Characters in Literary Fictions

by Jadwiga Wegrodzka (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 322 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 9


The book focuses on the category of character in fiction. It provides a general outline of different approaches to literary character followed by nineteen essays on individual authors from Conrad to Coetzee, on various genres from utopia, fantasy and gothic fiction to academic novel, and on characters’ extra-textual contexts from intertextuality to history and autobiography.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editor
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • From Character to Identity … and back?
  • Part I Characters in Textual Contexts
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Sister Helen”: A functional approach to the literary character
  • Joseph Conrad’s “The Partner”: Character and language
  • Peter Straub’s Shadowland: Character in the liminal space
  • Anita Desai’s fiction: Marginalisation as a technique of character creation
  • A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book: The functions of flanks and ficelles
  • Charles Williams’s Shadows of Ecstasy: Cognitive aspects of character interpretation
  • Part II Characters in Generic Contexts
  • “A Jew, and circumcised”: Constructing collective and individual characters in early modern utopian fictions
  • Recent Secondary World Fantasy: Farewell to the hero?
  • The realistic novel and the creation of literary characters: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury
  • Character sketch and its fantastic transformations: H. G. Wells's “The Crystal Egg”
  • Reconstructing the Gothic villain: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
  • Character in the academic mystery novel: Joanne Dobson’s The Raven and the Nightingale
  • Possible men and women of science: Constru(ct)ing characters in academic fictions
  • Part III Characters in Extra-Textual Contexts
  • Terry Pratchett’s Lord Vetinari as a transtextual character
  • Breaking out and speaking: Old myths and narrative tensions in Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia
  • Transtextual characters in literary adaptations: E.M. Forster’s Howards End and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty
  • Irony as the principle of constructing a character: Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolf
  • Characters in mythical and historical contexts: William Golding’s “The Scorpion God”
  • Counterfactual model of the self: J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Contributors
  • Series Index

From Character to Identity … and back?


It is the privilege of novelists to create characters who kill those of the historians. The reason is that historians only evoke mere ghosts, while novelists create persons in flesh and bones.

Alexandre Dumas, Memoirs

Most readers would agree that literature is written for and about people. A great majority of non-professional readers, “gentle skimmers” as Beckett called them, read books to find out about other people, their worlds, thoughts, emotions, fortunes and adventures. It is the characters that focus the readers’ attention and are usually most vividly remembered long after the reading of a fictional text. Some characters are so fascinating and memorable, that they may acquire some mode of existence apparently independent of their original text (like Hamlet or Don Quixote, for example). They may even pass the threshold of the fictional narrative and – in the belief of many readers – live or have lived their lives in the actual geographical locations in the readers’ reality associated with the characters in their original texts. Umberto Eco mentions an amusing incident of Alexandre Dumas who, on visiting the Chateau d’If, “discovered that the visitors were shown the ‘real’ cell of Montecristo, and the guides were speaking of him, Faria and other characters of the novel as if they had really existed” (Eco 2009: 82). Similarly, many readers believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real detective lodging at 221B Baker Street (Eco 2009: 87).

The appraisal of characters from moral, psychological and sociological perspectives in various critical analyses seems to suggest that critics ← 7 | 8 → may sometimes partly share the (ordinary) readers’ tendency to treat characters as people. The person-like aspect of fictional figures becomes particularly prominent in the consideration of fiction belonging to the realist tradition; for instance, Bernard J. Paris claims that it becomes possible to “appreciate the distinctive achievement of the genre” only by treating characters as real people (1974: 4). Virginia Woolf, writing from the other end of the literary communication process, argues that any creative work grows out of an interest in a human being and his or her experience of reality. In her essay “Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown”, in a characteristically playful tone, Woolf argues that writing fiction starts with a human figure taking shape in the writer’s mind and demanding attention:

Most novelists have the same experience. Some Brown, Smith, or Jones comes before them and says in the most seductive and charming way in the world, “Come and catch me if you can.” And so, led on by this will-o’-the wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange. Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair.

My belief that men and women write novels because they are lured on to create some character which has thus imposed itself upon them has the sanction of Mr Arnold Bennett. In an article from which I will quote he says: “The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else … Style counts; plot counts; originality of outlook counts. But none of these counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters. If the characters are real the novel will have a chance; if they are not, oblivion will be its portion…” (1996: 23)

Literary interest in a human being has an important cognitive function. As David Lodge argues, among the different forms of communication, both artistic and non-artistic, literature allows one to experience what it means to be someone else most fully; it enables one to look at reality from a different point of view, to know and experience the world as someone else does: “Literature is a record of human consciousness, the richest and most comprehensive we have. Lyric poetry is arguably man’s most successful effort to describe qualia. The novel is arguably man’s most successful effort to describe the experience of individual human beings moving through space and time” (2002: 10). ← 8 | 9 →

Although the experience of an individual human being is central to literature and to literary appreciation, the study of the character has long remained on the periphery of contemporary literary studies. Theories that dominated the study of literature in the twentieth century, not only those of structuralist tradition programmatically disapproving of “personalistic studies” (Zgorzelski 1999: 164), focused much of their energies on questioning the conventional reading of the literary character as a person, a socio-psychological figure representative of its time and place. Such an approach, however, did not really resonate with the readers. In fact, the importance and function of the literary character is the area in which professional and non-professional interpretations of the text – the approaches of literary scholars and ordinary readers – probably differ the most. For non-professional readers the concepts and models constructed within literary studies tend to be either too theoretical or too complex to evoke much interest. And while scholars might be tempted to blame the readers for not absorbing the intricacies of contemporary theory and clinging onto naïve beliefs in characters as real people, it would be justified to argue that in the anti-anthropomorphic climate of the twentieth-century, theory did not provide a satisfactory account of the literary character.

