An Examination of the role of CHARACTER in literary texts
Superficially ... “A person in a story, someone we can relate to, or identify with ...”
Caricature – 2-dimensinal, simple, represents one value, e.g. the angry man, jealousy = related to allegory and satire = distortion for effect of one quality, or exaggeration of certain features; stereotypes
Narrative functions – hero/villain, trickster, false hero, magician, father/son, mother/daughter, outcast, rebel
In real life people that we come to know well are seldom just functions or caricatures
Real living people in the media, or celebrities, often have an assumed character or role that might be quite different from how they are in their personal life. In texts, an assumed role is called a persona, in the media we even talk about ‘personalities’ to express the public projection of a role. Perceptions of role or character can also be manipulated e.g. spin doctors and propagandists may want to present a politician with ‘strong leadership qualities and empathy.’
First person – autobiographical, “I”, my story.
Third person – author/omniscient narrator may provide insights into what they are thinking and feeling – free indirect narrative (author comments). “ ‘Yeah,’he muttered, feeling guilty about what he had done.”
Don’t have to describe a character in full at the outset – we can build up the sense of a character through the accumulation of details, observed behaviour, speech patterns
Historical – based on real people
Realistic – true-to-life, psychological, inner life and physical appearance;
Fantastic – imaginary – don’t even have to be human.
Development – some are static, others grow and develop from birth through childhood and adolescence to adult life. A Bildungsroman has the development of a central character across his/her life as a central preoccupation. An example of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations or David Copperfield.
Leading or primary characters – occupy key roles and focalise points of view. Often linked to the idea of the hero/heroine.
Supporting / secondary characters – help to illustrate the main theme, or to develop sub-plots.
Note the key role of dialogue to SHOW and REVEAL characters and their relationships
- colloquialisms, slang, blasphemy, coarse
- polished and elegant, urbaned and civilized
- monosyllabic or oratorical (speeches)
Conflict and relationships are essential for building character, and for moving the story forward.
The hero’s JOURNEY / progress involves – threats, obstacles, reversals, tricks, irony, metamorphosis, tests, deviations. Many stories have these structural elements.
Too much inconsistency leads to incredulity (disbelief) in the mind of the reader.
Wider Contexts: character display causation by environment/family/social class; allow the development of ideas and themes.
Avoid confusing a character’s voice, or that of the narrator, with the author. Don't try to guess authorial intentions!
Some characters are ironic – narrator/author having a laugh at their expense?
In Gulliver’s Travels, author Jonathan Swift manipulates the voice of Gulliver so that the reader sometimes supports, and at other times opposes Gulliver's point of view.
This means that there is a degree of inconsistency, and perhaps we should refer to Gulliver as a satirical persona, mouthpiece, or rhetorical device, rather than a character in the tradition of the realist novel.