Close Literary Reading 101: Some Terms and Ideas for Thinking about Characters

I thought it might be fun (at least for me) to lay out, in a series of short blog posts, some of the basic terms and ideas that I present to my students when talking about the “close reading” of literary texts. Maybe there will be others who also find these brief outlines valuable. I have found, over the years, that close reading of literature is akin to the practice of Buddhist vipassana. Close reading teaches you to slow down, actually notice what it is that you’re looking at and experiencing, and see changes and patterns. Anyway, below are some basic literary terms and ideas that I share with my students on characterization. . . .

Short of a nature documentary, or cartoons that portray animals with human traits, stories invariably center on people. Here are some basic vocabulary terms associated with characters in stories, and some things to notice about characters:

  • The appearance of contingency. Although we know that, ultimately, there is a shaping and directing author behind every single word, event, and character depicted in a story, writers nevertheless (unless they are in a highly ironic and self referential mode) present their characters as if  they were products of various contingencies (from accidents of where the characters are born to who they might bump into at a grocery store). In stories, as in life, accidents appear to impact fates. A chance encounter, say, with a wafting smell from a kitchen may trigger memories, dreams, desires, or changes of course. In TC Boyle’s “Carnal Knowledge (1994), the story is triggered by a dog who wanders over to a sleeping man on a beach and pisses on him. From this absurd contingency lies a tale, and the transformation of a character’s life.
  • A story’s lead character is the protagonist, and wherever sympathetic, can be thought of as the hero or heroine.
  • To make a story ‘go’ a protagonist experiences some sort of triggering event that sets her (or him) into an agonistic relationship (struggle) with something or somebody. The protagonist’s chief resistance comes from the story’s antagonist
  • Some characters are ‘drawn’ by authors with detail and nuance, but others are not. In other words, some characters are round while others are flat; some are complex while others are stock; some are dynamic while others are static. Obviously, these categories should be thought of as being along continuums (characters more or less round or flat, complex or stock, dynamic or static).
  • Characters project personae; that is, they project their individualities, particularities, and peculiarities into the world (as actors on a stage). Some depictions of personae  are rarely used by writers, and are marginal or highly eccentric, while others are more common, ‘stock’, or archetypal. An example of a powerful archetypal Machiavellian persona  is Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. In film, an example of someone who exudes a powerful sexual persona  is James Dean. Bartleby, the famed character in Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, is an archetypal misfit.
  • Ambivalence. While the portrayals of personae  are important to writers, characters (if they are really to be interesting to us), will not just be stereotypes, masks, or archetypes presented to the world, devoid of inner lives and emotional complexities. Instead, compelling characters tend to display profound contrarities, conflicts, and shiftings within the self, and there may be tensions between appearances v. reality. (Think of Hamlet as the sine qua non of the tumultuous inner life: “To be or not to be; to do or not to do; to appear or not to appear.”). William Faulkner once wrote that great literary stories are about “[t]he problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing.”
  • Externalized ambivalences. Ambivalences, however, may not just reside within a single character. Instead, two characters are sometimes portrayed as mirroring one another, externalizing a psychological ambivalence (one character loves America, another hates it; one character externalizes masculinity, the other femininity). In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, three brothers externalize what Dostoevsky saw as the contrarities and tensions of the human soul: mind, spirit, and body. (One brother is an intellectual atheist, one is a theist studying for the priesthood, and one is a sensualist, and in their choices the brothers are torn.) 
  • Characters might thus be thought of as having, not just stable selves, but unstable selves, or warring selves, or multiple selves, or even, ultimately, nonexistent selves. When reading literature, you are invariably driven into a confrontation with your theories of the self.

These are just a few of the things that you might start thinking about in approaching literary characters.

For some reflections on narration, click here, and for some reflections on style, click here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Close Literary Reading 101: Some Terms and Ideas for Thinking about Characters

  1. Pingback: Close Literary Reading 101: Some Terms and Ideas for Thinking about Dramatic Structure « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: Close Literary Reading 101: Thinking about How Stories End | Prometheus Unbound

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