Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction

Chapter 4: Characters


4.1 Definitions and Basic Difficulties


No one has succeeded in constructing a complete and coherent theory of character.  This difficulty, one suspects, is largely due to the human aspect of characterisation.  By definition, the word character designates a human or human-like individual, and as such, the concept is less amenable to a formulaic or mechanical approach.

The difficulty in arriving at a complete and coherent theory of character or characterisation is thus connected to the equivocation of the term character with regard to

These considerations can be described as ontological, as they touch on the origins of characters. The uncertainty in the ontology of characters may affect one’s methodology in character analysis: should characters, for example, be compared with actual human beings, or should we restrict ourselves to the text, and not bother about the comparison?  In this regard, we have an author like William H. Gass, who is of the view that ‘[s]tories and the people in them are made of words’ (quoted in Leitch 1986: 154).  On the other hand, a prominent tendency in pre-20th century research on character attempts to look for prior reasons for a character’s behaviour, even if these reasons are not found in the story itself (see section 4.12 below).


4.2 Changing Conceptions in History


Conceptions of character may also change through history.  Notions of characterisation may not even exist in certain periods in the development of literary criticism. The conception of character as we know it today, for example, did not exist in Aristotle.  However, whether character or characterisation exist at all in Aristotle is a moot point, with some scholars arguing that the conception of character exist in his Poetics, but it is not as important as plot. In more recent years, the ‘death of character’ has been proclaimed by, for example, Jonathan Culler in his Structuralist Poetics (1975: 230): to Culler, the notion of character is a myth.


4.3 Continuing Importance of Characterization


But in spite of the problems or negative tendencies noted above, the concept of character cannot be neglected in narrative analysis. 

Characterisation continues to be important

With reference to the second point above, W.J. Harvey, for example, has noted that ‘most great novels exist to reveal and explore character’ (1916: 23; my emphasis).


4.4 Characterisation in Cinema and Drama: Linkage to Actors and Acting


Characterisation in cinematic or dramatic narratives is linked not only to the script, but also to the performance by the actors.

In drama, the character of a written play, as some readers see it, may be quite different from his or her characterisation by an actor or actress.  This, however, may not always be a deficiency in the actor’s or actress’s skills; it may even be required by some scripts which allow some interpretation of how their characters can be realised on stage.

The difference between a character of a written script and his or her characterisation by an actor or actress is usually less of a problem with films, unless it is a film based on a narrative which existed before the film was produced, or, the character is found in an earlier film.  The reason for this is that traditionally, the film script has only a single performance, and (except for a relatively small number of films) its written script is not usually as readily available as written plays: so the basis for comparison between the script and the film may not be there.

Even more than in dramatic acting, factors external to the actor’s acting skills may affect characterisation in film; for example, camera distance (e.g. close-ups and long shots), angle, height, movement, etc. all may have an effect on characterisation (see chapter 11 section 25 for a listing of camera techniques and some links, which may be relevant for an understanding of how characters are presented in cinematic narratives).  The possibility of close-ups in film means that microscopic details (in theatrical terms) of an actor’s facial features and movements may have a stronger effect on characterisation than in drama.


Table 4. 1: Dependence of Characterisation on Acting in Film and Drama

In drama

In film

reliance on the written source:


partial reliance of acting (and hence characterisation) on it

reliance on the written source:


partial or non-reliance: it depends on whether the source is well-known: for example, a famous novel or play

one can talk of characterisations: several performances of a single script

usually only one characterisation, unless the film is remade, but then, the script is also usually rewritten

close relationship of actors’ skills (and hence of characterisation) with external factors: for example, the theatre: theatre size, acoustics, distance of stage from the audience, stage decorations, etc.

even closer relationship (of characterisation) with factors external to the actors’ skills: the physical factors involved in the cinema are usually not taken into consideration; more important  are factors involved with the camera, for example, distance, close shot, long shot, etc.

actor’s facial features less important: distance from stage may hide them

actor’s facial features more important: possibility of close up


4.5 Character Traits


One prominent attempt to analyse characters views them as a sum of traits. Chatman, for example, views a character in terms of a ‘paradigm of traits’ (1978: 126): a character exists in a paradigmatic relationship with the plot, which is syntagmatic.  Another scholar who holds this view is Rimmon-Kenan (1983), to whom a character is a construct of traits.  These traits, according to her, are hierarchically arranged; she also views characterization in terms of how the network of character traits, in reference to a particular character, is created.

