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The Persistence of Character

Introduction

Ivan CALLUS, Gloria LAURI-LUCENTE, Armelle PAREY et Isabelle ROBLIN

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1This collection of essays is derived from two international events, the first a conference held at the University of Malta in November 2021 (“Character, again”) and the second a two-panel seminar (“The Persistence of Character”) which took place at the ESSE conference in Mainz in August 2022. The essays come together in continuity with a previous special issue of e-Rea (13.1, 2015), Character Migration in Anglophone Literature, and reflect the reaffirmed interest within literary criticism in perspectives on character as an evident cornerstone of fiction (and indeed of other writing) but one that for a number of years had fallen oddly out of regard, especially within some areas of literary theory. Bringing together articles on works drawn variously from contemporary Anglophone literary and popular fiction as well as media productions (film, TV series, digital games), the collection exemplifies this renewed “reassessment of character in literary studies” (Anderson et al. 1) and the diverse approaches and readings it enables.

2It is not our intention as editors of this issue to weigh in, through this Introduction, on the outlooks that led, historically, to the discounting of character as a credible concern within literary theory, or on the others that have led to its rehabilitation or, if that is too strong a word, to some restoration of its appropriateness for attention within critique. A good deal of that work is in any case undertaken in the articles by Marcus Hartner and James Corby in this special issue. We therefore limit ourselves, below, to pointing out some shifts in criticism’s conceptualisation of character and the irrepressible persistence of the latter as a focus for interpretation. And we should also indicate at the outset that the purpose of the special issue was, quite simply, to configure a space for critical essays that would be interested in actively embracing character as a central concern in their readings without being apologetic or overly self-conscious about any supposed conceptual or methodological pitfalls in doing so. The essays here are not necessarily entrenched, therefore, in any strong views on the relative admissibility and standing of character as a viable category in critical commentary; nor do they offer themselves in implicit or pointed advocacy of any theoretical position instigated by this theme. True: collectively, they retain, as they must, awareness of the spectrum of critical perspectives on character and its rekindled relevance in interpretation. No contemporary critical work around character can discount that backdrop. Their rationale, however, is to engage with texts (understood in the broad sense of this term) in a manner that, without returning to the modes of reading that marked discussion of characters in pre-narratological, pre-(post)structuralist days, acknowledges that the pull of storytelling in all its forms does owe something to the willingness and capacity of readers to identify, however complexly or questioningly, with characters and their worlds. They imply that something is lost within critique when this propensity, together with its dynamics, effects and implications, is disdained. For one thing, the “aesthetic illusion” referred to by Werner Wolf would be incomprehensible without it (see Wolf, “Aesthetic Illusion” and Immersion and Distance). For another, the invocation that goes, “If you cannot see it, you cannot be it,” across various forms of activism that insist on representation of diverse experience through the writing of characters drawn from less than mainstream spaces, presumes that characters must be more than mere “actants” (Greimas). For such advocacy there is, in fact, strategic value in leaving undeconstructed the idea that character can be mimetically and stirringly vivid. It holds with the view that character can prompt strong (dis)identification effects and bear, thereby, distinct resonance for enhancing awareness around more diverse subjective and intersectional experience.

3Accordingly, this special issue itself takes as one of its starting premises the fact that character remains a defining, if questioned, feature of the novel. As will become apparent below, that is true also of film, television, digital games and new media. Yet the novel is the form that more than any other is historically most coextensive with the vividness and appeal of character as a means for generating “relatability”, to use the term that many online readership fora cite when indicating a key desideratum in fiction. The range and complexity of the techniques through which that relatability is textualized have evolved across the history of the novel, but that Henry James’s well-known statement, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” (James 752), has a functionality that is not undimmed by time, though it is not difficult to see why contemporary criticism might be wary of the implicitly moralist modes of interpretation that it can countenance. It is interesting, in fact, to recall other classic statements about character that on the one hand can seem self-evident, but which on the other become suspect by the light of some theoretical schools. Thus, for instance, Virginia Woolf notes in “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”: “I believe that all novels […] deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved” (Woolf 324). Indeed, while character in realism is, in general terms, precisely anchored in time and space and reflects aspects of society, for Woolf the inner experience of character is all—and must be the focus. The point of the novel is to express what a character like Mrs Brown is, not what she wears nor where she lives, not to reduce her to a sum of physical and social elements that constitute something on which to peg doctrine, or to restrict her to an allegorical representation of an idea. “The novel does character, and the novel does interiority” (Liam McIlvaney and Ray Ryan, qtd. in Gasiorek and James 622), and it is this evocation of and immersion in “transparent minds” (Cohn), as well as in their inscrutabilities, that make for an important aspect of the form’s edge and singularity.

