In Character

By Becky Powell

 

Last night I said farewell to old friends.  I left them where they were and walked down the dirt road that led through town.  I passed through the heavy gates that protected the city.  I walked over the bridge, the centerpiece of my friends’ lives, and out of the Middle Ages, back into 2008 and the busy paved street that led to my house with indoor plumbing, central heat and air, and a great big comfy reading chair.

I closed my book, placed it on the table beside me and sat silently for a few minutes, grieving.  I had just finished Ken Follett’s historical fiction novel World Without End.  After nine hundred and twenty-seven pages, I had become attached to a cast of fascinating people.

In the best novels, we are deliciously tricked into believing that when we close the cover, life between the pages goes on without us.  How can characters so vivid just disappear into thin air when the book is closed?  Therein likes the writer’s craft.

Character Basics

Unlocking the character code can be a tool for critiquing literature.  A character is born where speech, appearance, and action come together around a name.[1]  A characterization is the process by which the writer makes the character seem real to the reader. 

The protagonist, a hero or heroine, is the character with whom we become most deeply involved.  The antagonist is the character that parallels or opposes the protagonist, providing the conflict in the story.

A character that does not change through the text is a static character.  A dynamic character does go through change as a result of the action in the plot.

A flat character is one that has one or two simple qualities or traits and is not psychologically complex.  Sometimes flat characters are called “stock characters.”  These can be easily summarized, and are more a “type” than an individual.  Characters that are more complex and fully developed are round characters or dramatized characters.    Round characters generally are consistent in action and reaction, and plausibly motivated.

Writers may use direct presentation to tell the reader by exposition or analysis about the character.  Writers also use indirect presentation, showing the character in action and letting the reader infer the character’s qualities.    

Traditionally, readers explore characters on a personal level.[2]  In other words, a reader asks, “What kind of person is this character?  Is she a person I’d like to know?”  A reader might also try to figure out why the character behaves as she does, or compare the character’s action with what we would do in a similar situation. 

In order for a reader to become involved with a character on a personal level, we make a few assumptions about literary characters

•·         The character is motivated from within to act

•·         The character is responsible for their own actions

•·         The character is unique and responds in personal ways

•·         The character is can be judged by comparing thoughts with actions.[3]

A personal approach to reading characters implies that the character is morally accountable for her actions in the same way a real person is judged accountable.[4]   As with contextual readings based on social customs, character readings based on social customs may reinforce the prevailing set of values and discount new, different, or novel beliefs and practices.

Characters as Signs

Another way to interpret characters is to see them as signs or devices that represent values in the text.  In fiction, characters can be used to open up or explore aspects of human experience, or to illustrate a trait of human behavior.[5]   

A symbol is something that stands not only for itself, but also for an abstract idea, belief, or quality. Conventional symbols are ones that are widely accepted and used by writers. Some symbolic characters are consistent throughout the text, but others gather new meaning throughout the text.[6] 

An archetype is a universal symbol or prototype that evokes response in a reader, sometimes unconsciously.  An archetype symbolizes basic human experiences, regardless of time and place. 

Conventional archetypes include

•·         the “great mother”

•·         the “wise old man”

•·         the “trickster”

•·         the “scarlet woman”

•·         the “faceless man.”

•·         the “artist-scientist”

Example:  The Symbolism of the “Artist-Scientist”

One archetype is that of the “artist-scientist.”  The artist-scientist is a builder, an inventor, a seeker or dreamer, and a thinker.  They may be so caught up in their own thoughts, they often must be reminded to eat or sleep, or come in out of the rain.  They are both highly knowledgeable and innocent.  They represent the wonder and the danger of curiosity.[7]

The artist-scientist is an agent of change.  This archetype character might spend hours concocting elaborate plans to reach the tower of the castle to rescue the princess, while the hero simply walks in the front door and up the stairs, scoops up the damsel and rides off into the sunset. The artist-scientist has an idealized view of reality. As a failure, the artist-scientists may symbolize the futility of trying to control one’s own fate. If successful, the artist-scientists can symbolize the idea that you can’t stop a dreamer from trying to change the world. Frequently naïve, the artist-scientist can also symbolize a gap between knowledge and fact. 

 

Application:  The Artist-Scientist in World Without End

In Follett’s historical novel World Without End, the characters were vivid and detailed.  His research was thorough, and he effectively used indirect presentation to flesh out the characters, which behaved, thought, and spoke in keeping with the historical period.

The character Murthin is an example of the artist-scientist archetype.  He’s of noble birth, but forced by poverty to become a builder.  Since little science and engineering was known in those days, Murthin had to excel as an engineer, an architect, and a physicist.   When faced with a problem, Murthin never failed to invent or create something that solves it.  In particular, Murthin designed a bridge to replace one that failed.  Murthin studied the problems with the old bridge, and came up with new technologies to solve them.  Superstition and religion are at cross purposes with Murthin’s science and Murthin mirrors the medieval trend from church rule to secular rule.  To the townspeople, Murthin’s methods are strange and untried, and Murthin is faced with constant efforts to thwart his plan.  Murthin represents the science side of the science-religion debate. He is determined, logical, and tolerant of new ideas.  He is so persistent, that the changes he wants to bring to the town seem inevitable, like the proverbial progress that is said to be unstoppable.  By refusing to work with mindless adherence to the past, Murthin represents the idea that knowledge isn’t finite, that all there is to know is not already known.  For Murthin, knowledge as dynamic rather than static, and mere mortals are capable of moving knowledge forward.  Murthin literally and figuratively builds, stone by stone, the foundation for the village’s inevitable crossing into an uncertain future.

Bibliography

Schema (psychology); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schema_(psychology)

Glossary of Literary Terms, Mayer Literature http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/literature/bedlit/glossary_p.htm#top[8]

PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project, Paul P. Reuben

http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/AXG.HTML[9]

Literary Archetypes

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Literary_archetypes

Schema Theory:  An Introduction, Sharon Alayne Widmayer, George Mason University, http://www2.yk.psu.edu/~jlg18/506/SchemaTheory.pdf

A Glossary of Literary Criticism

http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/gloss.htm

Anatomy of Literary Criticism, Frye, Northrop 1957.  http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/anacrit.htm

Follett, Ken, World Without End, Ken Follett, 2002, New York, Penguin Group.

Moon, Brian, Literary Terms, The NCTE Chalkface Series, 1999

<cite>Segal, Robert Alan; Jung, C. G. (1998).</cite> <cite>On mythology</cite><cite>, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.</cite> ISBN 0-691-01736-0

 

 

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