To Chatman (1978) and Leitch (1986), characterization can be analysed through an analysis of routine behaviour, which can be defined, in my view, in terms of the repeated appearance of certain dynamic traits associated with a character. In this light, Chatman (1978: 129), has noted that ‘tiredness’ is not a trait unless persistent.  A persistent trait may become a habit: we can further note that only habitual traits are significant in the analysis of characterisation, and not those which are temporary.

However, it has been noted that character traits ‘are not, after all, physical objects to be drawn like trees’ (1978: 7), and Leitch, while agreeing with Chatman, believes that some characters become memorable through the subtraction, and not the addition of traits: some minor characters, for example, are memorable because they lack certain common human traits.

The omission of traits is also noticeable in film characters; we do not know, for example, about the film characters’ introspective traits, unless the character tells us about them through voice-over narration.  The lack of traits may in fact be a feature of characterisation in film.  Leo Braudy, for example (as noted by Leitch 1986: 159-60), mentions that a film character depends on the audience’s incomplete knowledge.


4.6 Humour


Humour, or what can otherwise be defined as a ruling passion, is a conception, originally taken from ancient Greek medicine, present in some genres of medieval drama. It can be found, for example, in the mystery plays, where, among the humours or ruling passions represented on the stage are the seven deadly sins.  It can be noted however, that some characters from television situation comedy today do also seem to possess a humour or a ruling passion, although the tendency in the television character is usually less full-blown and integral to the character than in the medieval mystery plays.


4.7 Predictability of Characters


Most characters are to a certain extent predictable. On the basis of some data, we can usually expect certain actions or behaviour from a character.  In a sense, every character is more or less predictable, as we can predict how a character will act or behave on the basis of his or her profession, sex, external factors, the genre of the work, etc.; however, so-called ‘round’ characters are less predictable than ‘flat’ ones (see the discussion in section 4.27 below).


4.8 Characters and Human Beings


As we have noted in chapter one, the human element is very important in narrative.  The importance of the human element is especially evident in characterisation.  One important (and to many of us, rather obvious) human association involves the characters’ relationship to actual human beings.  The importance of the human element in literature in general is underlined by Bal (1985: 80), to whom ‘Literature is written by, for, and about people’.  To Rimmon-Kenan characters as very ‘person-like’ (1983: 33).  Many authors have in fact based their characters on actual human beings. Anaïs Nin, for example says that ‘I always begin with a real character, with someone I know well. This gives me the human reality, certain roots in reality.’ (cited in Springer 1978: 196).

But in spite of similarities with actual human beings, literary characters are not like our neighbours and friends. Springer (1978: 6) has described literary characters as a ‘human derivation’, which ‘are like and yet different from you and me’.  In the same vein, Bal’s view that ‘Literature is written by, for, and about people’, is modified when she says that characters in literature are ‘imitation, fantasy, fabricated creatures -- paper people without flesh and blood’ (1985: 80).  ‘People’ in fiction are thus not strictly comparable with real people, as they may be a fictional distortion of, or actually more coherent than, real people.  In this regard, Springer has made the observation that  ‘. . .characters are more comprehensible in literature than in life’ (1978: 16) and that ‘literary characters in their derivation are people like us, only strangely clearer, closer, more available’ (1978: 215).

Character should not be too closely associated with real persons for another reason: whether a character is realistic or not is dependent on our image of the real person, and the image of what constitutes a ‘real’ person varies not only from culture to culture, but from person to person as well. In this light, we can say that critics’ attack or defence of characters on whether they resemble real people is to a certain extent dependent on their conceptions of what a ‘real’ person is.

The distinction between a character and any actual person becomes even clearer when one looks at the concept of the character in cinematic narratives.  We note here that even in films based on the lives of actual persons, the characters are usually not played by the actual persons. The film -- or for that matter, a written narrative -- is selective, and looks only at larger issues; there are thus bound to be traits in the character which are not actually found in the actual person which it is supposed to represent.

However, in spite of differences between characters and real people, a clear dividing line between characters and real people is not possible.


4.9 Character and Mimesis 


Further to the discussion on characters and actual human beings, we can discuss the idea of mimesis, which can be more specifically defined in our context as the representation of reality in fictional narrative.  An understanding of mimesis is important in any approach to the realism of characters.