  • 1 Robbe-Grillet’s remarks about character appear in a chapter entitled “On a few outdated notions” (o (...)

4Yet character can also be seen, with Uri Margolin, as “a theory-dependent conceptual construct or theoretical object” (453). Or, to put it another way, character is, in effect, a tool for measurement: it is a means for critics to gauge adhesion to tradition or experimentalism, to nose out late (liberal-)humanist inclinations or theory-inflected outlooks. It serves to classify writers and their styles: those whose narratives underwrite identification-and-relatability considerations, for instance, and those whose narratives can serve as a ground on which to deconstruct such affinities. Admittedly, this could be getting too binarist or schematic, but it is relevant to recall that Alain Robbe-Grillet, in keeping with Nouveau Roman aesthetics, once roundly dismissed the notion of character as “outdated.”1 It was reduced to a mere abstract agent, a “combination,” as Roland Barthes put it: limited to a few “roles” by structuralists (who were extending similar ideas from Russian formalist approaches hailing from decades earlier) and decentred by post-structuralists in the midst of increasing interest in the operations and politics around subjectivity. In Barthes’s view from 1966, “we must view characters exclusively as participants in spheres of actions” (Hochman 22). If character, however, never went away as readers maintained their involvement in fictional representations of people and their storyworlds, the notion of characters as mere “paper beings” remained influential within criticism. Character, therefore, is indeed a problematic and historically significant category in criticism and theory, far less innocent than the attention devoted to it in pre-University-level pedagogies of literature, which would also have looked, alongside, at those other mainstays of traditional criticism: “Theme”, “Plot”, and “Imagery and Symbolism”. Indeed, there could be a separate study to be written on how pervasive those pedagogies remain across different educational traditions and cultures. It would also be interesting to see how and when such pedagogies are dropped for methodologies that supplement—or, sometimes, supplant—them, with what would be perceived to be more sophisticated and less “outdated” approaches.

5There is some value, additionally, in looking at the play of—or, indeed, on—character in postmodern fiction and beyond. Postmodern fiction came to be seen (whether rightly or wrongly) as emblematically oppositional to those conceptions of character that were ultimately bound up with the conventions of what Barthes classified as classic realism. Postmodernist poetics disrupted the usual qualities attributed to character as a fixture of the novel encapsulated in Balzac’s injunction in his Foreword to his Comédie humaine (1842) that the novel compete with the civil registry. As Aleid Fokkema showed, character, conventionally conceived, would be undone in various ways in postmodern novels. In her study, Postmodern Characters, she “refrain[ed] from an attempt to define one governing principle for the characters of all postmodern texts” on the basis that “there is more than one postmodernism” (Fokkema 181). These postmodernist perspectives on character then lead to an irrepressible question, one that suggests itself quite naturally. What about character in the age of post-postmodernism, new sincerity, transhumanism, transmodernism or metamodernism, all of which name significant “trends” or “movements” that have shaped novelistic fiction in recent times—but also other forms of storytelling across media and platforms? Can we point to possible governing principles regarding character in the period following on from postmodernism that nevertheless bears some of its lessons in mind, possibly entrenching them even further or, not impossibly, modulating or even countering them? Moreover, if, as one of its practitioners suggests, “the discourse surrounding metamodernism”, for instance, “engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism” (Turner), does it mean that character is again acceptably endowed with human qualities in the sense that characters seem (again) to be invested as “representations of our selves”? (Gibbons)

6It is against this backdrop of successive critical and theoretical positions—and orthodoxies—that character and reader response to it are again attracting critical attention. Rita Felski writes in her tellingly titled book, Hooked, that for readers or viewers identifying with characters in novels and films, “the antihumanist orientation of the last few decades inspired a default scepticism about the status of fictional persons; critics insisted that characters were nothing but signifiers: textual holograms, verbal phantasms, or visual illusions. As such, they bore no relation to persons; to treat them as such was the epitome of naivete or philistinism” (Felski 86). But, as Felski points out, for many readers and viewers, “in one sense, fictional characters are real; they have effects in the world; they inspire emulation and adaptation, irritation and dislike; their existence makes a difference” (Felski 85; emphasis added). This somewhat echoes E. M. Forster’s position that characters serve an important function:

in the novel we can know people perfectly, and, apart from the general pleasure of reading, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life […] And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us: they suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and power. (Forster 69-70)

