(From "Responding to Literature" by Judith A. Stanford)What do other people think? What emotions do they experience? How are they similar to or different from us?
Literature allows us to look into the lives of an endless collection of men and women and find answers to these questions. We can learn about people’s hopes and fears, we can see them struggle through adverse circumstances, we can rejoice with them in moments of success and sympathise with them in moments of despair. In real life we have the opportunity of knowing intimately a relatively small number of people – family members, loved ones, close friends. Literature allows us to multiply that number by giving us access to the private thoughts and lives of an endless assortment of fascinating and memorable people.
It’s not surprising, then, that when we watch television programs, see movies, or read literature, most of us pay close attention to the people – the characters – whose lives unfold before us. To stay interested in a film, a novel, a short story, or a play, we must find the characters interesting in some way. Some characters fascinate us by being very different – by living in a distant place or a time long past or by being wildly glamorous or consummately evil. Sometimes characters may capture our minds and hearts because they are people we can relate to. They may face circumstances similar to our own or may act in ways that make us feel as though we are looking in a mirror. Frequently a character intrigues us by displaying a special quality or style: a unique sense of humour, a gift for the absurd, or a profoundly wise way of looking at the world.
Characters: Listening and Observing
Just as we respond to the people in our lives according to what we notice when we look at them and listen to them, readers respond to the speech, actions, and appearance of literary characters.
Listening. Sometimes characters speak with others – dialogue. We learn a great deal about a character’s personalities just by noticing how they speak to each other; understanding their personalities leads to questions about their relationship, their conflicts, their hopes for the future.
In addition to speaking to others, characters sometimes talk to an absent or unspeaking listener – monologue.
In a play, a character may address thoughts directly to the audience, or the character may speak thoughts aloud without any acknowledgement that an audience is there – soliloquy. Such a strategy gives the audience a chance to hear the uncensored thoughts of the character, thoughts that are shaped by the interaction with another character in the play.
Observing. Hearing what characters say leads to insights into who they are: what they believe, what they fear, what they hope for, and how they think about themselves and others. Observing characters provides further information. Just as you notice certain external characteristics about a person you meet, readers notice those qualities about a literary character. We know, for instance, that the granddaughter in "Butterflies” wears her hair in "two plaits”(braids) and that she carries a schoolbag, so we can create a picture of her in our minds. We know from Varinka’s description that Byelinkov wears round spectacles, perfectly pressed pants, and galoshes (whether or not it’s raining). These details allow us not only to visualise Byelinkov but also to make some inferences about his personality.
If you’ve ever indulged in "people watching” (perhaps at an airport or in a supermarket), you are probably an expert at noticing characteristics (such as age, hair colour, manner of dress) and at observing gestures, body movements, and other actions – that leads you to think further about people’s motivation.
Seeing a play is like people watching. Your understanding of the characters is enriched by seeing their dress, gestures, and so on. When you read plays, it’s important not to skip the stage directions (parenthetical notes by the playwright, at the beginning of the play or just before or just after a speech). These directions indicate what the characters are doing, describe their significant gestures and tone of voice, and often tell as much about the characters as do their words.
Although it may seem easier to notice gestures and movements of characters in plays or in works of fiction than in poetry, the speaker’s words often indicate actions. In "Theme for English B”, for example, the speaker’s walk from the college "on the hill above Harlem” to his room at "the Harlem Branch Y” suggests the physical distance he must travel each day and may hint at the distance he feels between himself and his white instructor.
By observing literary characters astutely and listening carefully to their words and thoughts, we bring them closer to our own lives. In much the same way, getting to know a person better may bring joy, pain, complication, challenge, frustration, and fulfilment.
Characters: Growing and Changing
In life, all of us grow and change every day. We often don’t notice day-to-day changes because they are so small, but if we haven’t seen someone for a while – for a year or two or even a few months – we usually notice differences, both in physical appearance and in the way the person thinks, speaks, and acts. To observe changes accurately, and to speculate on what brought about those changes, we have to know a person fairly well.
So it is with literary characters. Many times, a story, play, or poem shows a character who changes – a dynamic character. To be interested in the change, we need to know the character fairly well. He or she must come alive for us. To capture our interest, the author must create a round (well-developed) character rather than a flat character who shows only one or two characteristics.