In recent criticism, mimesis is understood as characters in narrative reflecting actual people in life.  As such, it has been used as an evaluative criterion for the analysis of character.  John Bayley, for example, is of the view that ‘The great author can make us see his characters both as we see ourselves and as we see other people’.  Mimesis has also been used as a criterion for generic analysis.  In this regard, Paris, for example, believes that character in many realistic novels can only be understood in terms of its mimetic function.  To him, modern criticism has come to realise ‘that in certain cases it is proper to treat literary characters as real people and that only by doing so can we fully appreciate the distinctive achievement of the genre’ (1974: 4).

One quality of mimetic characters is that they are created for their own sake, and formal considerations become secondary.  These qualities have been described by Scholes and Kellogg, to whom realistic characters ‘resist abstraction and generalization’ (1966: 101).

One approach to mimesis views it in psychological terms.  In this approach, which is advocated by Paris, one has to resort to psychological analysis in order to analyse mimetic characterisation.  In my view, the relationship between psychology and mimesis is best put by Henry James, to whom ‘A psychological reason is, to my imagination, an object adorably pictorial’ (in Gard 1968: 249).


4.10 Mimesis and Neo-Aristotelianism


The idea of mimesis is often regarded as neo-Aristotelian. However, the Aristotelian approach views characters as possible people, not as mirror reflections of actual people.  Moreover, Aristotle himself views mimesis in terms of action, which is given priority over character (see Ricouer 1984: 37).   Mimesis is also viewed by Aristotle in terms of the ‘mimesis of acting beings’ (Ricouer 1985: 88).  Therefore character to Aristotle, although it does not exist per se in his aesthetics (see the discussion above) may be viewed in terms of the possibilities of action.

In addition to the actional dimension, there is the ethical dimension to Aristotle’s approach to mimesis.  To Paul Ricouer (1984: 47): ‘the person being imitated [in Aristotle] is a person according to ethics’.  In this regard, tragedy, to Aristotle, is the imitation of persons who are better, and comedy the imitation of persons who are worse than the present generation (1984: 47).  The ethical definition of mimesis may conflict with the realist definition, although the conflict does not appear in Aristotle, as he does not subscribe to what we now know as the realist definition of mimesis.


4.11 Authorial Control and Mimesis


There are two diametrically opposed views with regard to authorial control and mimesis. 

Docherty is a representative of the first view.  To him, mimetic characters are ‘media for the message of the author’ (1983: xiii, 239).  He claims that in a mimetic approach like that of W. J. Harvey, characters are separated aspects of the author’s own personality (1983: 254).

However, the opposite view is more prevalent.  To Paris, novels of psychological realism have a ‘character-creating impulse’ (1974: 9).  A novel in this genre ‘has its own inner logic. . . and tends to go its own way,. . .’; the characters of such a novel are ‘like real people’:  they ‘have a life of their own beyond the control of their author’ (1974: 10).  To Georg Lukács (cited in Paris 1974: 10), a great realist will ‘describe what he really sees, not what he would prefer to see’ and that ‘No writer is a true realist -- or even a truly good writer, if he can direct the evolution of his own characters at will’; the characters in his work will thus ‘live an independent life of their own’.

The extent of authorial control in general, and not only in specific relation to realistic fiction, has also been questioned.  To E. M. Forster, characters ‘often engage in treason against the main scheme of the book’: they ‘run away’, they ‘get out of hand’.


4.12 The Limits of Mimesis


But using realism or mimesis as a criterion for the analysis or evaluation of characters may ultimately result in a question such as ‘How many children has Lady Macbeth?’   The above question is of course a non-question, as the number of Lady Macbeth’s children is not indicated in the text and is not relevant to the story; however, we may be interested in the answer if we treat Lady Macbeth as an actual person, and not a character in Shakespeare’s play.  However, not everyone agrees that this is an improper question.  To Bayley for example, the time has come to ask ourselves whether the question on the number of Lady Macbeth children is really as absurd as it sounds (1960: 42).


4.13 Existentialist and Essentialist Approaches to Characterization


The mimetic tendency can be associated with what can be called the existentialist approach, which treats characters in relation to actual existence or the possibility of existence in the real world.  The existentialist approach can be contrasted to the essentialist tendency, which treats character as having an essence in its own right, independent of its existence and interactions in its environment.  To Docherty (1983: 49), the essentialist approach ‘precludes the illusion of a character having any existence outside of its boundaries’.