7Furthermore, one notes a renewal of critical attention to the emotional resonances that fictional characters can generate. This goes beyond the so-called affective turn in criticism and theory. The link between character, reader and emotions is examined, for example, in the works of Suzanne Keen and in the studies by Anderson, Felski and Moi in Character. As Alison Gibbons puts it, “Emotions, furthermore, are again playing a central role in literary fiction, as authors insist on our essential relationality—our connectedness as humans to one another in the globalizing world and with fictional characters as representations of our selves.” (Gibbons). Indeed, character and the emotional connection of fiction are linked: for Nicholas Daly, “Its [the novel’s] characters, our surrogates, are endowed with emotions; and we, its readers, are drawn into their affective world” (Daly 224).

8The aftermath of postmodernism seems to be infused, in fact, with a renewed interest in ethics, history, seriousness, sincerity and materiality, and with a return to aspects of characterisation that recall the conventions of classical realism, though without relapsing into the decried “old stable ego of the character” (Lawrence 198). Yet, the situation remains nuanced as the dismissal of traditional characters or traditional representations of character is still current today, such that it is possible to note a contrary turn against what Uri Margolin identified in 1990 as “an ever-increasing concentration of individuals’ interiority” (465). There are in fact too many disparate trends to allow easy pronouncement on any overriding pattern in the textualization of character. It is doubtful, for instance, whether it would be feasible nowadays for anybody to write a poetics of contemporary fiction in the manner of Linda Hutcheon’s A Poetics of Postmodern Fiction, not when that sense of a discernible, consistent and cohesive enough trend is absent. Nor have Robbe-Grillet’s notions on character completely disappeared. Indeed, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of contemporary narrative is the coexistence in a number of novels of classic realist techniques and the undercutting of verisimilitude in character representation. For instance, in Anna Burns’s Booker-Prize-winning Milkman (2018), not only are there no actual names to refer to characters who are defined in terms of their family links as “second sister”, “brother-in-law” etc., but the narrative refuses access to any interiority, including that of the first-person narrator. One encounters a similar yet different situation in Rachel Cusk’s Outline (2014) and two other novels of the trilogy of which it forms the first part. There, the narrative appears to be the mere transcription of reported conversations or monologues without any psychological insight as the homodiegetic narrator limits herself to reporting what people have told her without comment or analysis, as in a novel by another exponent of the Nouveau Roman, Nathalie Sarraute’s The Golden Fruits, originally published in 1963. The narrator refuses to make use of the usual advantages of her standpoint but, as in Milkman, stays on the surface of characters, on the “outline”: it merely tells what they look like and what they say. In a 2018 interview, Rachel Cusk declared: “I don’t think character exists anymore” (Schwartz). The statement serves as the title to her interview: possibly for its shock value, considering the reception of novels by reviewers is often based on character. In fact, the importance given to characters in reviewers’ appraisal of fiction says as much about the fiction examined as about readers’ continuing interest in and appetite for character. In Deidre Lynch’s words, “character is still seen not only as one of the novel’s building blocks, but as its very reason for existing” (Lynch 209), but it is true too that as Nicholas Daly suggests, “criticism tends to remain uncomfortable with the emotional dimension of texts” (Daly 226). In Daly’s view, “what troubles us most” about that dimension is that “it threatens to destroy our comfortable critical distance” (226).

9It is in the context of all the above that “the persistence of character” is ripe for consideration, together with the critical ambivalence around it and the consequent challenges for contemporary reading, interpretation and re-theorization. Accordingly, we would like to briefly draw out in the succeeding paragraphs the resonances of the reflections in each of the following articles for that kind of critical work. Before we do so, however, we should acknowledge that talk of character in 21st-century contexts cannot possibly ignore the relevance of film, or the impacts of the so-called golden age of television, or the manner in which avatars across various new media and the immersive technologies of digital games and virtual reality make this a far more complex and variegated scene than is confinable to criticism of the novel. Let us mention just two examples, from film and new media respectively, to underline how conceptions of character can take on, well, a different character in media beyond print.

