Characterisation- Beyond flatness and roundness
Round and Flat
For many readers, nothing is more important than the characters. Oh, they’re interested in the author, and the implied author, and the narrator, but for these readers, the characters are the single most important element of the work. If the characters are interesting and likable—if we can root for them or relate to them—then the work is a success. If, on the other hand, the characters are boring or unlikable, if they do things that we don’t understand or can’t accept—well, then the work is a failure.
This is not a bad question, and the problem is compounded by the fact that many of our greatest writers hardly ever write about nice people. Look, for instance, at Dostoevsky—or, if you prefer a more recent example, Philip Roth. Their characters are needy, selfish, and dishonest. They do all kinds of bad things, and they also have very, very bad habits: drinking, sexual infidelity, meanness—and that’s just for starters. So we might well ask: Why? Why should we have to read about these people?
The purpose of this lecture is to address those questions in a serious way. By the end of the lecture, I may not have convinced you to run out and get ‘Crime and Punishment’—or even Portnoy’s ‘Complaint’. But I hope I will have enlarged your sense of what makes a character “interesting” or “worth reading about.”
We’ll start with a few questions and some caveats—kind of like stretching before a run or a workout. Then we’ll turn to an example from Anton Chekhov. Why Chekhov? For many reasons, really—not the least of which is that his approach to characterization has been a major influence on later writers.
After looking at Chekhov, we’ll consider some broader generalizations about characters and characterization. Among these will be the familiar distinction, first devised by E. M. Forster, between “flat” characters and “round” ones. This distinction remains useful—it will help us to see what’s going on in Chekhov—but it doesn’t exhaust the subject of characterization, and so we’ll need to look for ways of moving beyond it.
Ok then, questions. Number one: How far should we go with this whole “niceness” thing? If it’s possible for a character to be too nasty, is it also possible for a character to be too nice? Look at it this way: What kind of story can you tell about a really, really nice person?
Well, I suppose you can always show nice people triumphing over adversity. A nice guy gets dumped by his wife. He meets an attractive young widow and takes a second chance on love. Or, a nice lady gets fired by her piggish boss—”Oh, I hate him!”—and starts over again as a caterer, or a winemaker, or a dog trainer!
There are lots of stories like that, and I suppose they’re not all bad. They’re never very surprising, though. You’ll always know how they’re going to come out. The nice guy will start out being surrounded by meanies and creeps—but in the end, niceness will prevail. It may take a while. There may be twists and turns along the way—but niceness will prevail.
Now, maybe it’s the predictability of these stories that makes them so popular. I don’t know for sure. For now, I’m just wondering if we shouldn’t revisit the expectation that characters must be likable or admirable. Mixed in with the niceness, I suspect, we also need to find some—well, not-so-niceness.
Question number two: If niceness is not the be-all and end-all, then what should we be looking for instead? What does make a character interesting? What kind of character tends to make you want to go on reading?
Questions about niceness, then, and questions about alternatives to niceness. We’re trying, in short, to find out what separates a great character—a really interesting or compelling character—from characters that seem lifeless, or drab, or predictable.
Now for a few quick caveats. First, as we move ahead, we’ll be talking about the lead character, not the members of the supporting cast.
Second, we’ll be talking about literary fiction—as opposed to what we might loosely call “pulp fiction,” by which I simply mean the sort of thing you might find on sale at the drugstore or the airport: westerns, legal thrillers, spy stories, sci-fi—that kind
That last point comes from my wife—a librarian and devoted reader who likes to remind me that there are different rules for different kinds of books. What works for the hero of a western won’t necessarily work for the hero of a mystery story.
My wife adds another observation. She says that some of the best popular writers take a form that’s not essentially character-driven and try to give the characters a little more depth or shading. Her example here is P. D. James, the great British mystery writer.
One final caveat. We’re dealing with characters from the last 200 years or so—if you like, from Jane Austen on down to the present. Here, I’m not following my nearest and dearest—but rather scholars like Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, who suggest that “novelistic characters” are essentially different from the figures we usually find in Homer or even in Shakespeare.