The essentialist approach can be related to Margolin’s approach to characterisation.  To him (1983: 2), the ‘NA [narrative agent] is not regarded as an analogon, simulacrum or whatever of a “real life” phenomenon, and all attention is focussed on its formal, artificial, contrived and purely artistic nature’.  It can also be related to Joel Weinsheimer’s description of the reduction of character to text, in which ‘Emma Woodhouse [in Jane Austen’s Emma] is not a woman nor need to be described as if it were’ (1979: 187).  Weinsheimer argues that ‘In semiotic criticism characters dissolve’ into text (1979: 195).  However, this view may not be easy to sustain, and later in the same essay, which is certainly more subtle than the quotations here imply, Weinsheimer regards it as ‘untenable’.


4.14 Conventionality in Characterisation


In spite of realism, there is an element of conventionality in characterisation.  There is the contribution here of schemas (see chapter 8 of this book) to our understanding of character. These schemas are used both in the production and reception of narrative.


4.15 Charaterisation and Genre: Two Classifications


With reference to genre, the presence of ‘real’ characters may be limited to certain genres.  We may note here that the term realistic fiction is actually a generic classification. It has also been argued by Mary McCarthy (1962) that real characters are seldom accomplished outside of comedy.

Generic Division of Characters







The division of characters into realistic and fantastic should also be regarded as generic.  Another generic division is that between mimetic and didactic characters, although a mixture between the two may be involved. Phelan, for example, has noted that ‘authors may employ mimetic means to didactic ends’ (1984).

Another classification of characters which may have an effect on generic classification divides them into imitative, illustrative and independent (or ‘aesthetic’),  as depicted in the table below:


Table 4.2: Classification of characters that may

affect generic classification

Character Type



Characters exist in relation to actual human beings, of which they are supposed to resemble.


Characters are didactic, and are supposed to represent moral ideas.


Characters exist in their own right, and are not directly or closely related to mimetic or didactic considerations.


4.16 Agent and Character


A distinction is sometimes made between agent and character. An agent is a simplified character, whereas the term character is reserved for more complex personages in a narrative. However, we may want to question the extent of the validity of the distinction. Chatman is one narratologist who believes that agent must be distinguished from character (1978: 110).  In making the distinction, he has undoubtedly been influenced by the French narratologists (see below). 

However, the term character is also used in relation to narrative agents, without a clear indication that the two should be distinguished.  According to Margolin for instance, the ‘ascription of individual properties to [a narrative agent] may be called “characterization”’ (1983: 4; see also Margolin 1986: 205).  The danger in ascribing to the view of Chatman and others on this matter, is that too rigid a distinction between character and agent may be made, and there will thus be no characterisation as such in many contemporary works of fiction.


4.17 Character and Structural Position: Character as Actor


Opposition to the realist or mimetic position may centre on the viewing of the concept of character in terms of a structural position.  Instead of character, one uses the term actor here.  One feature of an actor (like the term agent above) is the non-necessity of its resemblance to actual human beings.  The classification of a type of actors is sometimes called actant in narrative theory (after Greimas).



character viewed in terms of its structural position


a category of actors


This attempt at viewing characters in terms of their structural positions may also apply to conceptions of characters as more complex entities.  Springer for example, in her analysis of the characters of Henry James, says that ‘all characters [in James’ works] have a discoverable formal job -- to serve under “the governing principle of the whole work”’ (1978: 18).


4.18 Character and Audience Perception


Some scholars have underlined the importance of the audience’s perception of characters.  When one perceives a character, one is not wholly engaged in the perception of what is ‘there’.  As such, the text is not a transparent medium which allows one to ‘see’ the character as it is.   One is therefore dependent on schemas (see chapter 8) in one’s response to characters.


4.19 Ideological Considerations


Character(isation) may be based on, or motivated by, ideological considerations.  It may be based on the value judgments of both writer and reader, both of whom are usually unaware of their own underlying ideological principles.

However, characters who exist for purely ideological purposes (i.e. those who stand for ideas, or who define concepts), are rare, except in certain genres.  Such characters may exist in certain genres, such as in allegory.  Characters in allegory and related genres are ‘illustrative’ (see table 4.2 above).  Such illustrative characters have been described as ‘concepts in anthropoid shape’.


