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Characterisationis the ways in which the personalities and motivations of characters are portrayed. Characters in a work of fiction are generally designed to open up or explore certain aspects of human experience; they often depict particular traits of human nature. The fictional character is influenced by literary, historical, and cultural concepts and conventions. When we think about characters in a prose text we should consider their appearance, personality and behaviour; how the author presents them; how they fit into the development of the themes and ideas. Characters are literary constructions created by the author, and are there to contribute to the text’s ideas and purpose.
Characters can be lyrical(the writer focuses on their feelings and thoughts), dramatic (interacted in dialogues through speeches and remarks), epic (the author describes their actions, appearance, background, life events).
There are various methods of characterisation:
· Character through appearance: characters’ appearance can reflect important aspects of personality and attitude. Description of a character’s appearance (face, figure, clothes) can indicate some aspects of personality, social and economic status, health and well-being, illustrate change and development, show a state of mind, place the character as a specific type. A character’s portrait can be static (complete description of the appearance) or dynamic (the details are revealed throughout the whole story). Clothes are always a useful index of characters’ class and life-style. In Therapy (1995) by D. Lodge the main character, Laurence Passmore, gives his self-description in an ironic and self-mocking way: “I am fifty-eight years old, five feet nine-and-a-half inches tall and thirteen stone eight pounds in weight – which is two stone more than it should be according to the table in our dog-eared copy of the Family Book of Health. (…) They say that inside every fat man there’s a thin man struggling to get out, and I hear his stifled groans every time I look into the bathroom mirror. (…) My chest is covered with what looks like a doormat-sized Brillo pad that grows right up to my Adam’s apple: If I wear an open-necked shirt, wiry tendrils sprout from the top like some kind of fast-growing fungus from outer space in an old Nigel Kneale serial. And by a cruel twist of genetic fate I have practically no hair above the Adam’s apple. My pate is as bald as an electric light bulb, like my father’s, apart from a little fringe around the ears, and at the nape, which I wear very long, hanging down over my collar. It looks a bit tramp-like, but I can hardly bear to have it cut, each strand is so precious. (…) I considered growing a beard, but I was afraid it would look like a continuation of my chest. So there’s nothing to disguise the ordinariness of my face: a pink, puffy oval, creased and wrinkled like a slowly deflating balloon, with pouchy cheeks, a fleshy, slightly bulbous nose and two rather sad looking watery-blue eyes. My teeth are nothing to write home about, either, but they are my own, the ones you can see anyway. My neck is as thick as a tree-trunk, but my arms are rather short, making it difficult to buy shirts that fit”.
· Character through speech:characters may also be revealed through their speech (both what they say and how they say it). Speech and dialogue reveal their thoughts and feelings, indicate how characters react to each other, further the plot, create a range of effects such as humour, tension, realism. Characters’ speech can also show their social and educational background. In Sheridan’s Rivals (1775) Mrs. Malaprop decks her dull chat with hard words which she does not understand: “I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs” (the comic character uses “reprehend”, “oracular”, “derangement”, “epitaphs” instead of “apprehend”, “vernacular”, “arrangement”, “epithets”). Charles Dickens is a great master of speech characteristics, let’s see the way he renders the speech of strange Mr. Pickwick and his friends encountered on their first day’s journey: “Come along, then,” said he of the green coat, lugging Mr. Pickwick after him by main force, and talking the whole way. “Here, No. 924, take your fare, and take yourself off – respectable gentleman – know him well – none of your nonsense - - this way, Sir – where’s your friends? – all a mistake, I see – never mind – accidents will happen – best regulated families – never say die – down upon your luck – pull him up – put that in his pipe – like the flavour – damned rascals.” And with a lengthened string of similar broken sentences, delivered with extraordinary volubility, the stranger led the way to the traveller’s waiting room, whither he was closely followed by Mr. Pickwick and his disciples.” (Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37))
· Character through comparison: characters may be given in comparison/contrast with each other. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) was a story about two “bad boys”, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Twain studies the psychology of his characters carefully. Tom is very romantic. His view of life comes from books about knights in the Middle Ages. Huck, however, is a real outsider. He has harder life and never sees the world in the romantic way. In the following extract Fey Weldon presents two female characters in sharp contrast to each other: “Avril was scraggy, haggard and pitifully brave. Helen was solid and worthy and could afford to be gracious. Avril had been Helen’s very first client, thirty years before, when she, Helen, had finished her apprenticeship. In those days Avril had worn expensive, daring green shoes with satin bows, all the better to flirt in: Helen had worn cheap navy shoes with sensible heels, all the better to work in. Helen envied Avril. Today Avril’s shoes, with their scuffed high heels, were stillgreen, but somehow vulgar and pitiable, and the legs above them were knotted with veins. And Helen’s shoes were still navy, but expensive and comfortable, and had sensible medium heels. And Helen owned the salon, and had a husband and grown children, and savings, and a dog a cat and a garden, and Avril had nothing. Nothing. Childless, unmarried, and without property or money in the bank. Now Helen pitied Avril, instead of envying her, but somehow couldn’t get Avril to understand that this switch had occurred (F. Weldon, The Bottom Line and the Sharp End ).Not only fictional characters can be contrasted – Paul Auster contrasts historical personalities the way the narrator perceives them:“No one ever talks about Poe and Thoreau in the same breath. They stand at opposite ends of American thought. But that’s the beauty of it. A drunk from the North – reactionary in his politics, aristocratic in his bearing, spectral in his imagination. And a teetotaler from the North – radical in his views, puritanical in his behavior, clear-sighted in his work. Poe was artifice and the gloom of midnight chambers. Thoreau was simplicity and radiance of the outdoors.” (P. Auster The Brooklyn Follies (2005)).