What is the difference? Well, according to Scholes and Kellogg, it has a lot to do with increasing attention to “aspirations, suppressed desires” and with the shift to what they call a “psychological presentation of the inner life.”
I don’t know enough about earlier forms of narrative to take the argument much further.
(My specialty is the development of the modern novel.) Still, I might observe that Shakespeare seldom provides the sort of detail we expect from a writer like Jane Austen. He never tells us how many children were born to Lady Macbeth, for example—and in the end, it doesn’t really matter to him. Shakespeare can tell his stories without getting into any of those details.
My point here is not really all that tricky. In this lecture and throughout the entire course, we’re dealing with particular sorts of characters and particular approaches to characterization. So we can’t assume that our conclusions will apply across the board. Indeed, they probably won’t apply to westerns, or horror stories, or fantasy novels—or even to Shakespeare plays.
Fair enough. Now that we’re done with questions and caveats, we can move on to an example from Chekhov, the great Russian short story writer. Chekhov was born in 1860, and he died in 1904. He was actually the master of two different forms—for in addition to writing hundreds of short stories, he also wrote for the theatre. His best-known plays are:
The Three Sisters,
The Cherry Orchard.
His influence on later fiction writers—well, it can only be described as massive. If you want to compliment a writer, just tell her that her stuff is “Chekhovian!” As I suggested before, Chekhov is admired most especially for his characters. He has a reputation for treating the characters generously, for resisting cheap shots and snap judgments.
As we’ll see, he tries to encourage the same sort of generosity in his readers. He doesn’t simply want to portray the experience of emotional growth or development—he wants to inspire it as well.
To show you what I mean, I’ll turn to a story called “The Lady with the Dog.” This is now a kind of signature piece for Chekhov. It’s widely anthologized and widely admired. Indeed, it’s been described as “the all-time short story gold standard.” In case you’re wondering, we’ll be using the translation by Constance Garnett, since it’s available almost everywhere.
The main character in “The Lady with the Dog” is Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov. He’s on holiday in Yalta, a Russian resort town, and he’s heard rumors about the arrival of yet another tourist: a lady with a little dog.
We learn that he’s interested in meeting her—and then we learn more. Gurov is in his late thirties—pushing 40, really—with a daughter and two sons. If he was ever in love with his wife, that feeling is long gone. He now thinks that she’s boring, narrow-minded, and inelegant. At the same time, he also thinks that she’s a little frightening. The bottom line is that he just doesn’t like to spend much time at home. Yet even that’s not all. For as the narrator explains:
“He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago—had been unfaithful to her often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were talked about in his presence, used to call them ‘the lower race.'”
Great. This guy cheats on his wife, and he makes insulting remarks about women. So if he dislikes women so much, why does he keep on having these affairs? Actually, he doesn’t really know. He realizes that his affairs almost always lead to trouble, but—and here again, I’m quoting:
“at every fresh meeting with an interesting woman, this experience [of the earlier affairs] seemed to slip out of his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed simple and amusing.”
So, our initial impressions of Gurov—they’re not favorable. He’s not evil—but he sure is shallow, and his treatment of women leaves much to be desired. Still, there’s no denying that he’s interesting. He can’t seem to control himself, and so he seems likely to end up in trouble again.
You can’t help but wonder what he’ll do next. Will he stop playing around with other women? Seems unlikely, but at this point anything is possible. If he doesn’t stop playing around, then what will make his next affair different from all the rest? Maybe this time, the tables will be turned. You get the feeling that he’s usually the one to break things off—so maybe this time, he’ll get dumped. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?