4.20 Evaluation of Standards of Behaviour


In spite of the difficulty of relating characters to ideological concerns, an evaluation of standards of behaviour is quite frequently invoked in our judgment of characters.  This means that we are back to the ethical approach to narrative noted in relation to Aristotle’s idea of mimesis above. 

In response to characterisation, an evaluation of standards of behaviour will lead to the classification of moral values in terms of whether the characters are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which is an issue in the production and analysis of many genres of narrative, including children's literature and computer games, such as Japanese or Eastern role-playing games and massively multi-player online games, among a good number of other genres of computer games.  Morality may actually act in opposition to the non-ethical (or non-Aristotelian) definition of mimesis here: characters are not simply a representation of  ‘real’ people, whose morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ qualities are blended and are not distinct, but they are quite distinctly ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Literary critics often require plausible characters who are not exceedingly virtuous nor monstrously evil. and in psychological realism, characters are, according to Paris (1974: 101), ‘individualized figures who resist abstraction and generalization, and where motivation is not susceptible to rigid ethical interpretation’.


4.21 Character and Theme


Characters may also exist to illustrate the theme of a story.  In this case, two considerations may be involved:

These structural considerations, in varying degrees, play a part in the theme of a narrative. 

Another complication may be involved here when a character can be both thematic and mimetic at the same time (in the non-Aristotelian sense: that is to say, reflective of real persons).  This has been argued by Phelan (1987: 284).


4.22 Interlinking of Characters


Characters are closely interlinked to each other.  To Springer: ‘every character contributes to our knowledge of every other’ (1978: 193), and to Warren et al. (1979): ‘. . .we seldom run across stories that involved only one, noninteractive character.’


4.23 Characters as Holistic Entities


However, characters are traditionally viewed, in spite of their interconnectedness, as holistic individuals in their own right.  They are regarded as unified beings.  For each character, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  With regard to the unity of characters however, modern fiction and thought have a tendency to view a character as being less unified than earlier conceptions.  In this regard, character has been viewed by D. H. Lawrence, using a metaphor from chemistry, in terms of what he calls ‘allotropic states’.  Lawrence calls into question the ego’s stability, which he describes as the ‘old stable ego of the character’.  The French critic Cixous also questions the unity of the self in a similar way (see the discussion in Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 30).  The unity of character is in fact questioned by the structuralists and post-structuralists in general.  To the structuralists, man himself is decentred, and has no individuality and psychological depth; the post-structuralists, such as Derrida and Lacan, further question the authority of the human subject. This tendency in modern thought and criticism has been noted by Bayley, who describes it as the ‘idea of personality . . . [in] a state of flux, in which new attitudes are forming. . .’ (1960: 286)


4.24 Identity


Another problem with characterisation is the identity of characters.  To some scholars, such as Leitch (1986), identity is an important consideration in the study of characterization.  Identity is defined by Margolin in terms of the question ‘what is the individual x like?’ (1987: 113).  This definition may be regarded as rather trivial.  There are also other problems with the notion of individuality.  In structuralism for example, man himself, and not just characters, is decentred.  Man’s lack of individuality in structuralism may be relevant for the study of contemporary fiction, where characters lose their individuality, or are simply anonymous.  According to Docherty, characters in contemporary fiction become increasingly anonymous (1983: xiv, 66); they are also ‘fragmentary and evanescent’ (1983: xiv).

The lack of individuality of certain characters may be relevant not only for contemporary fiction, but also for certain genres of narrative.  Mary McCarthy (1962), for example, claims that in sexual fiction, the self is annihilated, and as a result, characters of such works lack identity.  We can also say here that many characters in the narratives found in popular culture or in advertising lack identity, or, they have simplified identities which result in a lack of resemblance with actual human beings.


4.25 Psychological Depth


Some characters lack psychological depth.  It can in fact be said that most characters outside of realistic novels lack psychological depth.   This lack creates a problem for the use of the word character, as some definitions assume that psychological depth is a necessary feature of characterisation.


4.26 Static and Developing Characters


One classification of characters involves those who are static and those who are developing.  A developing character changes, and for change in such a character to be convincing, it must be, in traditional literary criticism:

1) possible in the character,

2) adequately impelled by circumstances, and

3) sufficient time must be given for the change to be believable.

