In our daily live one of the greatest joys is to meet people with whom we feel some connection. “You won’t believe it,” we say to a friend, “but I met the most interesting person today at work.” What did we like about this person? The way he looked, the way he spoke, the way he behaved in a certain situation, he experiences and attitudes toward life? All of these factors can be what makes us care about a person and care about what happens to that person.
Perhaps the most important element of fiction and memoir, as least as far as the general reader is concerned, is character. Often on a first reading of a story, the characters are what determine if we enjoy the experience of reading the story or not. Are there characters that we can identify with, that we can sympathize with, and on another level, are their characters that we can dislike, disapprove of, root against? If the power of fiction, and memoir, resides in the emotional reactions that it provokes in the readers, characters may well be the main ingredient in that power.
Generally, fairly early in the story, the reader will become aware that the narrator is focusing on a primary character. There may be many characters, but the reader will notice that the narrator devotes more description to the actions and personality of one of the characters, providing various pieces of information about that character and of course other characters as well. By the end of the story, we may have learned a great deal of information about those characters. Sometimes, the narrator may be the protagonist. In memoir, that is certainly the case. What we readers become concerned with is understanding who the characters are, why they do the things they do, and if they behave consistently compared to what the narrator has told us.
Literary critics have created a few categories to help us understand what writers do with their characters. The first distinction is to discover who is the main character. Some time this person is called the protagonist. Then you might notice a second main character who opposes the protagonist in some manner. This character is called the antagonist. Then the story may have a number of secondary characters; they may even perform important acts in the story, but you would never say the story is about them. In the story “A&P” for instance, Sammy is the main character, the protagonist. Lengel is the antagonist. Secondary characters include Stocksie, Queenie and her friends, and even the customer who is watching for a mistake.
Another classification method defines characters as round, flat, and stereotypical. Round characters are those that the narrator has told us a good deal about, characters that we see as complicated, that we know in various ways. These characters strike us as unique creations, not necessarily like anyone we have ever met before. Flat characters are those that we do not know much about, who seem one dimensional. Stereotypical characters are those that the writer has put into the story to fill stock roles. They tend to be flat characters, and they resemble every other character who fills that role in other stories: the harping mother-in-law, the distant dad, the dumb blonde, the nosey reporter, the rude frat boy. In some cases the writer may make the main character a stereotype, as did Susan Sontag in “Dummy.” Very often the main character of the story will be a round character, and most secondary characters will be flat and stereotypical.
Characters are also classified as dynamic or static. A dynamic character is one who in the course of the story changes in some way. Did the character begin the story happy and then near the end of the story become sad? Did a sad, lonely character find happiness and love? Did a frightened character find bravery? If so, the character is dynamic; he or she changes during the development of the story. One great example of this is Katherine Mansfield’s character Miss Brill, who throughout most of the story views herself in a particular way, but who, because of comments made by some young people in the park, can no longer see herself in that way. Another kind of character is static, which describes a character who does not change. For instance, in Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” Phoenix Jackson goes through many experiences on her way to town, but it would seem that none of those experiences changed her in anyway. She was strong and determined at the beginning of the story and remains so to the end.
Examining whether characters are static or dynamic is important not only for main characters, but for all characters, including the narrator. Sometimes different characters react to the same situation in different ways, as in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Other times the narrator’s attitude may change in a way unlike the other characters, as in “Cathedral.”
It must be said, however, that as important as are these many terms used to analyze and discuss characters in fiction–protagonist, antagonist, round, flat, sterotypical, static, and dynamic–they merely represent methods for helping us get at the most important aspects of characters: who are they really and what they do? What do their behaviors and attitudes tell us about life? As readers, our jobs are to read the words in the text closely and look for how the characters are described by the narrator and by other characters, how the characters describe themselves, how the characters behave and think.
Below is a passage from D.H. Lawrence’s “A Rocking Horse Winner.” Notice how the conversation between a boy and his mother tell us many things about them and other members of the family.
“Mother,” said the boy Paul one day, “why don’t we keep a car of our own? Why do we always use uncle’s or else a taxi.” (1)
“Because we’re the poor members of the family,” said the mother. (2)
“But why are we, mother?”
“Well–I suppose,” she said slowly and bitterly, “it’s because your father has no luck.” (3)
The boy was silent for some time.
“Is luck money, mother?” he said, rather timidly. (4)
“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”
“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s lucre, not luck.”
“Oh!” said the boy. “Then what is luck, mother?”
“It’s what causes you to have money. If you’re lucky you have money. That’s why it’s better to be born lucky than rich. If you’re rich, you may lose your money. But if you’re lucky, you will always get more money.” (5)
“Oh! Will you? And is father not lucky.” (6)
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.
The boy watched with unsure eyes. (7)
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Nobody ever knows why one person is lucky and another unlucky.” (8)
“Don’t they? Nobody at all? Does nobody know?”
“Perhaps God. But He never tells.” (9)
“He ought to then. And aren’t you lucky either, mother?”
“I can’t be, if I married an unlucky husband. (10)
These are some of the things we learn about the characters from the conversation
(1). Paul is polite.
(2). Mother thinks she is poor.
(3) Mother is bitter. Mother blames father Mother places more value in luck than in money.
(4). Paul is innocent in some ways.
(5). Idea that mother thinks luck is better than money is reinforced
(6). Paul is learning to view father as his mother does.
(7). Paul is becoming confused.
(8). Mother feels helpless.
(9). Mother believes God is silent.
(10). Mother restates helplessness and restates view of husband.
We read stories in much the same way that we react to our day to day lives. We watch and listen and make judgments about the things we see and hear. Often writers will directly tells us what characters are like, as when Lawrence uses the word “bitterly” to describe the mother’s speech. Other times writers will present material less directly, as in Lawrence’s portrayal of Paul as innocent and polite. In this passage, he doesn’t say Paul is innocent, but he shows us that Paul is when Paul confuses the meaning of lucre and lucker.
One thing we can learn from stage and screen actors is to look at the character’s motivations. Actors ask what their characters want in the stories they are in, and to develop a scene, actors examine what characters want in each scene that they are in. In the scene above from “The Rocking Horse Winner, what does Paul want? Might he want to make his mother happy? Anything else? And what does the mother want? Does she want to be lucky? Does she want someone to save her? Does she want to alone? Examining the motivations of a character is a step toward understanding conflict in a story.
The final and perhaps most important facet of characters in a short story or memoirs is determining their relevance to the story’s theme. Part of this analysis may seem obvious. If the characters are all members of the chime family, then perhaps the theme of the story concerns the family. If some characters are religious, the them might make a statement about faith or other such matters. Other clues derive from more specific aspects of characters, their gender, ethnicity, or economic status. Occasionally, writers use these aspects to develop a theme about what it means to be a man or woman, a Hispanic, or AngloAmerican, a member of the middle class. In some stories, such as Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” or Jorge Luis Borges’ “The End of the Duel,” no one character is indisputably the central character. Perhaps in these instances, the theme deals with a larger generality about human nature or a human’s place in nature.
From Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary, 5th ed. by Lyman Grant (Prentice Hall, 2002).