Character: A New Critical/Formalist Approach

We use the term character to designate the verbal representation of a person (or person-like thing) in narrative.  Characters are not always human;  pigs, talking cars, and buildings can all function as characters.  One important  criterion is that characters are agents.  They do things and things happen to them.

One way to avoid endless disputes about what a character is or isn’t is to refer to “characterization,” the way characters are constructed in the text by writers and readers, rather than to character per se.  Within a formalist approach, characterization works through the communication of character traits – – habitual behavior, frames of mind, and states of being.  Some typical character traits might include: greedy, innocent, evil, fastidious, hypocritical, etc.  [Note: traits are not the same as physical traits.  Short, tall, thin, blond: these are aspects of external appearance that contribute to characterization.]

Modes of characterization

There  are two main modes of characterization:

• direct definition occurs when character traits are named by a narrator:
“Mr. Fulkerson was a venal, slovenly man much given to kicking small animals and abusing delicate flowers.”

• indirect definition occurs when a trait is not directly stated but is displayed and exemplified within the narrative discourse and must be induced by the reader:
“Brushing his bright day-glo orange hair off his forehead with a smug  sweep of his meaty hand, Mr. Fulkerson chuckled over the sight of his latest victim – – a delicate petunia – – as it lay crushed and spoiled at his feet.”

Indirect definition

Because indirect definition is more common and complicated in modern narrative,  we should look at it in more detail.  Indirect characterization usually happens through several modes:

•action:  traits may be implied by one-time or habitual actions.  These actions can also be classified as acts of commission, acts of omission, and contemplated acts.

• speech: character speech, whether internal or spoken, indicates traits through its content and form.  Speech content not only characterizes what or whom is spoken about, but also the speaker.  Speech form, through dialect, slang, style, often indicates the class, origins, profession, race, and attitudes of a speaker.

• external appearance: the metonymic relation (where part of a character’s appearance signifies some larger meaning) between  external appearance and character traits is an important mode of characterization that draws on a cultural code of convention, stereotype, and typology.

•environment: the place a character lives, works, or just hangs out can also be used to characterize him or her.

Types of characters

Literary people often use broad categories to help organize kinds of characters.  These types, or kinds, of characters usually found in narrative fiction include:

•round, as opposed to flat, characters.  Round characters are seen to have fully psychological realities and a fat bundle of character traits.  They change and adjust to circumstances; they are dynamic.  Flat characters are static.  They are often tied to one character trait or quality and tend toward the stereotypical or allegorical.

It’s unclear how far this distinction, between round and flat, will take us analytically.  It does however  help alert us to the way in which characterization is related to narrative function.  Characters’ different narrative jobs will often determine their mode of characterization, and vice versa.  Here are some kinds of characters defined by the work they do within the narrative:

•minor characters:

• protagonist:  the protagonist is the character who mainly acts or is acted upon in a narrative.  Narratives can contain more than one protagonist, but are usually organized in classical narrative around one main agent.  Protagonists can be “bad” or “good.”  They are almost always round characters.  The main thing about protagonists is that they have goals and resources.  The various obstacles to a protagonist might sometimes be embodied in the antagonist  or antagonists.  A quick way of analyzing the protagonist is in terms of goals which create problems, establish obstacles, and define change (success or failure).

•minor  characters: minor characters are defined solely (or almost solely) by their function within the narrative.  They are usually “flat” characters.  Their functions may include: plot (where they exist only to further or complicate the plot); setting (where they help to establish setting); characterization (where they serve to emphasize or elicit other characters’ traits); thematic (where they underscore or amplify certain thematic strands).  Finally, minor  characters can be defined by their “helper” function, where they serve as adjuncts to main characters, supplying information, objects, and experiences necessary to main characters. [These are issues which will be taken up much more thoroughly by structuralist approaches to narrative and character.]