At the same time, change requires selection: an entire lifetime cannot be presented within the span of a narrative.

With reference to change, we may look again at Lawrence’s ‘allotropic states’, which was mentioned in section 23 of this chapter above.  In this conception, characters change all the time, and so, the criteria on how to make change convincing mentioned above, may not apply.

The possibilities of change and development in cinematic characters are usually more restricted than in characters of a novel.  If a character in a film changes or develops, certain large and significant segments of the character’s life are presented.  If the character develops from childhood (or even babyhood) to adulthood, more than one actor is needed, and this may have an effect on our perception of the character’s development: we may ask, for example, whether some of the changes we see are due more to the peculiarities of the actor and are not really necessary to the character’s development (this can be a significant factor when analysing cinematic characters performed by child actors).


4.27 Flat and Round


Another categorisation of characters involves their division into flat and round. This categorisation has been attributed to E.M. Forster, who wrote about it in his Aspects of the Novel.

The characteristics of a flat character can be summed up in a sentence.  Flat characters are simple: they have only one or two traits.  They are also stable, stereotypical, and undeveloping.  Flat characters are mainly found in fairy tales, detective fiction, pulp fiction, and such works; in this regard, flatness and roundness may thus be linked to the genre of the narrative.

Round characters are complex and have manifold characteristics.  They are closer to actual persons than flat characters.  They change in the course of the story; they develop and are capable of surprising the reader.  To Chatman, it is easier to identify with round characters, even though they may not ‘add up’, and may not always be uniform or logically consistent.  Round characters are open-ended: we can at best only speculate about their future actions; they are thus less determinate than flat characters.


Table 4.3: Distinction between Flat and Round Characters

Flat Characters      

 Round Characters

simple and uniform:

complex and manifold:

  • only one or two traits
  • numerous traits
  • characteristics can be summed up in a sentence 
  • characteristics need elaborate description



  • undeveloping
  • developing
  • closed
  • open-ended

more distant from actual human beings:

closer to actual human beings:

  • stereotypical
  • not easily analysable according to rigid formulation or preconceived notions
  • harder to sympathise with
  • easier to sympathise with

their actions are:

their actions are:

  • determinate
  • difficult to determine in advance
  • logically consistent with what was given earlier
  • not always logically consistent with what was given earlier

  • not surprising to readers most of the time

  • surprising to readers some of the time


The distinction between flat and round characters may also apply to the analysis of cinematic narratives.  A director may want to have flat characters in his film, and chooses non-actors to play their parts, so that there will be less concentration on the actor’s acting skills, and more scope will be given to other aspects of the film.

Rimmon-Kenan has criticised the division into ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters in written narratives.  According to her, the belief that round characters are developing and complex may not always be correct.  She gives the example of James Joyce’s Bloom here, who according to her, is complex but undeveloping.  To Rimmon-Kenan, instead of the division of characters into ‘flat’ and ‘round’, we should have 3 continua (1983: 41; based on Ewen):

1) the extent to which there is a penetration into the inner life of the character,

2) the degree of the character’s complexity, and

3) the extent of the character’s development.


4.28 Stock Characters


Definition of  stock character:

A character who is closely associated with a given narrative genre

Stock characters are different from flat characters, although they may share some characteristics: indeed, many of the characteristics associated with flat characters listed in table 4.3 above, are also found in stock characters.  Stock characters are those who are likely to appear in relation to a given narrative genre: e.g. cowboys and Indians in Westerns or the murderer and detective in detective fiction.



4.29 Superficial Characters


Superficial characters do not form themselves into a category like flat or stock, but are dependent on the reader’s evaluative judgment of a character as such. However, it is highly probable that stock characters have a tendency to be superficial when compared to those who cannot be described as such, and flat characters are likely to be more superficial than those who are round.  The evaluation of a character as superficial is usually based, amongst other considerations, on whether there is too much concentration on external details in the depiction of the character.


4.30 Tellable Characters


Tellable characters are characters who can be easily or conveniently told in a story, and are usually:

However, consistency may not always be a feature of literary characters, as noted earlier, thus making many literary characters less ‘tellable’.

We can relate tellable characters to readable characters (see Roland Barthes’ distinction between readerly and writerly texts in S/Z).  We can note here that in complex works of literature, which are usually writerly texts, the characters are usually less tellable or readerly, thus making them, in a sense, ‘difficult’ (which of course, does not mean that they are not ‘interesting’).


