Reconsidering Character



It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least in creative writing classes) that a writer in search of a good story must first invent a lifelike, interesting character. The commonly held wisdom is that once such a character has been imagined, the story then shapes itself, dependent on the character’s desires and decisions.


I have used this approach in the past, with some success, at least enough to foist it upon my students. I guide them through creating a detailed profile of the character (ASL? What’s in his bedroom?) and timeline (What happened to him when he was seven?) before they begin to even think about what happens in their story. When critiquing student work, it’s often character that I home in on, trying to see if the writer really knows the person he’s writing about.


I suppose this tendency arises out of a number of factors, E.M. Forster among them, and perhaps a need to make the craft of writing teachable. And it’s always the case that in the course of the semester, we read a story that somehow works despite the obstinate flatness of the characters, or a student manages to write a story that soars on the strength of its plotting or structure.


So it was some muted, belated alarm that I went through Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s Norton lectures (published as The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Write and Read Novels), in the third lecture of which he presents his own approach to character and characterization.


Mr. Pamuk reminds us that what we think of today as “character” is primarily an artificial literary construct bound to history, initiated by Shakespeare (in this Mr. Pamuk echoes Harold Bloom and many other literary scholars) and developed by Shakespearean criticism before solidifying in the 19th century western novel. Despite the youthfulness of the construct, it has managed to become naturalized in the eyes of readers, and is perceived today as a matter of course—that the best characters are real people in their own right, despite their being figments of imagination.


Mr. Pamuk argues that the point of the novel is the world presented in the novel, particularly the nature of this world, and the characters function as vehicles for readers to perceive this world—readers experience the world through the character’s perception. He argues that the experience of identifying with a character comes with recognizing as familiar the character’s sensations and perceptions of, and responses to, the world in which he moves, and not the distinctiveness of the character’s personality. In truth, a blank slate of a character can be just as effective as a more fully realized one, since the lack of attributes facilitates the projection of the reader’s personality upon the character and generating feelings of identification (cf. Bella Swan of the Twilight series, or any character out of a folk tale).


While Mr. Pamuk agrees that human beings are inherently curious about other people—whether in life or in fiction—he feels that this obsession with character has taken over the novel disproportionately over the last two centuries, when it evolved from being “the embodiment of a single basic attribute” to a complex collection of characteristics.


Mr. Pamuk goes so far as to posit that “people do not actually have as much character as we find portrayed in novels, especially in nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels,” suggesting that identification with a character is more aspirational than realistic. This resonates strongly with my own frustrations with student work in which characters are described as “normal,” “everyday,” or “ordinary.” I often end up lecturing them about how stories are not told about such characters, who must at the very least be thrust into extraordinary circumstances, lest the story become dull or uninvolving.


Even then, the enlivening power of events, an eventful plot, seems to affirm Mr. Pamuk’s argument: “[H]uman character is not nearly as important in the shaping of our lives as it is made out to be in novels and literary criticism of the West.” He continues: “[M]ore decisive than the character of a novel’s protagonist is how they fit into the surrounding landscape, and milieu.” Indeed, in the psychology-driven character studies of European art cinema of the 1950s and 60s, even when it is the inner lives of protagonists that we follow, it is always in relation to relationships with other human beings (as in Antonioni’s L’Avventura or Bergman’s Persona), or history and culture (as in Resnais and Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Amour), time and memory (Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad), or the flux of life (Fellini’s La Dolce Vita). In each of these cinematic examples, the protagonist is a cipher who begins to make sense only when considered in the context of his or her environment, and their re-actions to and upon the environment. A large part of the appeal of the Hunger Games trilogy of books is that hero Katniss Everdeen’s actions are often difficult to predict in the novels’ present-tense, as-it-happens narration, but seem sensible and logical in hindsight, when they have been contextualized.


Our present-day conception of character is also heavily influenced by Freudian psychology, which holds that for all their illogical complexity, human beings are consistent, and such a consistency is shaped by people’s life experiences, especially those in childhood. This theory is held as truth in storytelling, with writers compelled to reveal motivations rooted in a character’s past. In Hollywood storytelling, this is exemplified by the “history lesson” flashback, in which the hero and villain are revealed to have suffered insurmountable trauma (usually the loss of loved ones) as a way of explaining their present behavior. This model also underpins video game logic, in which user-generated characters are constructed out of a selection of possessions, traits, backgrounds, and skills, the combination of which then determines how the character will respond and fare during gameplay.


So entrenched is this convention that recent discoveries in the study of the brain have yet to change the ways in which characters are conceived, treated, and interpreted. The theory of plasticity, for instance, suggests that human personalities are much more fluid and unstable than the Freudian model makes them out to be—people’s personalities can be drastically altered by a trauma, such that any traits and assumptions applicable prior to the event become irrelevant after that.


Conventions change over time, certainly, dependent on how readily accepted they are by the audience. The last truly radical experimentation with characterization may have occurred in the abortive roman nouveau, although some unusual effects have been achieved in hypertext fiction, largely as a byproduct of non-linearity or stream-of-consciousness narration. For now, the simplest course for the writer or writing teacher to take seems to be psychological determinism. What would the “new” character look or be like, bound as it is by the writer’s and reader’s understanding of human beings?



Storytelling, Orhan Pamuk, Harold Bloom