Aristotle, The Poetics, §6, in The Complete Works, 2321.

(7.) Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, ed. Louis A. Wagner, trans. Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988), 20.

(8.) Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, 21.

(9.) Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, 87.

(10.) Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, 90.

(11.) A. J. Greimas, On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory, trans. Paul J. Perron and Frank H. Collins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 80–81.

(12.) A. J. Greimas, On Meaning, 106.

(13.) A. J. Greimas, On Meaning, 107.

(14.) A. J. Greimas, On Meaning, 114.

(15.) A. J. Greimas, On Meaning, 114.

(16.) Elizabeth Fowler, Literary Character: The Human Figure in Early English Writing (London: Cornell University Press, 2003), 1–28.

(17.) Greimas, On Meaning, 119.

(18.) Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 68.

(19.) Tzvetan Todorov, Grammaire du Décaméron, quoted and translated in Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 235.

(20.) Barthes, S/Z, 190.

(21.) Barthes, S/Z, 190–191.

(22.) Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 172.

(23.) Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol. 4: 1938–1940, eds. Howard J. Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 389.

(24.) See M. M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 269–422.

(25.) Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 26.

(26.) Anthony Wall, “Characters in Bakhtin’s Theory,” Studies in 20th and 21st Century Literature 9.1 (1984): 47.

(27.) Fernando Ferrara, “Theory and Model for the Structural Analysis of Fiction,” New Literary History 5 (1974): 254, 383–402.

(28.) Alex Woloch, The One Vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), esp. 12–42.

(29.) Greimas, On Meaning, 112.

(30.) Elizabeth Fowler, Literary Character, 2 and 3.

(31.) Elizabeth Fowler, Literary Character, 9.

(32.) Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 703.

(33.) Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity, 704.

(34.) Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity, 705.

(35.) Flaubert, letter to George Sand, December 15–16, 1866, quoted and translated in Dorrit Cohn, Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 114.

(36.) Dorrit Cohn, Transparent Minds, 117.

(37.) Barthes, S/Z, 94–95.

(38.) Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality,” in The Novel, vol. 1: History, Geography, and Culture, ed. Moretti (Princeton, NJ, 2006), 341.

(39.) Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality,” 341.

(40.) Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, 33.

(41.) Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, 35.

(42.) Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, 36.

(43.) E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1954), 67.

(44.) Amélie O. Rorty, “A Literary Postscript: Characters, Persons, Selves, Individuals,” in The Identities of Persons, ed. Rorty (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 304.

(45.) Walter Benjamin, “Fate and Character,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writing, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), 310.

(46.) August Strindberg, Miss Julie and Other Plays, trans. Michael Robinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59.

(47.) R. W. Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”

(48.) Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself.” Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in Poetry and Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1996), 87.

(49.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §12, ed. Rolf-Peter Horstmann and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 14.

(50.) Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (London: Verso, 2000), 10.

(51.) W. H. Harvey, Character and the Novel (London: Chatto & Windus, 1965), 191.

(52.) Strindberg, Miss Julie and Other Plays, 59–60.

(53.) Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (London: Verso, 2013), 96.

(54.) Leo Bersani, A Future for Asyntax: Character and Desire in Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 5–7.

(55.) Arnold Weinstein, Fictions of the Self: 1550–1800 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 6–7.

(56.) Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1981), 60.

(57.) John Frow, Character and Person (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 54.

(58.) Aristotle, Poetics, 2317.

(59.) Sir Philip Sidney, An Apologie for Poetry.

(60.) Jameson, Antinomies, 32.

(61.) Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (Peterborough, ONT: Broadview Press, 2002), 22.

(62.) William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Nonpareil Books, 1971), 45.

(63.) Martin Price, Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel (London: Yale University Press, 1983), 40–41.

(64.) A. D. Nuttall, “The Argument About Shakespeare’s Characters,” Critical Quarterly 7.2 (June 1965): 117 (107–120).

(65.) A. D. Nuttall, “The Argument about Shakespeare’s Characters,” 58.

(66.) Sharon Cameron, Impersonality: Seven Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), xiii.

(67.) See Alex Woloch, The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); but see also David Galef, The Supporting Cast: A Study of Flat and Minor Characters (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).

(68.) Elizabeth Fowler, Literary Character: The Human Figure in Early English Writing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).

(69.) See Susan Manning, Poetics of Character: Transatlantic Encounters 1700–1900 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(70.) See Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, ed. Louis A. Wagner, trans. Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988), and A. J. Greimas, On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory, trans. Paul J. Perron and Frank H. Collins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); on post-structuralists see Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Howard (Oxford: Blackwells, 1974), and Hélène Cixous, “The Character of ‘Character,’” trans. Keith Cohen, New Literary History 5.2 (1974): 383–402.

(71.) See Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care about Fictional Characters? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006); and Paul B. Armstrong, How Literature Plays with the Brain: The Neuroscience of Reading and Art, repr. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

(72.) See in particular the discussion in Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (London: Verso, 2013), 15–113.

(73.) See David A Brewer, The Afterlife of Character, 1726–1825 (Pittsburgh: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); John O’Connor, Shakespearean Afterlives: Ten Characters with a Life of Their Own (London: Icon Books, 2001); Deirdre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); see also Jeremy Rosen, Minor Characters Have Their Day (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

(74.) See Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Elinor Fuchs, The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theatre After Modernism (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996).

(75.) See Ivor Morris, Jane Austen and the Interplay of Character, 2d ed. (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1999); Daniel Stout, “Nothing Personal: The Decapitation of Character in A Tale of Two Cities,” Novel 41.1 (2007): 29–52; Karen Newman, Shakespeare’s Rhetoric of Comic Character, repr. ed. (London: Routledge, 2005); and Paul Yachnin and Jessica Slights, eds., Shakespeare and Character: Theory, History, Performance and Theatrical Persons (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave, 2009)

(76.) On Antigone: George Steiner, Antigones: How the Legend Has Endured in Western Literature, Art, and Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996); Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Bonnie Honig, Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Slavoj Žižek, Antigone (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). On Bartleby: Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby, or the Formula,” in Essays: Clinical and Critical, trans. Daniel Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 28–90; Giorgio Agamben, “Bartleby, or On Contingency,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 243–271; Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 381–385. On Hamlet: Claude C. H. Williamson, Readings on the Character of Hamlet: Compiled from over Three Hundred Sources, repr. ed. (London: Routledge, 2013); and John Lee, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Controversies of Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

(77.) See Andreea Deciu Ritivoi, “Explaining People: Narrative and the Study of Identity,” Storyworlds 1 (2009): 25–41; Brian Richardson, “Beyond Poststructuralism: Theory of Character, the Personae of Modern Drama, and the Antinomies of Critical Theory,” Modern Drama 40 (1997): 86–99; and Fotis Jannidis, “Character,” in The Living Handbook of Narratology, eds. Peter Hühn, John Pier, Wolf Schmid, and Jörg Schönert (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2004), 14–29.

(78.) See John Frow, Character and Person (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).