People on Paper: Character, Characterization, and Represented Minds

  • Suzanne Keen


‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’ asked Henry James in his 1884 essay ‘The Art of Fiction.’ More than a century later, we can still ask the same questions when we begin thinking about the nature of fictional character in narratives. Separating plot from the characters who experience events, cause them through their actions, meditate on them, or react in one way or another, wrenches apart the two elements of fictional narrative that are most securely bound to one another. How indeed can we think about characters without discussing their actions? (We can’t!) How can we judge a set of actions in a plot without referring to the agents we come to know through those actions? (We shouldn’t!) This discussion thus begins with an acknowledgement that it artificially separates characters from the plot that couldn’t function without them. The benefit of temporarily isolating characters from their story-matrix lies in the observations that can be made about how writers build out of descriptive, illustrative, and demonstrative passages their invitations to imagine the people who populate story worlds. Some narratives emphasize character and some emphasize plot. No narrative can do without either element, though writers and critics have disagreed over which element should be given the higher priority. Furthermore, character and plot resemble one another functionally in that the reader’s knowledge of both shifts and changes during the reading experience.


Fictional Character Character Type Real People Fictional World Fictional Narrative 
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Further reading

  1. Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 5th ed. Longman, 2000.Google Scholar
  2. Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Cornell University Press, 1978. On ‘existents,’ see pp. 96–138.Google Scholar
  3. Cixous, Hélène. ‘The Character of “Character”.’ New Literary History 5 (1974): 383–402. Cixous argues that the very idea of character is repressive.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton University Press, 1978.Google Scholar
  5. Fludernik, Monika. The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction: The Linguistic Representation of Speech and Consciousness. Routledge, 1993. The definitive treatment of modes of representation of consciousness and speech, for specialist readers.Google Scholar
  6. Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. Harcourt, 1927. See the two chapters on ‘People,’ 43–82; 67–78, for the influential idea of ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters.Google Scholar
  7. Harvey, W. J. Character and the Novel. Cornell University Press, 1965. A defense of and exploration of a mimetic theory of character.Google Scholar
  8. Hochman, Baruch. Character in Literature. Cornell University Press, 1985. Highly recommended nuanced recuperation of fictional character from New Critical, structuralist, and post-structuralist denigration.Google Scholar
  9. Keen, Suzanne. ‘Readers’ Temperaments and Fictional Character.’ New Literary History 42.2 (Spring 2011): 295–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lodge, David. Consciousness and the Novel: Connected Essays. Harvard University Press, 2002. A novelist and theorist meditates on the representation of consciousness in fiction, including his own novel Thinks… (2000).Google Scholar
  11. Palmer, Alan. Fictional Minds. University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Palmer adds nuance to the discussion of thought report, the mode called psycho-narration by Cohn, introducing terms for the distinctions of intramental and intermental thought.Google Scholar
  12. Palmer, Alan. Social Minds in the Novel. Ohio State University Press, 2010. In this follow-up work, Palmer demonstrates how frequently major novelists employ intermental thought report.Google Scholar
  13. Phelan, James. Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative. University of Chicago Press, 1989.Google Scholar
  14. Price, Martin. Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel. Yale University Press, 1983.Google Scholar
  15. Scholes, Robert and Robert Kellogg. The Nature of Narrative. Oxford University Press, 1966. 160–206.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Suzanne Keen 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Suzanne Keen
    • 1
  1. 1.Washington and Lee UniversityLexingtonUSA

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