Characters. Readers love
them and hate them; we pity them and malign them; we cry for them and laugh for them; and most of all, we remember them. And
that is why people from all walks of life know Boo Radley, Uncle Tom, Reverend Dimmesdale, Rip Van Winkle, Tom Sawyer, Huck
Finn, Grendel, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, the Wife of Bath, Macbeth, Hamlet, and countless others who infiltrate our minds
and inhabit our hearts. But why? Why do they make such an impression on us? We care about them because we identify with them,
or sometimes we wish we could. Any one who has at some point felt shy and awkward understands Boo Radley. Those who love adventure
like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Someone who has been wronged or whose friend has been wronged identifies with Marc Anthony.
And so on. These characters are like us, so we know how they feel, and think, and act. They are literary representatives of
Many avid readers actually
find themselves giving advice to characters from books. Have you ever heard yourself saying to a character, “That is
so stupid! How could you do that? Don’t you ever learn?” We may truly feel as if we know these characters, and
some people enjoy living vicariously through them, even if only for a limited time. Actually, some authors allow us to know
so much about their characters that we may understand more about them than about the real people we come into contact with
on a regular basis.
More than one-fourth of the
AP Exam questions deal with character in some way, so you must understand how to respond. First, take a look at some AP prompts
to see what they ask of you. The following excerpts are from AP tests from 1994 through 1999 in which 16 of the 36 questions
refer to character!
These questions regarding
a character include:
a character who is important
but may be present for a short time or not at all
the way the author reveals
his attitude about the character
the way the author uses stylistic
devices to characterize someone
the way the author conveys
an experience as a child
how the author uses literary
techniques to reveal the complexities of life
what the author’s understanding
of himself is
how the literary devices
convey the impression of the incident on the character
how the emotional struggle
within a character reveals the intent of the work .and many, many more
DO YOU LEARN ABOUT CHARACTERS?
Most authors don’t
explain characters totally as they are introduced. There are both direct and indirect ways to learn, and quite often authors
use more than one way in the same work. And when you read closely, you will discover that you know more about the characters
than you think you do.
1. The author states information
about a character giving an authoritative feel to that information. In The Scarlet
Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne describes Hester Prynne:
“The young woman was
tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the
sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had
the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine
gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity....”
2. Another direct method
of characterization is that of statements or descriptions by other characters. The following example is from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell.
“He received me very
courteously; but, it must be confessed, that his apartment, and furniture, and morning dress, were sufficiently uncouth. His
brown suit of clothes looked very rusty; he had on a little old shriveled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head;
his shirtneck and knees of his breeches were loose; his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled
shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk.”
3. A description of the
environment told by the author or a character is an indirect method of characterization from which the reader can infer
information about the characters. The following excerpt from Grendel by John Gardner
is a description of the lake where the monster lives with his mother; their home is at the bottom of this lake. The passage
hints that only a horrible kind of monster could live there!
where water pours
From the rocks, then runs
underground, where mist
Steams like black clouds,
and the groves of trees
Growing out over their lake
are all covered
With frozen spray, and wind
Roots that reach as far as
And help keep it dark. At
night that lake
Burns like a torch. No one
knows its bottom,
No wisdom reaches such depths.
Hunted through the woods
by packs of hounds,
A stag with great horns,
though driven through the forest
From faraway places, prefers
On those shores, refuses
to save its life
In that water. It isn’t
far, nor is it
A pleasant spot! When the
And storms, waves splash
toward the sky,
As dark as the air, as black
as the rain
That the heavens weep. Our
Again, lies with you. Grendel’s
Is hidden in her terrible
home, in a place
You’ve not seen. Seek
it, if you dare!’
4. The character’s
actions tell the reader about him/her
This excerpt from Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals the determination, courage, and desperation of Eliza, a slave, who flees with
her child rather than have him sold and separated from her. She runs across slabs of ice on a river to save him. The implication,
of course, is that she is daring and brave and willing to risk her life to save her child.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
“A thousand lives seemed
to be concentrated in that one moment to Eliza. Her room opened by a side door to the river. She caught her chili!, and sprang
down the steps towards it. The trader caught a full glimpse of her, just as she was disappearing down the bank; and throwing
himself from his horse, calling loudly on Sam and Andy, he was after her like a hound after a deer. In that dizzy moment her
feet to her scarce seemed to touch the ground, and a moment brought her to the water’s edge. Right on behind they came;
and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over
the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap--impossible to anything but madness
and despair; and Haley, Sam, and Andy, instinctively cried out, and lifted up their hands, as she did it.”
“The huge green fragment
of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she stayed there not a moment. With wild cries
and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake--stumbling--leaping--slipping--springing upwards again!
Her shoes are gone--her stockings cut from her feet--while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till
dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank”
5. A character’s
name can sometimes tell an observant reader much. An allegory is an obvious example of a name representing something abstract,
and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the best known example. This narrative relates Christian’s efforts
to overcome ungodliness represented by “Vanity Fair” and the “Slough of Despond.” The allegory also
refers to Hopeful, Faith, Piety, and other characters.
Other examples of meaningful
names come from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: (1) Pearl, the physical embodiment
of the scarlet letter worn by her mother, named Pearl because
Hester considered her “as being of great price--purchased with all she (Hester) had.” Then there is Chillingworth,
the betrayed husband who becomes “cold-hearted” and demonic. And, of course, there is Dimmesdale, fading
away as he is consumed by hidden sin.
In addition, there is Phoenix Jackson from Eudora Welty’s
“A Worn Path.” Phoenix, like the legendary bird
known for regeneration, is able to find the strength to “regenerate” herself, to walk to town, despite obstacles
and age, to get medicine for her grandson. Another example of the importance of a name is that of Fortunato from “Cask
of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe. In this instance, however, the name is ironic because Fortunato is anything but
fortunate since he is buried alive in the story.
And how many Star Wars fans
realize the significance of the name Luke Sky walker? Does he not travel (walk) the skies? And have you ever considered the
Latin translation of Darth Vader? It translates to dark father!
Keep in mind that a name
can tell a story, so be observant.
TYPES OF CHARACTERS
These are the basic characters
found in literature. As you read an assignment, consider how the characters might be classified.
1. ROUND characters are complex
characters; there is enough information about them to make them memorable. Round characters are usually DYNAMIC - they change
or adjust to different situations; the protagonist is usually a dynamic character.
2. FLAT characters have only
one or two traits; they are simple. Flat characters are most often STATIC--usually minor characters; they do not grow because
they lack insight.
3. STEREOTYPE is a kind of
character found in different literature; examples include the overbearing mother, the cunning detective, the nosy neighbor,
the hen-pecked husband, and the nagging wife.