Characters are the people in fictional narratives. As readers, we come to care about fictional characters; the imaginary people that write create, sometimes identifying with them, sometimes judging them. Indeed, if one reason we read stories is to find out what happens (to see how the plot works out an equally compelling reason is to follow the fortunes of the characters. Plot and character, in fact, are inseparable; we are often less concerned with “what happened” than with “What happened to him or to her”. We want to know not just “how did it work out”, but “how did it work out of them?”
Well- wrought fictional characters come alive for us while we read. And they are real enough to live in our memories long after their stories have ended. We might say that fictional characters possess the kind of reality that dreams have, a reality no less intense for being imagined. Although fictional characters cannot step out of the pages of their stories, we grant them a kind of reality equivalent to if not identical with our own. In doing so we make an implied contract with the writer so suspend our disbelief that his or her stories “Just a story”, an instead take what happens as if it were real. When we grant fiction this kind of reality, we permit ourselves to be caught up in the life of the story and its characters, perhaps to the point of allowing our own lives to be affected by them.
In short, we approach fictional characters with the same concerns with which we approach people. We need to be alert for how we are to take them, for what we are to make of them, and we need to see how they may reflect our own experience. We need to observe their actions, to listen to what they say and how they say it, to notice how they relate to other characters and how other characters respond to them, especially to what they say about each other. To make inferences about characters, we look for connections, for links and clues to their function and significance in the story. In analyzing a character or characters’ relationships (and fictional characters almost always exist in relation to one another) we relate one act, one speech, one physical detail to another until we understand the character.
Characters in fiction can be conveniently classified as major and minor,static and dynamic.
A major character is an important figure at the center of the story’s action or theme. Usually a character’s status as major or minor is clear. On occasion, however, not one but two characters may dominate a story, their relationship being what matters most. In Luigi Pirandello’s “War”, for example, no single character dominates the story the way Emily Grierson dominates William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or the narrator of “Araby” dominates James Joyce’s story.
The major character is sometimes called a protagonist whose conflict with an antogonist may spark the story’s conflict. Protagonist-the main character, or “hero/heroine”, of a plot. Antogonist–a character or force which opposes the main character, or protagonist, in a plot. Supporting the major character are one or more secondary or minor characters whose function is partly to illuminate the major characters. Minor characters are often static or unchanging; they remain the same from the beginning of a work to the end. Dynamic characters, on the other hand, exhibit some kind of change — of attitude, or purpose, of behavior- as the story progresses. We should be careful not to automatically equate major characters with dynamic ones or minor characters with static ones. For example, Emily Grierson, the major character in “A Rose for Emily”, is as static as the minor characters Richards and Brently Mallard in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”, whose major character, Mrs. Mallard, undergoes significant changes as the story unfolds.
Into the story setting the author places characters those who are involved in the action and those around whom the story revolves. Character development in stories is a complex process. Authors create characters in very specific ways: by the way in which the characters are described in text, by what the characters say, do, think, and by what other characters in the story say about them.
Characterization is crucial dimension of literature. For example: Folktales and fairy tales tend to have stock figures whose characters are “flat” and who simply symbolize good and evil: cruel stepmother, or generous king. Characterization is the means by which writers present and reveal character. We look first at the way James Joyce characterizes Mrs. Mooney, a major character, in “The Boarding House”:
“Mrs. Mooney was a butcher’s daughter. She was a woman who was quite able to keep things to herself: a determined woman. She had married her father’s foreman and opened a butcher’s shop near Spring Gardens.”
The method of characterization is narrative description with explicit judgment. We are given facts (she was a butcher’s daughter) and interpretive comment (she was…a determined woman). From both fact and comment we derive an impression of a strong woman, one who can take care of herself. As a butcher’s daughter, she does not stand high on the social ladder. The initial impression is confirmed when we later discover seems, that after her husband had became an alcoholic, had ruined his business, and had gone after Mrs. Mooney with a meat cleaver, she left him and opened a boarding house to support herself and her two children. When the narrator informs us that “she governed the house cunningly and firmly,” and when he calls her “a shrewd judge”, we come to share his respect for Mrs. Mooney’s abilities.
The narrator’s view of Mrs. Mooney, however, is not one of unqualified admiration.
Throughout “The Boarding House”, Joyce characterizes Mrs. Mooney by means of narrative description with explicit judgment. In introducing Polly he varies the technique:
Polly Mooney, the Madam’s daughter, would also sing. She sang:
I’m a….naughty girl.
You needn’t sham.
You know I am.
Polly sings this seductive verse, presumably with her mother’s approval. The implications of the song, coupled with other descriptive details about Polly, serve to characterize her. Unlike her mother, whose character is presented directly through narrative description with explicit judgment, Polly is characterized initially by means of narrative description with implied judgment: “Polly was a slim girl of nineteen; she had light soft hair and a small full mouth.” The crucial detail is the full mouth, which suggests sensuality. Moreover, Joyce’s narrator further embellishes Polly’s description with the information that “her eyes ….had a habit of glancing upwards when she spoke with anyone, which made her look like a little perverse “madonna”. “Madonna”, of course, is a word that sounds like madam, but is different in connotation. Polly is associated with innocence and holiness while also being called “perverse”, a contradiction of the Madonna image.
Joyce uses two additional; devices of characterization in this story: he reveals a character’s state of mind through surface details (the fogging of Bob Doran’s glasses and the shaking of his hand while he attempts unsuccessfully to shave); he also reveals characters by letting us enter their consciousness, telling us what they think and feel.
Jack Mooney, the only other character of significance (and of minor significance at that) functions partly as a foil, or opposite, to Bob Doran is serious, quite and timid, Jack Mooney is boisterous and somewhat belligerent. Doran is mild mannered with a slight physique; Jack Mooney is solidly built and pugnacious. Jack, it also provides one of the reasons Doran agrees to marry Polly. Doran remembers, quite vividly, how Jack Mooney had once shouted that if anybody tried to get fresh with Polly, Jack would “bloody well put his teeth down his throat, so he would”. (By the way, how Joyce captures Jack’s manner of speaking in this little outburst of remembered dialogue).
Other forms of literature however, need characters that are well rounded, believable and realistic. These are the people (or animals or things) whom people come to love or hate, admire or pity, laugh at or cry with. As in the case of setting, well developed story characters behave with consistency and authenticity.
Just as element of tone, mood, style, point of view are all closely related in that authors create these elements through the use of language, so are the major literary elements of setting, characterization, plot, and theme closely woven together in a story. The time and place of the setting shape the characters and direct the actions. By their actions in the plot, characters achieve a depth of personality. All four elements create story unity. By synthesizing these elements skilled authors create stories that constitute the field of literature for people.
- Aston, Elaine, and George Savona. 1991. Theatre as Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance. London and New York: Routledge.
- Pringle, David. 1987. Imaginary People: A Who’s Who of Modern Fictional Characters. London: Grafton.
- The McGraw Hill, Gilbert H.Muller, John Williams. Introduction to Literature. Second Edition. 1995.
- The McGraw Hill. Robert DiYanni, Kraft Rompt. Book of Fiction. 1995.
- Goring, Rosemary, ed. 1994. Larousse Dictionary of Literary Characters. Edinburgh and New York: Larousse.