Well, these are great questions—the sort that you find yourself asking about a really interesting character. If I were you, I’d get in the habit of asking such questions, and I’d make a point of asking them deliberately. I’d take a moment to sketch two or three possibilities: Gurov stops playing around; he gets dumped—and see how each of them looks to you. Which scenarios seem most likely? Which would be the most satisfying to you as a reader? Which would make you laugh? Which would make you cry? If you have these possibilities in mind as you read ahead, you’ll almost certainly feel more closely, more tightly, connected to the characters and more deeply involved in their stories.
Enough for now—let’s get back to Chekhov. As it turns out, Gurov does not stop playing around. In fact, it doesn’t take long before he moves in on the lady with the dog. (Her name, we learn, is Anna.) A week passes, and sure enough they become lovers. Some more time passes, and Anna gets a letter from her husband—that’s right, she’s married too—and so she returns home.
At this point, Gurov is not especially upset. Indeed, he seems ready to move on, which probably means move on to another affair. So he returns to Moscow, where he tries to resume his normal life—but he finds that this time, he just can’t do it. A month passes, and his memory of the affair has only grown more vivid.
So what does he do? Something he’s never done before. He tells his wife he’s going away on business and heads straight for the town where Anna lives with her husband. As I say, he’s never done anything like this before—and doesn’t know why he’s doing it now. He’s improvising. He’s making it all up as he goes along.
When he gets to Anna’s town, he stakes out her house. He waits outside for her to appear, but that doesn’t work, and he’s about ready to give up—when he decides to take one more chance, because he’s got a hunch that he might run into her at the theatre. So off he goes to the premiere of a play called The Geisha.
Before I finish this story, let me ask you to look at how reckless he’s being. Look at how much he’s risking! He doesn’t know how Anna will react—he hasn’t told her that he’s coming—and yet there he is, roaming around her hometown, basically stalking her.
So, old Gurov turns out to be a very interesting character indeed. There’s much more to him than we might ever have expected. Who knows? He may even prove himself capable of love.
Now if you really don’t want me to spoil the story, you need to stop now. Just hit the pause button and start us up again when you’re done reading. Still there? OK, then. Here goes!
It turns out Anna is in agony. She has thought of nothing but Gurov—and she can’t believe that he’s shown up at the theatre. She’s mortified. People are watching, but he kisses her anyway—and that’s it. From that point on, they are back together. She says that she’ll come to visit him in Moscow, and so she does.
They get in the habit of meeting in hotel rooms—and as the story closes, we see how Gurov has been transformed by their relationship. He feels compassion and tenderness for Anna, and the narrator explains that the two of them:
“forgave each other for what they were ashamed of in their past, they forgave everything in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.”
So, the story has a happy ending? Well not exactly—as novelist Charles Baxter points out, this love almost “feels like a punishment.” Why is that? Well, Gurov is left with no idea of what to do. He has Anna, but he doesn’t have anything else. As the story ends, he and Anna are committed to one another—but they also realize that they have “a long, long road before them.”
What’s more, the narrator tells us—and this is the very last line in the story:
“the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”
So, as Baxter says, Gurov gets what he wants—and finds that there’s no way for him to enjoy it.
The great thing about all of this the thing that makes this story such a perfect example—is that our development as readers subtly parallels the development of the characters themselves. Gurov begins by thinking of Anna as yet another conquest, and he ends up feeling great compassion for her.
So, too, do we move from thinking of Gurov as a self-centered jerk to viewing him as a man capable of deep feeling and genuine sympathy.
What can we take away from this example? What larger conclusions might we draw from our encounter with Chekhov? Several, I think.
First, a character does not have to be likable or admirable to be interesting. It may be, in fact, that flawed characters have more potential.
Second, an unlikable character can change and grow. We may not like the character we meet at the beginning, but we shouldn’t assume that he’ll still be around at the end.
Third, change and growth—though positive experiences—don’t necessarily ensure a character’s happiness. We may have to see growth not as a means to an end, but rather as an end in itself
Finally, we should get in the habit of monitoring our responses to the characters. I’ve mentioned this before, I know, but it’s worth repeating. What are our first impressions? Do our feelings ever change—and if so, what might account for that development? When and how does the story ask us to reconsider our views?
