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Character: What Is It?

According to the OED:

11. The sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a race, viewed as a homogeneous whole; the individuality impressed by nature and habit on man or nation; mental or moral constitution.

AND:

12. a. Moral qualities strongly developed or strikingly displayed; distinct or distinguished character; character worth speaking of. (For instance, "1735 POPE Ep. Lady 2 Most Women have no Characters at all.")

A few questions:

  • How do Marquez or Joyce establish the verisimilitude--or the feeling of "realness"--in their characters? If it's detail, what sort of detail?

  • Why might an author sometimes choose to have "unreal" or "stock" characters? What function could unreal/stock characters fulfill? Are all great books chock full of real-seeming characters?

  • Does the differentiation of "round vs. flat" character make sense to you? (See Wikipedia.) Dynamic vs. static?

  • How do you know a strong fictional character when you see one? (Beyond, "I just know it when I see it.") What are the hallmarks of a strong fictional character?

  • What sort of story or book requires strong fictional characters? What sort of story might succeed with types or caricatures?

  • What sort of story relies on a "likable" main character/narrator? What sort of story thrives on an unlikable narrator? Let me clarify: I don't mean "should," but if you're trying to write a happily-ever-romance, it might be harder to do with an unlikable narrator, no? Or perhaps it might turn out to be more interesting that way. What books or stories--ones that were well-done or memorable--thrived on an unlikable narrator?

Comments

Both Marquez and Joyce give their characters “realness� by showing us snippets of the normal aspects of their everyday lives that would be boring if not for the story they were attached to.
Stock characters could be used in minor roles so as to not compete with the vitality of the main characters.
To me, a flat or static character is one that never leaves the page. They never make the leap into your mind to get mulled over, because they’re not “worth� thinking about.
A strong fictional character is one that makes you want to a) meet them, b) shake some sense into them, or c) kill them.
I think anything longer than a few pages would need strong characters to keep me connected to the story. Without someone to relate to/judge my interest would wane. With short stories, like “Sashimi Cashmere� for example, we don’t really need an outstanding lead because the action and imagery keep us on track long enough.
It helps for the main character need to be likable when the reader is expected to empathize with them, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary.
An unlikable character would be cool for a story in which we crave said character’s downfall, but when it happens, we’re disturbed into a conflicted pity.

Joyce and Marquez both show verisimilitude or "realness" by making their characters seem normal, as in someone you can relate to, someone who seems like you even. But connect them to a story to gain interest.
Stock characters may be used, to express an author's extremes. Their extreme anger or silliness, etc. Stock characters may be used to take the story in an extreme direction, somewhere the story would never go had the character been just another normal relate able person.
The differentiation between round and flat characters makes perfect sense to me, I notice these all the time in stories. Likewise, I fully understand dynamic vs. static as well.
I know a strong character, when I decide that this is a person I would like to meet, be like, to kill, to hate, or to love.
Strong characters would be needed in I'd say every story. I can't imagine a good story without wanting to meet, kill, be like, etc. one of the characters.
A story with a likable main character/narrator, will generally be one where said person has a downfall, and has to get back something he lost through his own fault. A story that thrives on an unlikable main character or narrator would be one where they think they're "all that", or if their actions are only done for their own selfish interest, and we crave for them to fail.

I would agree with the previous comments that both Joyce and Marquez give life to their characters via giving them very real human traits. You can see this in "Chronicles" by the way certain characters act both alone and in relation to others.
The previously mentioned stock characters can be, as Ronnie said, used as minor characters. I also think that placing unreal characters or characters that are way too cliche in stories helps to draw out and emphasize the important traits the author wants you to see within the main character(s) and give them a sense of depth--i.e., they are the truly unique characters.
Strong fictional characters are, and again I'm in agreement with Michael and Ronnie, characters that make you want to jump into the story and get to know them, hate them, etc.
Any longer story that is written to make a point or give insight on some issue is empowered by a strong voice within it (i.e. a strong lead character). Through this, the reader is not merely reading a broadcasted message the author is trying to spin, but instead, relates to the main character, wants to know them, agree with them, or debate them, and ultimately take the story more seriously.

I think both Joyce and Marquez create realness in their characters in similar ways. In both cases it is the fact that the characters have human faults, but they are not completely horrible. Their realism derives for me from the fact that I can imagine humans acting on the motives their characters do, whether I agree with those actions or not.