4.31 Protagonist and Antagonist


The protagonist, as you may know, is the chief character in a narrative.  In popular narratives, it is traditionally believed that the protagonist is usually attractive, honest and good-hearted (although there are variations on this in recent years). In serious fiction however, the protagonist may sometimes be portrayed unsympathetically.

The antagonist may be the villain (see below), or (more neutrally), a counter-character to the protagonist.


4.32 The Hero


Related to, but not necessarily identical to the protagonist, is the hero.  The hero is less easy to define than the protagonist.  Attempts to define the conception of the hero have not resulted in anything definite, as the criteria for what the hero should be are different from reader to reader.  There is also a difference between nineteenth and twentieth century conceptions of the hero. However, there is some agreement that the hero should embody positive qualities, although what these positive qualities exactly are, and how they could be measured or balanced against less positive qualities, are not definite.

One definition which we can easily reject, is that given by Coste for written fiction: that the ‘hero’ is the anthropomorphic bearer of the largest number of words (1979).  It is not easy to resort to mechanical means to define the hero, as features of heroes and heroines are of human relevance, and may not be dependent on external details such as the number of words in a work referring to them.


4.33 Types of Hero: Is the Hero Always Good?


There are a few types of hero:

From the above, it can be seen that the hero is not always good.  Only the active, successful hero can be described as clearly ‘good’.  The hero-victim may be ‘good’, but he is someone who suffers, and his suffering certainly cannot be described as ‘good’ to him. A hero-villain, like Richard III in Shakespeare's play, is only a ‘hero’ because he is the protagonist of the play, but is, in almost every other respect, a villain.

The opponent of the hero is the villain, but as we have seen, features of the two may coalesce in the hero-villain.  Although badness seems to be an inherent quality of villains, villains may not be morally ‘bad’ in some works, but may have an aesthetic, instead of a purely moral reason for their categorisation as villains.


4.34 Genre: Influence on Characterisation


The genre of a narrative may determine the types of characters found in a work. 


The importance of characterisation is minimised in

  • allegories and
  • short stories

We have noted that stock characters are dependent on the genre of the narrative.  Likewise, flat and round characters have some connection to genre (see section 4.27 above).  We can thus say that characterisation, character classification, or even the importance of characters themselves, may be minimised or maximised with reference to the genre in which the character appears (see the two examples below).

As regards the minimization of the importance of characters, we can note that characters by themselves are less important in allegory and in certain other genres, such as the conte philosophique (or philosophical tale): it is the ideas which these characters represent which are more important.

The importance of character is also minimized in the short story, but for a different reason: due to the length of the short story, there is usually room for only one, or at the most, two developed characters.  The minor characters of short stories, apart from being un- or under-developed, are almost invariably flat.  The change in the character of the protagonist of a short story is usually a result of a crucial situation in life, and there is usually room for only one change; character is even more minimal in the sketch, as there is hardly any change in the character.

Genre may also determine the role or actions of characters; for example, it is usually the case that the detective in detective fiction will find the murderer.


4.35 Principles of Characterisation: Traditional Literary Criticism


The principles of characterisation (as implicitly subscribed to by many traditional literary critics) are, that they should be,

However, there may be problems if we apply the principles above outside of mainstream literature, let alone to apply them to non-literary narratives.


4.36 Traits and the Image of the Character


With reference to our discussion on traits in section 5 above, we can say here that the accumulation of traits of a character contributes to our image of a character.  In addition, we can say that the more traits a character has, the more concrete the character becomes.

The accumulation of traits is also one factor, amongst others, which may arguably make the character more ‘realistic’. The character’s image is also determined by his or her relationship with other characters.  We depend on other characters’ words or perception on a particular character to get an impression of him or her.  The character also has a self-image which he tries to project.

The importance of the character’s name in determining the traits or behaviour of a character should not be underestimated.  A character’s name usually has a definite relationship with his or her sex, and it may also tell us something about the character’s social status and geographical origin.  In some stories, the name may also have a bearing on the character’s attributes or tendencies.


4.37 Characters’ Past


The character’s past is important in considering what a character is during the narrative present.  However, a character’s past may not be easy to determine. Among questions that could be asked in relation to a character’s is, ‘How many children has Lady Macbeth?’, which as we have learned in section 12 above, may not be a relevant question in discussing the narrative of Shakespeare's play.