With those questions in mind, we might move on to some broader generalizations about characters and characterization. Here, as before, we’ll be looking to see what makes some characters more interesting, more compelling, and more memorable, than others.
Let’s begin with a familiar notion: that “round” characters are more interesting than “flat” ones. I’m guessing you’ve heard this one before. Round characters are dynamic, complex, and unpredictable. Flat characters are just the opposite. They don’t change. Whenever they appear, we know exactly what they’re going to do and exactly what they’re going to say.
This familiar distinction actually comes to us from E. M. Forster, the author of novels like Howards End and A Passage to India. In 1927, Forster collected a number of his lectures into a book called Aspects of the Novel. This book is still in print—and it should be, because it makes some very subtle points in a very entertaining way.
After introducing the distinction between flat and round characters, Forster poses a brilliant question: How can you tell if a character is round or flat? What kind of test can you run for that?
As you might imagine, he had a good answer up his sleeve. Here’s what he said:
“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It must have the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.”
Now before moving on, let’s take that statement apart. We know what Forster means by “surprising”—but what about “convincing”? That’s the tricky part. To work through this problem, we’ll need to consider a few hypothetical examples. So let’s go back to Chekhov and ask ourselves how we’d feel if Gurov ended the story by breaking off with Anna and returning to his wife.
He parts from Anna, he goes back home, and suddenly realizes that what he’s really wanted—all along—is a passionate connection to his wife. That would be surprising, but not convincing. Everything we know about Gurov’s wife makes it seem unbelievable. For one thing, she’s nothing like Anna. For another thing, she finds Gurov ridiculous—so what could he possibly get out of a renewed relationship with her? So, no—if he went back to his wife, we’d have an unconvincing surprise, and Gurov and Chekhov would both fail the E. M. Forster roundness test.
How, then, does Gurov manage to pass? What makes the actual surprise—his unexpected devotion to Anna—seem convincing in the end? I think it has something to do with his complex, contradictory attitude toward women.
If you look back at the opening of the story, you’ll see that although he refers to women as the “lower race,” Gurov prefers the company of women to that of men. Women make him feel “free.” They put him “at ease with himself.” It may be, then, that he’s grown tired of playing around and is ready to fall in love with someone who might actually return his affection—someone, in other words, like Anna.
That would be my guess, anyway. Gurov is interesting, his story moving and compelling, because he’s a round character. He surprises in a convincing way.
Is that all there is to it? Can we go beyond roundness and flatness and extend our thinking about characters and characterization? I think so. In fact, I would submit that there are lots of other things for us to be on the lookout for. Here, then, is a brief list of qualities or attributes common to many—if not all—interesting fictional characters. (In making this list, I must add, I’m once again indebted to Charles Baxter, whose writings on the subject of characterization are right up there with Forster’s.)
OK, then. First item on our list: some sort of internal conflict or struggle. The operative word here is “internal.” Interesting characters may or may not be in conflict with other characters, but they are almost always in conflict with themselves.
Such conflicts can take several forms. The most basic—and the most familiar—is probably the struggle between good and evil, the wish to be virtuous and the temptation to sin. This sort of conflict is not all that hard to portray as fans of Bugs Bunny or Homer Simpson can attest. You just put an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, and you’re all set.
A little juicier, a little richer—at least in my opinion—is the conflict between desire and fear: You want to talk to that girl (or guy), but you’re afraid of being rejected. Even more interesting are conflicts between competing desires: You want to find a home or a family, but you also want to be independent and self-sufficient.
Why is that more interesting? In that case, it’s not really clear what you ought to do. The conflict seems less like make-believe and a little more like real life.
It’s possible to make things even more interesting. This time, let’s say that there’s a conflict between what you want and what you want to want. What you want and what you want to want. So how would that work? Let’s say that you are a skinny, rather dimwitted guy—and you’re stranded on a desert island.