I think stock characters are important because their are a lot of stock people in our everyday lives. You can't know the depths of every character, and sometimes they evoke laughter or anger from the audience. I don't think all great books are full of realistic characters.

Round and flat and static and dynamic all makes sense. It's about depth and change.

To me a strong fictional character is one that I can relate to on some level. Even the worst of characters I'd like to see something of myself in. Also strong characters make me care about what happens to them.

Stories about a single moment or scene don't hinge on characters. Stories that describe something universal to everyone don't need characters. They just depend on the audiences emotional response to the described moment that they can relate to. Good characters are nice, but not essential to a story.

I'm not sure if any type of story is off limits to a likable or unlikable narrator.

Joyce and Marquez create characters that are realistic by, like Kamal said, giving them faults. Many times I can put myself in a character's situation and see that I very well may have acted like they did or can imagine another human acting like they did. I think this is important to creating characters that feel real.

If a book was full of realistic characters, I think it would be too much. It could get confusing. Having stock characters provides a backdrop that makes the main, or realistic, characters stand out.

I've sort of mentioned this already and it's been mentioned a few times in this blog so far, but I think that strong characters are relatable. We can connect or associate ourselves with them in some sense. This doesn't mean that only strong characters are relatable, but I think that strong characters usually need to make us feel one way or another and how else can we do that? Maybe the easiest way is to make the character like us, so we can see a little of them in ourselves.

I also agree with Kamal on this last question.. I don't think that any certain kind of story "should" have a likable or unlikable narrarator. Though I wouldn't be surprised that there would be tendencies in literature to have a likable narrarator in this type of story and an unlikabe narrarator in this one.

For making their characters seem real, I'm liking the idea about giving them faults. I heard in a writers' workshop once that giving your character at least one fault is very important to make them seem real and to allow your audience to relate to them. Many writers fall into the trap of putting too much of themselves into their main character or liking their character so much that they refuse to make them anything but perfect. I also think that the characters seem more real when they have reasons behind their actions, reasons we the readers know about. It's okay to have a character do something surprising and against their nature, but if we never really figure out why, we will be left with a somewhat flat character.

Stock characters are useful plot and foreshadowing devices. If a certain type of character shows up, we have an inkling of what's going to happen next. It's also hard to digest so many realistic characters and there would have to be so much detail in the novel that it would take a long time for anything interesting to happen. It's nice to have a rich history for your main characters, but I don't need to know the never-speaking barman's past and why he became a bartender to appreciate the story.

The round v flat and static v dynamic character descriptions have been pounded into my head since elementary school. XD!

I don't think I know if a character is strong right off the bat, but after a few chapters, if the character is consistent in his/her actions, is someone I could relate to/understand, someone who the author describes very well...I think it then becomes obvious that the character's strong fictionally.

Stories that make you think really need strong characters, or stories that try to make a commentary on society, culture, etc. Stories that don't are ones like fables and fairy tales. It would be weird if Hansel and Gretel were very dynamic, round characters, It would detract from the story.

Stories that rely on a likeable narrator/main character are stories that want you cheer on the main character/narrator and want you to feel for him/her. You really want a likable narrator/main character to succeed. Stories with an unlikable main character/narrator want to try and understand where the main character/narrator is coming from, or they want you to feel angry or frustrated with the main character narrator.

Joyce and Marquez certainly give their characters a feeling of realness. You can tell they're human by their experiences and what the narrator tells you. Each and every one of them have some sort of flaw--they're not perfect (that's what human is either way). Characters .
have to have a human-like characteristic that we can all relate to or would like to relate too. Marquez likes to show the flaws of his characters. We see how a lot of the characters in "Chronicles of a Death Foretold" is quite prevalent where no one is perfect. That's how the world is...and we find it so realistic that we can relate so easily. In detail, Joyce uses events. For example, Farrington in "Counterparts" is far from perfect. He's big and has a moustache--this is something we don't expect for a main character but this is what makes it interesting. Just like Marquez, "Chronicles" has characters with dozens of flaws. Of course, there's Bayardo San Roman who seems to be just about perfect (flaws barely detailed in the story) but it's the fact that he's entering an imperfect character's life that makes him interesting. What I'm saying is that we'd like to meet a perfect character like this one day and see how it'd all go.