In spite of its difficulties, considerations of characters’ past are frequent in the psychoanalytic approach to literature, where the critic speculates on their childhood with reference to events or factors which may not actually be present in the text itself. One major problem in the psychoanalysis of fictional characters (as noted by Rimmon-Kenan and Chatman) is their treatment as real people, in which case there are difficulties in psychoanalysing them, due to the problems of treating them as real people.


4.38 Character, Action, and Plot


There are some interconnections between character with action, and hence, also, between character and plot. As we have seen, tragedy to Aristotle is not possible without plot, but it is possible without character (at least as the term is understood by some literary critics today).  If we accept a looser definition of character, we can say that there is an intimate relationship between action and character to Aristotle.  For this reason, the approach to character as a function of the plot has been described by some scholars as Aristotelian.

The interconnection of character with action is also made by  the Formalists, to whom character is a product of plot.  Character is therefore secondary to the plot to them, and is described as a function or actant (cf. section 17 above; see also Margolin 1983: 2).  A function or actant when used in relation to a character refers to an abstract sphere of action: a character is therefore identified by what kind of actions he or she has done or will do.  In this connection, some kind of formalization may be used to determine a character’s  functional range.  This approach to characterisation is interested in what characters do in a story, not what they are, another way of formulating this is to say that what characters do is what they are.

Propp’s seven spheres of action:

1) villain,

2) donor,

3) helper,

4) sought-for-person,

5) dispatcher,

6) hero,

7) false hero.

One actional approach to characterisation is that of Vladimir Propp (1968), who divides characters into seven spheres of action: 1) villain, 2) donor, 3) helper, 4) sought-for-person, 5) dispatcher, 6) hero, 7) false hero.  Although Propp’s spheres of action could also be seen in terms of character roles, their roles are inseparable from what they do.

Another actional approach to characterisation is that of Greimas, whose conception of actants views characters as a function of the plot.  To Greimas (1990), there are 6 actants: sender, object, receiver, helpersubject, opponent.            

However, the relationship between character and plot is not always seen in terms of character being a function of the plot. The novelist Henry James reverses the relationship by insisting that it is the plot that should be a product of character. Although James' idea here may have more general applicability, he may be referring more specifically to fictional narratives; and to his own approach to the writing of fiction in particular.

Another criticism of the actional approach to characterisation is that we do not always respond to characters in relation to the plot: this is true even in fairy tales and other simple stories where plot is important.  This is partly due to the apparent presence of human consciousness in narrative, which makes us try to look at aspects of characterisation which are not manifested in characters’ actions.  We can also note that in many complex narratives, characters are viewed more directly in terms of their inherent qualities, and not in terms of their actions. Furthermore, a distinction is sometimes made between narratives that concentrate on action and plot, and those that concentrate on character, such as that made between the novel of character and the novel of incident in nineteenth century approaches to the novel. Although this approach to the novel has been criticised by Henry James, in his attempt to reverse the relationship between character and plot mentioned above, the more general distinction between narratives that concentrate on character and those in which action and plot predominate, is still very much with us.


4.39 Beginnings and Ends and Characterisation


The notions of beginnings and ends, which have some relationship with plot, also have connections to characterisation.  In this connection, we can note that:


4.40 Characters and Settings


As we have seen in the previous chapter on settings (section 3.12), characters are related to their settings.  In naturalistic literature, the setting has an influence on the mood and what happens in the story in general, due to the belief, inherent in the genre, in the intimate connection between characters and their environment (see for example, Naturalism in American Literature).  However, even in the naturalistic novel, the setting is usually not merely or rigidly deterministic: certain characters, for example, may move from one setting to another, or they may even change some aspects of their settings.


4.41 Direct and Indirect Presentation of Characters


One interesting feature in the analysis of characters is their direct and indirect presentation in the narrative.  This can be related to ‘telling’ (which is indirect) and ‘showing’ (which is direct). In telling,  there is a straight presentation of character in terms of the narrator’s own view.   This may be clear and economical, but may not always be convincing.  Indirect presentation of character can, of course, also be given by a character in a narrative. In showing however, we have a dramatised character who apparently speaks and acts on his own, as in a dramatic performance, without the seeming interference of the narrator or another intermediary.