10Take, for instance, Jill, Uncredited (2022), an unassuming but striking short directed by Anthony Ing. The short is made up of clips edited from films in which Jill Goldston, a background actor, makes a blink-and-miss-it appearance (she holds the Guinness World Records certificate for “The most appearances by an extra/background actress”, as reported in the Guardian; see Jones). As one streaming service, MUBI, puts it on its page for the film, the viewer ends up, by extension, “entranced with the nameless people who form the wondrous texture of life”: the anonymous characters in various media, in other words, who are all less than flat but who make the foreshortened centrality of rounded, main characters possible through the play of contrast, and who in turn prompt reflection on the people who are “extras”, in the background, in our individual lives. Or take the characters in digital games, or virtual reality, who contribute to lend resonance and point to phrases like “interactive narrative” or “immersive narrative”. The storyworlds—or “realities”—in which they move have a distinctive, navigable appeal, open to a different kind of experientiality. Alongside the entertainment potential and enjoyment there is a more sinister potential too. The finalisation of this Editors’ Introduction happens to coincide with discussion in the British press of the feasibility of police investigation—of whether “there is here any crime to prosecute”—concerning “a virtual space inside Horizon Worlds” in which the avatar of a schoolgirl under the age of sixteen “was surrounded by male avatars” and “gang-raped” (Rumbelow). And indeed, in a time of digital alternative identities and “roles”, the “persistence of character”—and identity—takes on (cyber-)added inflections of meaning again. And that’s without factoring in Artificial Intelligence and its own unnerving character, as well as its capacities for (re)inventing character(s). This is a brave new world indeed, that has such characters in it, with their own novel and rapidly evolving pervasiveness as much as persistence.

11It is not within the scope and scale of this special issue to offer readings of these potentialities for character and characterisation or of their theorisation in film theory or new media theory, or for the reconfigured narrativities and narratologies that they open up. That said, it would be remiss of us not to observe how the refocusing on character in literary studies is mirrored by parallel developments in the study of film and new media. Thus, for instance, the second edition of Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema coincides with the twenty-fifth anniversary of that highly influential work and Smith’s revisited interest in the questioning of the idea of “identification” and his greater trust in the idea of “levels of engagement with fictional characters, which together comprise,” rather, what he terms “the structure of sympathy” (4). In the Afterword written specifically for the 2022 edition, Smith observes “the [expanded] overall landscape of ‘character-hosting’ media,” reflects on the viability of “a mimetic hypothesis rather than a simple mimetic act of achievement”, with “characters com[ing] into being initially through an imaginative, mimetic act—but they are not bound by this initial condition” (241). Smith acknowledges a “‘two-foldedness’” in “our perception of characters,” which results in our “apprehending them at once as (more less realistic) representations of persons and as artefacts in their own right”, and spells out the import: “We surely need a general ontology which is supple and rich enough to credit characters with a kind of realism, but the mimetic hypothesis does not commit us to naïve realism (or, for that matter, to sophisticated modal realism)” (243). Such a general ontology may not be easily forthcoming, but certainly it is noteworthy that there have been such coinciding currents in the revitalized study of character, as borne out also by Johannes Riis and Aaron Taylor’s Screening Characters being published in the same year as Anderson, Felksi and Moi’s landmark study.

12The essays in this special issue are written in awareness of all of the above theoretical considerations, and bring different critical bearings into play. Accordingly, Marcus Hartner, in the first article in the collection, offers a history of the discussion of literary characters in literary theory. In taking in perspectives ranging from the first stirrings of antihumanist criticism through to structuralism and poststructuralism, narratology, cognitive approaches and more recently so-called 4E Cognition, the article provides a fine critical introduction to character’s resilient persistence in literary theory, even as and while it was being deconstructed as a viable category of thought within literary studies. It also shows how closely evolving critical ideas on character corresponded with, and reflected, changing emphases and orientations within literary theory itself, such that the histories of the latter can themselves be read in accounts of changing outlooks on the former. By this light, looking at the persistence of character in the histories of reading and across the dispositions of generations of readers sets up interesting contrasts with criticism and theory’s shifting and multivalent concerns.

13James Corby’s article provides an engaging metaphor for the persistence of character across narrative histories and platforms, reading it in terms of “drift” and inviting reflection on the critical potential of approaching the idea of character as, in fact, itself a character. In so doing, and in its added attention to character as a mark or signifier, the article is itself able to trace the intertwined fortunes of conceptions of character and literature alongside critical reorientations across time. That passage is read in the context of a close reading of the “drift” of two literary characters: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (who, as it happens, also receives structuring attention in Hartner’s article) and J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. Both of these characters, in their passage across originating and derived storyworlds, are seen as figures (in more than one sense of that word) for the oscillations between authenticity and abstraction, between constructions of de-/re-constructions of identity and, not least, between fiction and the real. That last binarism, the fiction and the real, is, in fact, arguably the most persistent conundrum in critiques around the idea of character.