He had the infant in his arms, he walked backwards and forwards troubled by the crying of his own flesh and blood. This was his own flesh and blood crying! His soul rose against the voice suddenly breaking out from him, from the distances in him. <…> He could not bear to hear it crying. His heart strained and stood on guard against the whole universe.
· Character through direct author’s characterisation: In Cabala (1926) Thornton Wilder gives thorough character analysis (including portrait, manners, background, character insight) through the first-person narrative: “The Princess d’Espoli was exceedingly pretty in a fragile Parisian way; her vivacious head, surmounted by a mass of sandy reddish hair, was for ever tilted above one or other of her thin pointed shoulders; her whole character lay in her sad laughing eyes and small red mouth. Her father came of the Provençal nobility, and she had spent her girlhood partly in provincial convent schools and partly climbing like a goat the mountains that surrounded her father’s castle. At eighteen she and her sister had been called in from the cliffs, dressed up stiffly and hawked like merchandise through the drawing rooms of their more influential relatives in Paris, Florence and Rome. Her sister had fallen to an automobile manufacturer and was making the good and bad weather of Lyons; Alix had marked the morose Prince d’Espoli, who had immediately sunk into a profounder misanthropy. He remained at home sunk in the last dissipations. His wife’s friends never saw or referred to him; occasionally we became aware of him, we thought, in her late arrivals, hurried departures and harassed air. She had lost two children in infancy. She had no life, save in other people’s homes. Yet the sum of her sufferings had been the production of the sweetest strain of gaiety that we shall ever see, a pure well of heartbroken frivolity. Wonderful though she was in all the scenes of social life, she certainly was at her finest at table, where she had graces and glances that the most gifted actresses would fall short of conceiving for their Millamonts and Rosalinds and Célimènes; nowhere has been such charm, such manners and such wit. She would prattle about her pets, describe a leave-taking seen by chance in a railway station, or denounce the Roman fire departments with a perfection of rendering of Yvette Guilbert, a purer perfection in that it did not suggest the theatre. She possessed the subtlest mimicry, and could sustain an endless monologue, but the charm of her gift resided in the fact that it required the collaboration of the whole company; it required the exclamations, contradictions and even concerted shouts as of a Shakespearean mob before the Princess could display her finest art. She employed an unusually pure speech, a gift that went deeper than mere aptitude for acquiring grammatical correctness in the four principal languages of Europe; its source lay in the type of her mind. Her thought proceeded complicatedly, but not without order, in long looping parenthesis, a fine network of relative clauses, invariably terminating in some graceful turn by way of climax, some sudden generalization or summary surprise”. M. Puzo gives direct characterization of Fredo, Mafia boss’ son: “The second son, Frederico, called Fred or Fredo, was a child every Italian prayed to the saints for. Dutiful, loyal, always at the service of his father, living with his parents at age of thirty. He was short and burly, not handsome but with the same Cupid head of the family, the curly helmet of hair over the round face and sensual bow-shaped lips. Only, in Fred, these lips were not sensual but granitelike. Inclined to dourness, he was still a crutch to his father, never disputed him, never embarrassed him by scandalous behavior with women. Despite all these virtues he did not have that personal magnetism, that animal force, so necessary for a leader of men, and he too was not expected to inherit the family business (M. Puzo, The Godfather (1969)).