Marquez's unreal character (in my entitled opinion) was Bayardo. He seemed so unreal yet real at the same time. It adds interest to the story, or rather, it just makes a story in general. If Bayardo had never visited the village, nothing as drastic as murder would have happened. All great books aren't filled with unreal characters. I think it's absolutely doable to create a story with real, real, real tangible characters.

In order for characters to have verisimilitude, I think they need to possess personality traits readers can relate to. The way in which Marquez and Joyce present their characters’ actions, dialects, and thoughts as well as their descriptions allows us to picture them as real people. I agree with Chelsey on stock characters. They are useful for predicting what might happen next. If the “evil stepmother� shows up in a story, we can usually expect a conflict to occur resulting in her downfall.
The round vs. flat / dynamic vs. static characters makes perfect sense. Round characters are three-dimensional… You are able to see many sides of them. Flat characters are one-sided and lack detail. Dynamic characters change in some way and static characters do not.
This has been stated before, but strong fictional characters are those in which you would really like to encounter or really hate to encounter. They should be easily relatable and easy to picture. Stories that have “likeable� narrators or main characters are usually ones that we can (as Ronnie said) empathize with. Stories with “unlikable� narrators or main characters usually end in a lesson with the character’s failure or change for the better.

I too think that Marquez and Joyce have created realistic characters by creating characters with faults. This is something readers can relate to, whether they agree or disagree with the character's actions, because they can compare and contrast the character's faults to the faults they themselves posses.

Sometimes I think that authors create stock characters in order to fill in the gaps of their stories, but still keep their readers focused on their main "real" characters, or main theme/idea. I don't think all great novels are chock full of real-seeming characters, because sometimes authors want us focusing in on the message they are trying to bring out in their writing, and don't want their readers sympathizing with the "right" or "wrong" character.

Yes, round vs. flat character does make sense. I think the stories that readers "fall" in to, have main characters that are round (three dimensional)... and I think that the stories we simply "see" are usually about flat characters, and we read about them as we see a painting.

I know a strong fictional character because I can picture them standing in front of me. I can piece them together and I want them to get what they deserve... whether that be what they want or what they had coming. You love them or hate them, you relate to them, and sometimes you wish you never met them. They no longer seem like characters on a page, but people that you have met or know.

I think that stories with unlikable narrators strive when the author wants the reader to learn from the narrator's mistakes and NOT follow in those footsteps. A story in the other direction, where the author wants his/her reader(s)to do as the narrator does, would definitely require a likeable narrator.

As a number of people have said now, characters seem far more believable when they are given traits that a reader might be able to relate too, real human traits. That, however, is just what is necessary to get the ball rolling. From here it is all through contrast and “counter-pointed characterization� that characters are actually given value in a story.
Since a story is all in a readers mind, how they decipher the words on the page, and there is no actual way to make sure all readers decode the story the same, everything must be thought of on a relative scale. Whether a character truly exemplifies an emotion or idea in a certain situation is not as important as what/who they are juxtaposed against. That is the key to making the characters stand out and is also why the use of both static and dynamic characters or flat and round characters are all important together. It is not just one of them that makes or breaks the story, but who they are compared to in the course of events.
Beyond the contrast, great fictional characters are hard to find in my opinion. I must be able to relate to them on more than one level. If I can relate to them in only a specific situation then I may enjoy that part, but still the character will lack life. It is hard enough sometimes to imagine an entire world just from words- maybe just my lack of imagination sometimes- but if I do not know that a person could actually live in a described way, or have a described feeling or idea, their part in the story does not hold any more weight than the page it is printed on.

I think faults aren’t the most important part of characterization. What is more important are unique character traits, specific desires, singularity. I think Farrington is a good example of this. If he was simply a lazy, abusive drunk, he would certainly have faults, but he would just as certainly be a stereotype. Even by adding solely the detail of Farrington’s embarrassment over being beaten in arm wrestling, or his thoughts on paying for another round of drinks, James make Farrington a stronger character. These are not faults per se, but they are solid concrete traits. They are aspects of Farrington’s character that belong solely to him. Strong characters, real characters, have details that are not necessarily good or bad, details that are simply parts of those characters. They have counter-pointing within themselves.

In the wikipedia definition, it talks about how static characters can be used to serve as thematic or plot elements. The same can be said of flat characters. Stories with clear morals objectives need these kinds of characters. Round characters have ambiguity, if the story wants to clearly delineate good and evil, then it needs flat characters.

