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Approaching prose fiction
Approaching prose fiction

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2.5 Characterisation

How do writers of prose fiction make us respond to the imaginary people they create? In order to encourage us to continue reading writers must force us to react in some way to their characters, whether it is to identify, empathise or sympathise with them, to dislike or disapprove of them, or to pass judgement on their actions, behaviour and values. As we have already seen, the fundamental question we repeatedly ask when we read a story is what happened next. Equally importantly we want to know to whom it happened, and we will only want to know this if we feel strongly, one way or another about the characters in the story. In this respect the author's skill at characterisation is crucial.

We use the term characterisation to describe the strategies that an author uses to present and develop the characters in a narrative. This use of descriptive techniques will vary from character to character. Some characters are central to a story; often there will be one main character, around whom the narrative revolves: Pip in Great Expectations, for example, or, we may reasonably surmise from the opening paragraph we looked at earlier, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. We expect that such characters, and others close to the heart of narrative events will be presented to us in great detail; we may be allowed access to their consciousness, either by the use of first-person narration or third-person focalisation, and it is extremely likely that they will undergo some sort of significant personal change (for better or worse) as a result of their experiences. These kinds of characters are sometimes known as dynamic. Other characters, often described as static, may be much less thoroughly-drawn; they may be introduced to the narrative primarily to perform a particular narrative or thematic function, and will probably undergo little or no change in the course of the story.

Another useful distinction between types of characters was proposed by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel. ‘We may divide characters into flat and round,’ Forster suggested (1927, p. 65). What do you think he meant by these terms?

I expect you found this rather straightforward. The word ‘flat’ suggests a one-dimensional figure, and what Forster meant by ‘flat’ characters were those who are largely taken to represent a particular idea, human trait or set of values, much like the static characters described above. They are caricatures who can be easily and quickly summarised; Forster gives an example:

The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as “I will never desert Mr Micawber.” There is Mrs Micawber – she says she won't desert Mr Micawber; she doesn't, and there she is.


The reference is to a character in Dickens' David Copperfield who does not change in any significant way in spite of the varied experiences she and her family encounter. ‘Round’ characters, by contrast, are described and developed in such a way as to achieve three-dimensionality, a physical and psychological complexity that mimics that of the real people we come to know in our everyday lives.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice provides some interesting examples of ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters. Note, however, that identifying those examples will largely depend on the reader's response to Austen's characters, but we might well place figures such as Mrs Bennett in the former category, and the central character, her daughter Elizabeth in the latter. As you may know, Austen sums up Mrs Bennet in three short, direct sentences at the end of the opening chapter of the novel:

She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

(Austen, 1813, p. 3)

Compare this with the opening of the final chapter of Pride and Prejudice:

Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters. With what delighted pride she afterwards visited Mrs. Bingley and talked of Mrs. Darcy may be guessed. I wish I could say, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children, produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable woman for the rest of her life; though perhaps it was lucky for her husband, who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form, that she still was occasionally nervous and invariably silly.

(ibid., p. 295)

These two descriptions of Mrs. Bennet, at the beginning and end of the novel are rare examples of Austen ‘telling’ us about this particular character. More often, she ‘shows’ us Mrs. Bennett by reporting her speech directly and allowing us to draw our own conclusions about Mrs. Bennet's attitudes and values. We are never given access to Mrs. Bennett's consciousness; events are never ‘focalised’ through her. Why do you think this is?

It is probably because Mrs. Bennet's main function in the story is to represent a particular attitude of the period in which the novel is set, that the best, or only chance for women's social advancement and financial security was through marriage. By representing this view from the outside, as it were, Austen leads us to scrutinise it in a more rigorous way. To describe Mrs. Bennet as ‘flat’ or ‘static’ is not to imply that she is necessarily a negligible character. She may perform only one function in the novel, but it is a function that draws attention to the constrained position of women in the society Austen depicts.

That Elizabeth is a ‘round’, or ‘dynamic’ character is surely not in doubt. The entire novel revolves around her and we perceive much of the action through her eyes. The changes she experiences conform to Forster's template of ‘roundness’, and the contrast with Mrs. Bennet demonstrates the necessity for combinations of ‘flat’ and ‘round’ that Forster sees as necessary for the successful creation of fictional narrative:

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 has the incalculability of life about it – life within the pages of a book. And by using it sometimes alone, more often in combination with the other kind, the novelist achieves his task of acclimatization, and harmonizes the human race with the other aspects of his work.

(Forster, 1927, p. 75)