The following consideration of the critical approaches to character will focus on the three traditions that dominated the post-war landscape in the humanities – structuralism, poststructuralism and cultural studies – tracing their struggle to absorb the character into their vision of textual reality and to account for the “human context” (Harvey 19667: 231) of the literary text. As we shall demonstrate, structuralism and poststructuralism effectively marginalised the study of the character while cultural studies, though returning to socio-psychological considerations, ended up locking the actual and the textual people in the paradigm of race-class-gender.

One of the key premises of structuralist poetics which aimed to establish literary studies as a systemic and objective discipline, was turning away from the focus on the personal – from the biographic interest in a literary text as a personal statement of an individual author and from the literary character as a speaker for a particular vision of reality. Inclined towards abstraction and generalisation, structuralism was not interested in the character as an expression of individual experience, and it ← 9 | 10 → effectively distanced itself from psychological focus on the mind and from the consideration of character types or personalities. As Jonathan Culler writes:

Character is the major aspect of the novel to which structuralism has paid least attention and has been least successful in treating. Although for many readers character serves as the major totalising force in fiction – everything in the novel exists in order to illustrate character and its development – a structuralist approach has tended to explain this as an ideological prejudice rather than to study it as a fact of reading. (1975: 230)

Structuralism in its Western variant searched for the underlying general rules, the “grammar” of a literary text, and thus, if interested in fictional characters at all, it analysed them as parts of the more systemic aspects of the text, such as plot or setting. Characters were defined as functions of the text, participants rather than beings (Barthes 1975: 257). Yet the “grammar of characters” proved a blind alley, well-illustrated by the conclusions that Tzvetan Todorov draws when analysing the characters in Les Liaisons dangereuses: “if A loves B he attempts to make B love him; if A discovers that he loves B then he will endeavour to deny or conceal that love” (quoted in Culler1975: 235). One can hardly imagine offering Todorov’s conclusions as inspiring theoretical material capturing the complexity of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s characterisation. Structuralism in its Eastern European variant defined the very term structure differently and did not aim to define the underlying “grammar” of literature but explored various textual, generic and cultural levels of literary structures. In spite of differences between Eastern and Western variants of structuralism, neither treated fictional characters as particularly worthy of attention except as a part of the whole network of structural relations under scrutiny.

Although structuralist interest in character analysis was limited, its impact remains significant, mainly due to a broad redefinition of the theoretical framework of the whole discipline. In the area of character studies structuralist poetics separated the literary character from the author; it drew attention to the paradoxes resulting from treating literary characters as real people and interpreting their experiences as a factual record of human life. More importantly, it worked out the tools that allowed for the analysis of different aspects of character construction and their relations with other elements of the text. At the same time, howev ← 10 | 11 → er, as it moved away from personal and psychological considerations, it separated fictional characters from human beings and from the discussion of philosophical and cultural models of subjectivity. Speaking metaphorically, it locked characters within the text and failed to provide a framework allowing for the analysis of their individuality, psychology or relationships with extra-textual reality, the aspects that many readers see as most vital in their appreciation of literature.

Poststructuralism shared structuralist suspicion of personalistic and psychological approaches, and its conviction that “the psychological person (belonging to the referential order) has nothing to do with the linguistic person, which is never defined by natural dispositions, intentions or personality traits, but only by its (coded) point of insertion in the discourse” (Barthes 1975: 263). The “death of the literary character” became both the symptom and the reflection of the “death of the subject”, and critical thinking on the literary character became part of a broader reflection on the crisis of subjectivity.

At the same time poststructuralism shifted attention from grammar to rhetoric. Critical analysis took the form of a complex process of multiplication of language tropes, an infinite deferral of meaning. In the poststructuralist multiplication of meanings the literary character came to embody the plural arbitrary sign. Writing, argues Barthes in “The Death of the Author”, becomes the “neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (1977: 142). If, alongside the death of the author, poststructuralism brought the death of the literary character, it consisted in de-anthropomorphised exegesis that did not aim at synthesis. The character, like other aspects of the text, was not seen as a coherent construct but as “a triumphant plural, unimpoverished by any constraint of representation” (Barthes 1974: 5).

A good illustration of an early poststructuralist analysis of the literary character can be found in S/Z, in which the protagonist Sarrasine is construed as a transitory site producing an “uninterrupted exchange of the codes” (1974: 179). Sarrasine, argues Barthes, should not be seen as a person but as “an impersonal network of symbols combined under the proper name” (1974: 94). It is only by scraping the anthropomorphic readings that the critics can capture the full complexity of the literary ← 11 | 12 → work – as the death of the literary character is the true marker of modernity and a pre-requisite of experimental art:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Literary character Intertextuality Transtextuality
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 322 pp., 1 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Jadwiga Wegrodzka (Volume editor)

Jadwiga Węgrodzka is Associate Professor at the Institute of British and American Studies, University of Gdańsk, and the Faculty of Modern Languages, Koszalin Technical University, Poland. She publishes on popular genres, children’s literature, fantastic fiction and fairy tales.


Title: Characters in Literary Fictions