Most novels and short stories operate largely within the conventions of realism, and so their fictional worlds are inhabited by lifelike ‘characters.’ But what makes a character credible and interesting?
Although we know that characters are artificial creatures, illusions created entirely by language, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief in them as long as their attributes seem quasi-human. (Of course it’s more complicated than that. There’s a sophisticated theoretical analysis of ‘the centrality of fictional character – and, by extension, of social models of personhood – to reading of almost any kind’ in John Frow’s book Character and Person, newly published by Oxford University Press. My own book Narrative Exchanges, recently reissued in the Routledge Revivals series, also has a chapter on theoretical aspects of characterisation.)
When we read a work of fiction in the realist tradition, we want to be convinced that its characters are lifelike. But believing in them isn’t a simple matter. It often requires a reader to hold in mind two different things: on the one hand a sense that the actions, thoughts, words and attributes associated with a particular name (Heathcliff or Cathy or whoever) hang together credibly enough to represent an individualised personage, and on the other hand a sense that not everything about this personage is perfectly consistent. Total consistency would imply the repetitiveness of a robot, the flatness of a caricature. This may be appropriate for some minor characters in certain kinds of hyper-realist fiction (Dickensian figures such as Uriah Heep, for instance) but not otherwise.
So usually – unless the story is feeble – a major character will turn out to be less homogeneous than first impressions suggest. Readers can miss much of the point if they assume that a character in a story represents (or should represent) an entirely unified personality, a stable set of coherent and consistent traits. In reality that’s not how we ourselves are, and sometimes the point of a story may be to reveal incoherence and inconsistency within a character’s sense of self.
‘To thine own self be true…’ says Shakespeare’s Polonius – but let’s not take this long-winded old codger’s sententious advice at face value. Quoting his remark in her Journal, Katherine Mansfield comments scornfully:
True to oneself? Which self? Which of my many – well, really, that’s what it looks like it’s coming to – hundreds of selves? For what with complexes and repressions and reactions and vibrations and reflections, there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor, who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests.
One of the Australian novelists I most admire, Kate Grenville, has some astute remarks on characterisation in The Writing Book, an excellent practical how-to manual which is well worth the close attention of any aspiring author. Here’s part of what she says about consistency:
Consistent characters run the risk of being boring characters. People aren’t consistent and characters don’t have to be either. Inconsistencies can make characters interesting, as long as they’re inconsistent in a way that adds something to the story.
While perfectly consistent characters may be boring, perfectly inconsistent ones may be frustrating to a reader: they never add up to a coherent personality. Inconsistencies can add depth to a character, but they have to be carefully controlled by the writer.
Exactly a century ago, while working on the novel that became The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence wrote a letter to Edward Garnett in which he tried to explain his view of characterisation. His aim, he declared, was to move beyond ‘the old-fashioned human element – which causes one to conceive a character in a certain moral scheme and make him consistent.’ He went on to say, ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states…’ The analogy here is with different states of the same element, just as diamond and coal are forms of carbon.
Even in classic nineteenth-century realist fiction, what looks like inconsistency is sometimes just the gradual development and disclosure of a character’s complexity. Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is introduced to us as an idealistic young doctor propelled by an ambition to reform medical practices. But time goes by, and under the weight of an unhappy marriage, he abandons his high social purpose and behaves in contradictory ways towards his wife. So in a sense the later Lydgate may seem hardly consistent with his previous self. But the change in him is credible because there have been early glimpses of a fundamental flaw: from the start his altruism is tinged with an arrogance that makes his attitude to the common people ‘benevolently contemptuous.’ There’s a Reader Alert when Lydgate first enters the story and the narrator advises us not to jump to conclusions: ‘For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown – known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.’
Think, too, of Dickens – not in the cartoonist mode he employs for minor characters but when he traces the intricate workings of a fully rounded personality as it moves this way and that in response to different pressures. David Copperfield, telling his own story from the vantage point of maturity and looking back at his younger selves with their incomplete self-knowledge, remarks: ‘These, with their perplexities and inconsistencies, were the shifting quicksands of my mind…’
Copperfield’s reflection sums up the topic nicely for me. When I read or write fiction, what interests me above all is an engagement with those same aspects of character: perplexities, inconsistencies, the shifting quicksands of the mind.