14Christine Lorre’s article looks at Alice Munro’s characters of female readers and their relationship with books, studying that relation across a selection of stories. It argues that these characters reconstruct and rethink things as they read, in a process which mirrors the experience of actual readers, and examines the tension between what is innate and what is learnt through the experience of reading. Books are, for instance, shown to denote and shape a community, or force a young character to assert herself, or serve to set up social relations. In all cases, the shaping of character, in more than one sense, is at stake. What the article thus offers is a reading of the kind of dynamics—and character persistence—which also feature in James Corby’s article, especially in regard to its own exploration of the reality-imprinting effects of fictional characters.

15There are characters in fiction who persist and find new iterations across storyworlds, a point made in a number of articles in this issue. In the context of unparalleled expansion of narrative worlds in Young Adult fiction that develop the fate of protagonists over a long period of time, Virginie Douglas examines Philip Pullman’s Lyra, an evolving and, it might be added, very persistent character whom the novelist has portrayed at different ages in the course of eight books. Virginie Douglas focuses on the first trilogy, His Dark Materials (1995-2000), and, taking her cue from Maria Nikolajeva’s work on character in children’s fiction, explores character expansion and the specificity of evolving characterisation when targeting a child reader, especially in the genre of fantasy.

16Isabelle Roblin’s article trains the critical lens onto film and television, specifically in relation to the Star Trek franchise. Moving, itself, to posthumanist considerations, it looks at the representation of nonhuman, but anthropomorphic and human-simulating, characters in film and television generally and, in particular, at a specific episode in The Next Generation that puts on trial—processes—that most persistent of questions: “What does it mean to be human?”, or, if that question might be reworded in view of what drives the article’s discussion, “What does it mean to be a human character?” As the article shows, to persistently ask the question of character, in fiction as in theory (and life), is to ask also about changing understandings of alterity and empathy.

17At the heart of Rim Khaled’s article is a probing analysis of whether voice-over narrations in films and TV series can be considered as, themselves, characters. Drawing largely on Sarah Kozloff’s deployment of Gérard Genette’s taxonomy in her classification of the wide array of voice-over narrators, Khaled distinguishes between homodiegetic narrators whose voice is attached to a visible presence on the screen, as in the case of Mary Alice in Desperate Housewives (2004-2012), Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), or Rue in Euphoria (2019), and heterodiegetic narrators who are never given corporeality in the world they inhabit. The article argues that despite the voiceovers’ lack of materialization as a physical presence, the audience still perceives such voices of heterodiegetic narrators as characters. Character effects, it can be said, persist even when voice must stand in for figure.

18Renata Ntelia’s article looks, from an original perspective, at the persistence of character attachment, or attachment to character, in the context of artificial intelligence and digital games. It is no new thing for readers or critics to consider that it is possible to identify with characters, to relate to them, to empathize with them. Ntelia’s article, however, takes this further. Is it possible, it asks, to fall in love with a character; is it possible that the AI within a digital game can be a love agent? Seemingly counterintuitive yet enabled by the affordances of contemporary technology and the vividly interactive storyworlds in digital games, this question raises important issues concerning how and why it would no longer do for current criticism to persist with conceptions of character that remain bound to forms of narrative linked to text, film or—to mention another form that does not quite feature in this issue—theatre.

19In conclusion: we are clearly not done with character. Character is integral, constitutive, fundamental to all forms of fiction: from the simplest fable to the most layered, multimodal or virtually real narratives. This can seem like a vacuously self-evident statement, but in fact the range and histories of narrative techniques, not to mention those of critique, have served to complicate that claim. The title of this special issue would not carry the provocation it does had that not been the case. What it will be intriguing to observe now, in fiction’s brave new (plat)forms in our “postprint” age (Hayles) but also across its iterations within familiar media, is how character is re-established and reinvented in idea and practice, persistently and ever again.

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Notes

1 Robbe-Grillet’s remarks about character appear in a chapter entitled “On a few outdated notions” (our translation of “Sur quelques notions périmées”; see Robbe-Grillet).

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Ivan CALLUS, Gloria LAURI-LUCENTE, Armelle PAREY et Isabelle ROBLIN, « Introduction »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/17468 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11w9s

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