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What do writers mean by “character”?

One of the confusing things for this is discussion is that “Character” has a lot of different meanings, both for writers and in general use.

The most basic is this: a character is a person in a story, play, film, etc.—that is, in a fictional work. Plays come with casts of characters; novels present characters.

In daily life we have other uses as well–for example, “He’s a real character.” Does that mean he’s fictional and somehow became real? Well, no; that would be a little creepy. This “real character” is someone who behaves in an unusual way, perhaps amusing, possibly irritating, but out of the ordinary—and generally interesting.

But all this brings us back to the meaning of “character” again. After all, “she’s a real character, that one” doesn’t get us very far. We’ve already found two meanings for the word “character,” so that’s a little confusing (a person in a story, etc.; and with the addition of “real,” someone who behaves in an unusual way).

Frankly, I find terms very comforting IF their meanings are clear and easily stated in plain language AND if they have one basic meaning. There’s not much of that in the terms we use to talk about writing in prose, though poetry has developed a body of pretty clear terminology over the past 2500 or so years. When we read or talk about “character” or “characters,” we have to select the meaning from a whole menu of possibilities.

We can look at some other meanings of “character” as well as some other terms which I think can be useful in thinking about characters in fiction. Another time we’ll talk about characterization, which is the way we create characters on the page, but for today, let’s just wrestle with “character” and associated words.

Let’s go back for a moment to something else we’re apt to hear occasionally in daily use: “He’s got a lot of character” or “She’s got a lot of character.”

This is a different use than “She’s a real character,” which has to do with the unusual ways people behave. “She’s got a lot of character” is usually high praise; it has to do with integrity, with living by one’s beliefs. “A real character” is visible on the surface, I think—it’s a matter of many actions, large and small. But “a lot of character” describes something inward, something deep, something permanent which may or may not be immediately visible on the surface. It takes time to discover that someone has “a lot of character,” while either “a lot of personality” or “a real character” is quickly and consistently observable.

So now we have two levels of “character”: what we see on the surface, or personality, and something deeper and perhaps more permanent, which we might call inner character to differentiate it from a character.

And this is important: an individual’s personality—that is, what we see on the surface—may or may not be related to that individual’s inner character. After all, a con artist tends to have a pleasing personality and a dishonest inner character. Or at least a successful con artist does. Conversely, a person’s personality may be stiff, distant, off-putting but the inner character is actually caring, honest, trust-worthy though that doesn’t show on the surface.

One of the writer’s tasks, then, is to find ways to alert the reader to the nuances and sometimes the outright contradictions between personality and inner character. That’s also for a later discussion in this series.

For now, let’s look at some other terms which can be useful.

We’ve already done three literary terms:

A character, a person in a story of any sort.

Personality, the surface appearance, traits, actions of a character.

Inner Character, the moral/ethical/psychological strength of “a character

[Funny how much difference that “a” makes.]

Here are four more:

Round Character, a character which is fully developed, capable of change, and capable of surprising in a convincing manner (like the next three terms, this comes from E.M. Forster’s lovely little book, Aspects of the Novel).

“Capable of surprising in a convincing manner” is key here, I think. The character has been created fully enough that we sense that there’s more to the character than we’ve yet seen. That’s why the action or change which surprises is also convincing. Think of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

Dynamic Character, capable of changing and does change during the story. This character is both round(fully developed) and dynamic (not only capable of change but does change). Generally, major characters in novels are both Round and Dynamic. Again, think of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (I think Darcy’s change is the more surprising simply because we’ve not gotten to know him as fully as we do Elizabeth).

Flat Character, built around “a single idea or quality.” A flat character isn’t capable of change. This character is developed only enough to play a certain role, to take certain actions. I think that flat characters may involve more than just one idea or quality, but they’re not fully developed.

A good example of a flat character would be the father in William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning.” Faulkner really makes that clear with this description of the father: “and which now…had more than ever that impervious quality of something cut ruthlessly from tin, depthless, as though, sidewise to the sun, it would cast no shadow.” This is ostensibly a physical description, but it’s clear that it also fits the father’s inner character.

The father is also a Static Character, one who doesn’t change during the story.

In contrast to the father in “Barn Burning,” his son is a round and dynamic character—not only is he capable of change, but he does change in the course of the story. The son is also the central character. It’s not unusual for a short story to have only a single round and dynamic character, with the others being either flat or round and static (that is, not required to change in the course of the story). Novels will usually have several round characters.

A Round Character may be capable of changing but doesn’t, so Round but Static characters certainly exist—fully developed, but don’t change in the course of the story.

Pride and Prejudice includes round characters other than Elizabeth and Darcy, though not all are dynamic—that is, they don’t all change in the course of the novel (I’d say sister Jane is round and static,, for example, while her love Mr. Bingley seems flat and static, though a case can be made that he’s at least slightly round—oblong, maybe).

That novel is full of flat and static supporting characters: Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, to name three. They’re pretty much the same at the end as they were the first time we met them. They experience the story’s events but really aren’t changed by their experiences.

Flat Characters are Static so long as they remain flat; as Forster points out, when a flat character does change—that is, does act in a new or unexpected way—that character has “rounded” for at least that scene. The change may or may not be permanent.

One final point: when is a character “real”? According to E.M. Forster, a character feels “real” to the reader when we sense that the writer knows everything about that character and knows more than s/he needs to or will tell in the course of the story. That is, the reader feels as though there’s even more to the character than what’s been needed to tell the story. That feeling is probably what allows the character to surprise us in convincing ways. But it’s also what allows us to believe flat and static characters, I think.