· Character through setting description and detail.Babbitt (1922) by Sinclair Lewis is the story of the perfect conformist who tries to revolt against the values of his surroundings. It starts with the hero rising out of his bed and going into the bathroom: “Then George F. Babbitt did a dismaying thing. He wiped his face on the guest towel! It was a pansy-embroidered trifle which always hung there to indicate that the Babbitts were in the best society. No one had ever used it. No guest had ever dared to.”
· Character through action:actions and reactions of characters in different situations shape our view of them. D.S. Mackenzie gives a terrifying account of the character’s actions showing his cruelty: “It is his barn. Mr. McLeod has the hoe in his hand and he is poking about with it above his head at the ends of the rafters where the sloping roof meets the top of the wall. What is he doing? <…>I make my way towards Mr McLeod. There are tiny shrieks of alarm from a half-fledged baby pigeon which whirs down on immature wings from the rafters to the floor about halfway between McLeod and me. It sets off running towards me. I have never seen one so close before and I bend down towards it in wonder at the strange mixture of grey feathers and pink flesh. I am half aware that Mr McLeod is coming up behind the little bird, in fact he is running. I have my hands out, feeling I might be able to scoop up this little creature but just before it reaches me Mr McLeod shouts a warning. He overtakes the squawking, frightened, scurrying bird and kills it by stamping its head into the concrete floor. I am too shocked to cry” (D.S. Mackenzie, The Language of Water). The author shows lack of tact and ingratitude of his character in the following passage: “He spent some time in South Africa when he was a young man and I once gave him a book about the area he had lived in. He was scathingly critical of the book, leafing through it when I gave it to him and criticizing it even before he had read it properly. I was hurt by this, feeling he should have tempered his comments, particularly as the book was a gift. I had just returned from South Africa, though not the same place as he had lived in. I felt that he was indirectly criticising me as well, the inference being that I should know better. I had been there and therefore I should know better <…> In fact Garfield didn’t say this at all. Neither did he say thank you (D.S. Mackenzie, The Language of Water).
· A namecan suggest an individual. Comic, satiric or didactic writers can be exuberantly inventive, or obviously allegorical, in their naming (Rebecca Sharp, Thwackum, Pilgrim); realistic novelists favour mundane names with appropriate connotations (Emma Woodhouse). Some writers, like Poe, prefer names for the quality of their musical sound (Eulalie, Lenore, Ulalume). Postmodernists can push the connotative significance of names in literary texts to an absurdist extreme. In Paul Auster’s Ghosts (1986) all the characters have the names of colours: “First of all there is Blue. Later there is White, and then there is Black, and before the beginning there is Brown. Brown broke him in, Brown taught him the ropes, and when Brown grew old, Blue took over. That is how it begins…”
· Character through imagery: sometimes characters are described through images and symbols which are associated with them throughout the novel. Take as an example The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), the best known tale by E. Poe. The setting reveals the character of the hero: a crack in the house symbolizes the relationship between the adult twins, Roderick and Madeline Usher. In The Captain’s Doll (1921) by D.H. Lawrence the doll directs the story from beginning to end. On the first page Hannele is making the doll; on the last she burns the painting of it. The author asserts: “If woman loves you, she’ll make a doll out of you”.
· Stock characters – characters who are recognizable as particular types, stereotyped figures, whose natures and motives are easily recognized by readers, they enable the author to take shortcuts and meet readers’ expectations.
Characterisation is given directlyby the self-image in comparison to images by others, and indirectly by perceptions, emotions, thought, speech, and action.
Different conceptions distinguish the following character types:
· flat types / round characters, which remain the same (static) or develop (dynamic);
· non-psychological constructions without inner depth, psychological ones that behave plausibly, or trans-psychological ones with superior insight;
· well-defined and potentially understandable(closed)orfuzzily outlined and hard to grasp (open).
If two characters have distinctly opposing features, one serves as a foil to the other, and the contrast between them becomes more apparent.
A fictional character is positioned within a constellation of figures, which can be analysed according to the social structure of the fictional world, the structure of perspectives (including concepts, values, the narrator’s focalisation), and the aesthetic structure of similarity and contrast, symmetry and asymmetry.
Fictional characters can be analysed according to their function within the action (the option to act, the refusal to take action or the realisation of the possible action, the failure or success of the action) or as individual agents (the subject or object of the action, a helper or an opponent of the main character).