Let’s say, in other words, that you are the title character from the old TV classic, Gilligan’s Island! Let’s say, completing the scenario, that the island is also home to a beautiful movie star (Ginger) and a wholesome girl-next-door type (Mary Ann)—and you want Ginger. You have it really, really bad for her. But you know that Ginger has no interest in you: She wouldn’t go for you if you were the last man on earth—and really, living on that desert island and all, you pretty much are!
All of that is clear to you, and so is this: Your problems would be solved if you could only convince yourself to want Mary Ann. She’s nice, she’s pretty, and she seems to spend a lot of time hanging around your hut. So just do it! Just go ahead: Fall in love with Mary Ann—not Ginger—Mary Ann.
See how that works? I know it’s a silly example, but it helps to clarify the point. You can’t always control your own desires. You don’t always want, what you want to want, and when that sort of conflict arises your story is likely to be a good one.
OK, let’s move on. In addition to internal conflict, there has to be a crisis, some event that brings the conflict out into the open. Your aging father tells you that he’s fallen in love with a nurse at the assisted living facility. Your son gets kicked out of school—and his principal turns out to be, Ginger!
See how that works? The conflict has been there all along, but it was buried or submerged. There was no particular reason to deal with it. Yet now, because of the crisis, you simply have no choice. Your father’s thing with this nurse forces you to admit that you’ve always hated the way he treated your mother. You’ve always blamed him for their divorce, and you don’t really see why he deserves any sort of love from anyone.
Now we’re talking, right? This really could get interesting—and this, I believe, is just the sort of character and the sort of story you should be looking for: a real conflict, not a phony one; a real crisis, with no easy answers in sight.
Are there other qualities we might add to our list—other things that we can say about this sort of conflict or crisis?
Yes. First, the crisis often includes some sort of reckoning with the past. The character is forced to question his own motives or reflect on his own desires. So, why do I blame my father for the divorce? Why should I resent his happiness? This crisis may also require a reckoning with the self—or, more specifically, with a cherished image of the self
Let’s say that you tend to think of yourself as a generous person—a kind and forgiving person—and let’s say that lots of other people seem to agree with you. They seem in lots of different ways to trust and respect you.
Now here you are, looking for reasons to dislike your father’s new girlfriend. She’s a nurse, for crying out loud! She’s the one who’s really kind and generous—not you! So how did you get to be such a creep? Have you always been this way? How do you know that you haven’t been hiding your true feelings—and your true self—for all these years? How do you know that this isn’t your day of reckoning—the day when you’re forced to admit that you are a jerk?
We started with a simple question: What makes a character interesting or worth reading about?—and we’ve worked our way to what seems like a pretty good answer. To review, then:
An interesting character passes the test for roundness. He or she is capable of surprising in a convincing way.
An interesting character has to deal with some sort of internal conflict. It may be a conflict between sin and virtue, or between desires and fears. It may even be a conflict between competing desires: what you want, and what you want to want.
An interesting character is also forced to deal with a crisis—an event or experience that forces the central conflict out of its hiding places.
There may also be a reckoning with the past, with the self, or—and this is really my favorite—with some sort of self-image. By the way, isn’t that what happens to Gurov, the character in the Chekhov story? He cherishes an image of himself as a happy-go-lucky ladies’ man, but he discovers that he’s actually a person of great depth and feeling—a true romantic, instead.
With all of that on the table, you can probably see why this sort of thing seldom happens in a mystery, or a western, or a legal thriller. In those stories, it would just get in the way of solving the crime or running the bad guys out of town.
In what—for lack of a better term—I’m calling “literary fiction,” this sort of thing is the whole point of the story! We read about these characters to know how they’ll surprise us—to see if and when they’ll settle their conflict, how they’ll revise their understandings of the past and of themselves.
That seems like a good place for us to stop. In our next lecture, we’ll consider another crucial element of fiction—description—asking how descriptions of characters and settings can contribute to our experience of a work.