THEORIZING CHARACTER: A FEW POINTERS

I have suggested to one of my prospective doctoral students to consider studying the configuration of secondary characters (in Harry Potter) for his dissertation and, so, I have embarked on a small bibliographical search to see what is available generally speaking on characters. This post is a record of my failure to find much of significance and implicitly a call for your suggestions.

As usual, I have started with the MLA database, which to my infinite surprise carries no entry for a monographic or collective volume on ‘character’. You get hundreds of entries, mostly journal articles, with analyses of this or that character but nothing systematic that can be used as a departure point to study this central concept. Next, I have turned to WorldCat, where I have found a couple of academic books with the title ‘character’. They have turned out to be studies on moral philosophy within ‘Virtue Ethics’ (https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_virtue_ethics.html). Here ‘character’ is used in the sense of personal identity that needs to be fortified in order to make adequate ethical decisions. Interesting! And how Victorian!

Next, I have turned to the Spanish database Dialnet, in search of anything on ‘personaje’. Here are some of the most relevant results:

*La construcción del personaje, Konstantin Stanislavskiï, Alianza Editorial, 1999.
*El personaje novelesco, coord. Marina Mayoral, Cátedra/Ministerio de Cultura, 1990.
*Más allá del personaje, José Javier Muñoz, Confederación Española de Gremios y Asociaciones de Libreros, 1996.
*Teoría del personaje, Carlos Castilla del Pino, Alianza Editorial, 1989.
*La condición del personaje, Álvaro Salvador, Caja General de Ahorros de Granada, 1992.
*El personaje teatral, Jesús G. Maestro, Universidade de Vigo, 1998.
*Personaje dramático y actor, César Oliva Olivares, Universidad de Murcia, 2004.

What do we have here, then? Very little!! 20th century research, with one exception; books that are hard or impossible to find and, in any case, more of interest in the field of drama than of the novel. Marina Mayoral’s collective volume gathers together the papers presented in a seminar and cannot be the type of systematic study that should exist but does not exist… but at least it is something…

Of course, E.M. Forster made a famous (or infamous) distinction in Aspects of the Novel (1927) between flat and round characters and most specialists in Literary Studies are content to pass it on our students with no further thought. This is, however, a very limited impressionistic difference of little actual use. I may be completely off the track but it appears that the major academic book in English on characters is W.J. Harvey’s Character and the Novel published in 1965, yes, +50 years old (see https://ia801601.us.archive.org/31/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.459267/2015.459267.Character-And-The-Novel.pdf). Its most recent edition is dated 1970, which gives an important clue about when the study of character went out of fashion. There is an article by Mark Spilka, Martin Price, Julian Moynahan and Arnold Weinstein called “Character as a Lost Cause” published in 1978 (NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Spring 1978, 197-217) so, let’s say, for the sake of the argument that 1980 marked a turning point.

The article by Fernando Sánchez Alonso, “Teoría del personaje narrativo (Aplicación a El amor en los tiempos del cólera)”, in Didáclica (10, 79-105, 1993, https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/DIDA/article/viewFile/DIDA9898110079A/19784, offers in its abstract an interesting summary of the issue: (my translation and my italics) “In this article, we try to explore our understanding of character as well as explain the reasons why its study has fallen into disrepute in modern literary theory in comparison to its prestige in Greco-Latin and Renaissance poetics; we examine character next in relation to psychoanalysis and society to finally explain how it is built and which kinds of character there are.” That is to say: in the 1980s stylistics lost ground to the forces of identity politics, whether on an individual basis (Freud and company) or in the context of representation (need I explain this?). Narratology, though, opened other ways to consider character, of which an example is Francisco Álamo Felices’ article “La caracterización del personale novelesco: Perspectivas narratológicas” (Signa 15, 2006, 189-213), which I must recommend for its thoroughness in presenting the case. I must say, in any case, that his bibliography does not include any text dealing specifically with characters but mainly with narratology–as it should be expected from the title.

Here I open a brief parenthesis to note that I personally disagree with the application of psychoanalysis to the study of character, which was pioneered by Freud’s reading of Prince Hamlet as an individual manifestedly suffering from Oedipus complex. A character is a construction, not a person. If we have to psychoanalyse anyone that should be the author but this is not at all a strategy I would endorse. Now, being myself extremely guilty of exploiting character traits to endorse this or that aspect of gender representation, I must insist that it is precisely because I am researching representation that I find the gap in the study of characterization so worrying. We need to understand collectively much better what kind of stylistic device a character is to see how innovation is produced, hence contribute to a better kind of representation for specific identities.

It has finally occurred to me that the obvious place to find volumes about characters in fiction (and here I mean novels, short stories, drama, film, TV… all kinds) is in creative writing. Here’s the list of 115 books with the words “creating characters” in their title offered by WorldCat (https://www.worldcat.org/search?q=ti%3A%22creating+characters%22&qt=results_page), and here’s the shorter list (88 volumes) of ‘Books for Writers’ that you may find in GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/13705.Books_For_Writers

Allow me to highlight a few titles, with the word ‘character’ in them, though I think we can safely assume that all these books offer instruction about characterization (please do read Stephen King’s On Writing):
*Characters and Viewpoint by top science fiction and fantasy writer Orson Scott Card
*Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger, a very well known name in the field of creative screenwriting
*Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain
*Characterization and Sensory Detail (Writing Active Setting #1) by Mary Buckham
* The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
*Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell

Here’s the daring thing to do: incorporate all this ‘advice literature’ to the academic study of character. I know that this is not as straightforward as I am suggesting here for, when read from an academic point of view, these volumes can be problematic. We are not used to their pragmatic approach, which clashes with our textual heuristic, etc. It might also be the case that, at least speaking for myself, I distrust this type of book because at heart I think that authors should know without being told how to build a character from reading other authors–and I know this is silly.

So far I have only mentioned ‘character’ in general, without distinguishing between protagonists and secondary characters. This is one of my pet obsessions these days: that secondary characters reveal the true tensions in the text. But… what does secondary mean? Think, for the sake of argumentation, of Mercutio and Count Paris in Romeo and Juliet: neither is a main character like those in the title, yet we can see that Count Paris is of lesser importance because he has few lines. However, if you think about it, you could take Mercutio off the play and the plot would still work (you could have Romeo slay Tybalt for another stupid, macho reason), whereas if you eliminate Count Paris the plot collapses–his arranged engagement to Juliet is the reason why she marries Romeo secretly and in such a hurry, as she does not want to marry her father’s choice. It makes no sense at all, as I’m sure you see, that secondary characters have been overlooked with such intensity in Literary Studies, with very few exceptions (the monographic issue of Belphégor, 2003, https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/handle/10222/31210).

In drama a ‘spear carrier’ is the nickname that actors in walk-on parts with no dialogue receive. The film equivalent would be the character seen but not heard–poor Álex González made his Hollywood debut in X: First Class, part of the X-Men franchise, appearing in the credits as Janos Quested/Riptide though he had no lines. A glorified spear carrier, then. I amused myself by asking some literary colleagues what is the minimum we need in print fiction to define a character as such: is a name enough? There was no agreement… These are examples to make you see that the problem is not simply that we do not know how to approach fully developed characters–we don’t even understand the spectrum of characterization connecting spear carriers and main characters, nor where to draw the line between kinds of secondary characters.

Plenty of work to do, then…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

2 comentarios en “THEORIZING CHARACTER: A FEW POINTERS

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada.