Course 5—Lecture


How to Read: Character
Good writers create characters that jump off the page, some living in our memories forever. This LitCourse explores two different ways to think about fictional characters—1) how they resemble real people and 2) how authors develop them as fictional people.

F. Scott Fitzgerald—"Babylon Revisited"

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


It's all about character

The most pleasurable part of reading fiction is the chance to meet people who make us privy to their inner lives and to revealing situations.

Life itself can't possibly offer the variety of personalities that fiction can. Through books we are able to meet characters across vast distances in time and space.

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


It's all about character

By learning to understand fictional characters, we also learn to understand ourselves and others.

We rely on the same clues to learn about characters as we do real people. We look at . . .

Background and history
What others say about them

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


Characters and speech

What characters say reveals a lot about them. We interpret their words to clarify meaning.

But beware: words aren't always reliable indicators of truth. Like real people, characters may . . .

Use words to conceal
Say one thing but do another
Not say what they mean
Say more—or less—than they mean.

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


Characters and actions

We are what we do—and what characters do says a great deal about them.

Fiction focuses on critical moments in characters' lives, so we need to interpret how they respond to those crises.

Is the action thoughtful or impulsive?
Is the action appropriate?
What motivation lies behind the action?
Is the action influenced by the past?

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


Characters and appearance

How characters look also tells us something about them. When authors take time to describe someone's appearance or physical condition, there is usually a reason. We need to pay attention to . . .

Physical stature
Physical condition

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


Characters and appearance

The meaning of a character's description will vary with context. A character with a . . .

disheveled appearance may indicate a "disheveled" mind, a social misfit...or the opposite—one who values authenticity over appearance.
heart problem may indicate someone who is selfish, untouched by emotion...or (as in Kate Chopin's story in LitCourse 1) troubled and unhappy.

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


Characters and background

Characters, like people, are shaped by their back- grounds—personal experiences that reflect the context of their lives. We take into account . . .

Socio-economic class

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


Characters and what others say

Opinions of one character about an other can be a valuable source of information. But what others say about someone must be carefully vetted. Are the opinions . . .

From a trusted or unreliable source?
Based on complete or only partial information?
Objective or biased?
Rational or emotional (perhaps resentment or blind

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


How are characters created?

Characterization is the process of developing characters. An author considers several factors:

1 How should readers learn about characters?
2 How convincing should they be?
3 How fully developed should they be?
4 Should they change or grow over the course of the story?

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character



How do readers learn about characters? The author can choose two basic methods:

Direct: a narrator tells us directly about a character's internal and external make- up. The narrator may perch inside a character's mind, outside (close by), or both.
Indirect: no narrator. Readers access characters externally: we know them only from their words, actions or what other characters say about them.

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character



How convincing are characters? To create believable characters, writers must make them . . .

Consistent — in behavior and motivations.
Cohesive — in overall psychological makeup.

Even characters who behave erratically, who seem inconsistent, should still be cohesive (whole). Their erratic behavior should be part of their overall psychological make-up.

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character



How developed are the characters? Writers must decide how much complexity to give them—which is often referred to as "shape."

Round characters—fully developed; emotionally and psychologically complex.
Flat characters—one dimensional; little or no emotional or psychological depth.
Stock characters—stereotypes, even caricatures (wise old man, clever servant, rich wastrel, naive ingenue); no development.

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character



To what degree does a character change or grow by the end of the story? Writers can create . . .

Dynamic characters who change—by learning a life lesson or growing in some way by the end.
Static characters who remain unchanged at the story's end.

Authors create both dynamic and static characters in the same story. The protagonist (primary character) changes while secondary characters usually remain unchanged.

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character


Characters—a summary

We talk about characters in two ways:

1. As real people
We discuss characters in the same way we do real people. We observe and interpret their words, actions, appearances, and background, as well as what others say about them.

2. As fictional creations
We look at characterization—the process authors use to create their characters. Are characters presented directly or indirectly? Are they convincing? Are they developed? Do they change by the end of the story?

LitCourse 5
How to Read: Character



You've reached the end of the Lecture. To continue with LitCourse 5, click "Reading" on the Course Tools menu to the right. The short story is. . .

"Babylon Revisited"
F. Scott Fitzgerald

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