As you read literature, there are two other important terms to keep in mind for describing people: protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the major character with whom we generally sympathise, while the antagonist is the character with whom the protagonist is in conflict. The antagonist is generally not sympathetic. In "Butterflies,” the granddaughter could be seen as the protagonist and the teacher as the antagonist.
Like our readings of the comments and actions of people we meet in every day life, no single reading of literary characters’ words or gestures is necessary "correct”. No single observation represents the "final answer”. Instead, multiple possibilities exist. The important thing to remember is that all those possibilities must be suggested – and supported – by details in the text. Obviously we draw on our own life experiences and observations when we think about literary characters, but it’s essential to keep in mind that the information that leads to our responses comes from what the work itself offers.
Characters: Point of View
Suppose you hear a friend talk angrily about an argument with a roommate and later hear the roommate describe the same disagreement. What are the chances that the two reports will be the same? Almost none. Accounts such as these are bound to be very different, primarily because they are being told from two distinct points of view. What information is offered? What is withheld? Which words are repeated? Which are suppressed? What significance is the incident given? The answers to all these questions depend on who is describing the argument. When you form your own opinion about the disagreement, you take into account who is recounting the incident. In much the same way, readers think carefully about point of view in literary works.
The Indirect Method of Character Presentation: Authorial Interpretation
In the writing itself, there are five basic methods of character presentation, of which the indirect method, authorial interpretation, and two of the four direct methods: appearance and action. Employing a variety of these methods can help you draw a full character. If you produce a conflict among the methods, it can also help you create a three-dimensional character.
The indirect method of presenting a character is authorial interpretation – "telling” us the character’s background, motives, values, virtues, and the like. The advantage of the indirect method are enormous, for its use leaves you free to move in time and space; to know anything you choose to know whether the character knows it or not; and godlike, to tell us what we are to feel. The indirect method allows you to convey a great deal of information in a short time.
The most excellent Marquis of Lumbria lived with his two daughters, Caroline, the elder, and Luise; and his second wife, Doa Vicenta, a woman with a dull brain, who, when she was not sleeping, was complaining of everything, especially the noise …
The Marquis of Lumbria had no male children, and this was the most painful thorn in his existence. Shortly after having become a widower, he had married Doa Vicenta, his present wife, in order to have a son, but she proved sterile.
The Marquis’ life was as monotonous and quotidian, as unchanging and regular, as the murmur of the river below the cliff or as the liturgic services in the cathedral.
/Miguel De Unamuno, "The Marquis of Lumbria”/
Indeed, in the passage above, it may well be part of Unamuno’s purpose to convey the "monotonous and quotidian” quality of the Marquis’s
Life by this summarized and distanced rehearsal of facts, motives, and judgments. Nearly every author will use the indirect method occasionally, and you may find it useful when you want to cover the exposition quickly.
The Direct Method of Character Presentation
The four methods of direct presentation are appearance, action, speech, and thought. A character may also be presented through the opinion of other characters, which may be considered a second indirect method. When this method is employed, however, the second character must give his or her opinion in speech, action, or thought. In the process, the character is inevitably also characterized. Whether we accept the opinion depends on what we think of the character as he or she is thus directly characterized. In this scene from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, for example, the busybody Mrs. Norris gives her opinion of the heroine.
"… there is something about Fanny, I have often observed it before, - she likes to go her own way to work; she does not like to be dictated to; she takes her own independent walk whenever shr can; she certainly has a little spirit of secrecy, and independence, and nonsense, about her, which I would advise her to get the better of.”
As a general reflection on Fanny, Sir Thomas thought nothing could be more unjust, though he had been so lately expressing the same sentiments himself, and he tried to turn the conversation, tried repeatedly before he could succeed.
Here Mrs. Norris’s opinion is directly presented in her speech and Sir Thomas’s in his thoughts, each of them being characterized in the process. It is left to the reader to decide (without much difficulty) whose view of Fanny is the more reliable.
Author and Speaker
Distinguishing author from speaker in a literary work is essential. Unlike roommates describing an argument, poets, playwrights, writers of fiction, and sometimes even writers of nonfiction are not necessarily telling personal stories. Although authors often do write about incidents or people from their own lives, they write through a created voice that is not necessarily identical to their own.
Carlene Indreasano points out this distinction between author and speaker. In her comment on "Theme for English B”, she says that the events in the poem "could be something that happened to Hughes [the poet] or not.” Carlene is absolutely right. In fact, Hughes did attend Columbia University (which does sit "on the hill above Harlem”), but it does not matter whether or not he received the assignment described and responded to it in the way described. What matters is that Hughes has created a speaker (persona) who describes receiving and responding to an assignment that asks students to "Go home and write / a page tonight./ And let that page come out of you - / Then, it will be true.”
Voice and Tone
The term voice refers to a writer’s personality as revealed through language. Writers may use emotional, colloquial, or conversational language to communicate a sense of personality. Or they may use abstract, impersonal language to conceal their personality or to lend an air scientific objectivity.
Tone is a writer’s attitude toward the subject. The attitude may be positive or negative. It may be serious, humorous, honest, or ironic; it may be skeptical or accepting; it may be happy, frustrated, or angry. Often voice and tone overlap, and together they help us hear a writer talking to us.
Related to voice and tone is the persona, the "mask” that a writer can put on. Sometimes in telling a story about himself the author may want to speak in his own "natural” voice. At other times, however, he may change or exaggerate certain characteristics in order to project a character different from your "real” self. Writers may project themselves as braver and more intelligent than they really are. Or they may create a persona who is more foolish or clumsy than they really are, to create a humorous effect. This persona can shape a whole passage. James Thurber, a master of autobiographical humor, uses a persona – along with his chronological narrative – to shape his account of a frustrating botany class:
I passed all the other courses that I took at my university, but I could never pass botany. This was because all botany students had to spend several hours a week in a laboratory looking through a microscope at plant cells, and I could never see through a microscope …
Just as the voice in a poem is called the speaker, the voice that tells a story (in a novel or short fiction) is called the narrator. (Sometimes a play has a narrator. Usually, however, a play unfolds directly from the characters’ dialogue, along with the playwright’s stage directions.)
In fiction, the narrator is sometimes omniscient (all-knowing), moving freely into the minds of all the characters. An omniscient narrator can report not only what characters look like, what they do, and what they say but also what they think. A variation is the limited omniscient narrator, who sees into the mind of only one character. Obviously, when the thoughts of only one character are reported, readers know more about that character than any other and see the events of the story – as well as the other characters – through that character’s eyes.
Sometimes the narrator is also a character in the story. In this case, the narrator uses the first person ("I” or "we”) - subjective. First-person narrators can, of course, report only what is in their own minds or what they see or hear. Omniscient, limited omniscient, and first-person narrators may also make evaluations – for example, they may state that a character is brave or silly or that an action was wise or foolhardy. As readers, we must consider the source of such judgements. Is the narrator reliable or unreliable? Is there reason to think that the narrator is suppressing information, is lying outright, or is simply incapable of seeing and understanding certain facts? Even if the narrator is reliable, keep in mind that the events are reported from that person's’ point of view – a different viewpoint might lead to a very different story. Consider, for example, how different the episode in "Butterflies” would be if it were told from the point of view of the teacher.
Sometimes the narrator is objective, like a sound camera that reports what it sees and hears. This point of view is used in the story "Butterflies”. We are told what the characters do and say, but we are not taken inside their minds. Objective point of view leaves all evaluation and judgement to the reader. Even so, the narrator still has a great deal of power. This particular objective narrator, for example, shows us only the girl and her grandparents; we do not get to see the teacher and to observe for ourselves her response to the girl’s story. It’s always essential, then, to recognize that the speaker in a poem and the narrator (or characters) in a work of fiction or in drama show us only one way of looking at an experience, an object, a person, or an emotion. There are many other ways – left unexplored except in our own imaginations – of looking at that same experience, object, person, or emotion.
Questions to ask when analysing character
1. Is he a major or a minor character? Is he the protagonist/antagonist of the story?
2. Is he a round or a flat character?
3. Is he dynamic or static?
4. Does the author reveal the character through showing or telling, or does he use both techniques?
5. What does the way the character speaks reveal about his character?
6. What information does the way the character behaves provide?
7. Is he similar to or different from other characters in the story? How does he relate to the other characters?
8 Has the setting shaped the character’s personality? Does the setting reflect his mood or emotional state?
9. Does the character’s name have any importance, relevance or associations?
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