A very memorable unlikable narrator was Dr. Sheppard, from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I actually liked him quite well until his confession at the end. And, obviously, this book would not be nearly as good if Dr. Sheppard were simply who he appeared to be through most of the book.

I think what makes Marquez's characters so real is the LACK of detail. The reason I think this is because nobody is exactly as they seem. There is always more than what is worn on the sleeve. Also, some people may present a false "front" of who they are and may be completely different from what they show others.

Not all books are filled with stock characters. I think this is because characters that may not seem real may challenge your way of thinking.

The differences between round and flat do make sense to me, same with dynamic and flat characters.


To me, a strong fictional character is a round character. One that has that feeling of "realness". If I could in any way, shape, or form could relate to the character, thats the first sign I see that marks a strong character. There are other characters that I cant relate to that are strong, but it sometimes takes me a bit longer to notice it.

A story like Chronicle of a Death Foretold could/and did, get away with a type or caricature of a character. Doing that kept you guessing for more-hoping to learn more about this intruiging character.

Id say journals/diaries and romantic novels would rely on a likable main character. I cannot remember a story Ive read where I didnt like the main character and did like the book. Usually, if I didnt like the main character, it lead me to dislike the book.

Marquez and Joyce establish a feeling of realness in their characters through their flaws. The thing that really makes a person human is their imperfectness. Many stories use the heroic character archetype for their protagonist, which often leads little room to have a flaw (unless they're tragic heroes). I think by giving their characters flaws and making them not so likeable

Marquez and Joyce establish a feeling of realness in their characters through their flaws. The thing that really makes a person human is their imperfectness. Many stories use the heroic character archetype for their protagonist, which often leads little room to have a flaw (unless they're tragic heroes). I think by giving their characters flaws and making them not so likeable they endow them with realism. The protagonist of Counterparts (I forgot his name) was not a likeable guy, but I think people could relate to him. Everybody knows a guy who is a lazy jerk, or at least I do. Santiago Nasar wasn't really likeable either, he was a jerk from the first time we hear about him. Basically, the characters are real because they aren't perfect and they aren't always nice.

I think that many books are filled with stock characters. They may not be as realistic as a really dynamic round character, but they serve another purpose. Stock characters, or archetypes, are engrained into people from an early age. Most Disney movies are filled with them. The handsome prince rescues a young maiden, the renegade takes from the rich and gives to the poor, etc. These stock characters are used to force a person to make an immediate association with other characters of this type. The reader automatically knows that the beared old man is going to be wise and that the reluctant guy is always going to be the one whose going to end up being the hero and so on. It just builds on what the reader already knows from experience.

Lastly, I'd say a strong fictional character would be someone that the reader can relate to. If the reader can associate with the fictitious character than the job is pretty much done. In addition, it usually helps if the character is dynamic and goes through some heavy change. But mostly, I like a character that I can associate with because it makes me feel like there is somebody else (even though he/she is fictional) that thinks the way I do.

In reality, humans are far from perfect, and when a writer points out everyday human flaws, they can often make that character completey come to life, though they may not end up being the most likable character. Stock characters are usually a very important part of a book as they offer good transitions and movement, but also because they are also a very real part of everyday life. I think, a comedy could get away with more of a caricature while it would be hard to evoke emotion if it were a tragedy. A strong fictional character is a round one that has a background and a distinct personality that comes to life on the page. If you can relate to this person, or more importantly feel a strong emotion toward this character (love, hate, sorrow) then i feel the author has done a good job of making a strong fictional character.

I don't think a character has to be likeable to be successful. They can be a total jack ass as long as I can symathize with them. If I can't sympathize with a character, I'll inevitably throw the book across the room.
In "Counterparts," Joyce taps into the feelinsg we alll have (at some point), the "God I hate this job, let's all go get drunk" feeling in the back of our minds. This was enough to make good character (if obviously not a good man). Just because I don't beat my son doesn't mean I didn't get emotionally attached. Joyce makes him a real person, with real follibles. I would rather read 100 novels with douche bag narrators than just one with 2-D characters.
Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" is an example of another novel that thrives on an unlikeable narrator. ou can't really relate to him, but who doesn't cry a little on the inside when They ruin Ludwig Van for him? Poor guy!
When I read something, it doesn't have to be all rainbows and lollipops. As long as I can tap into the emotions of the main character, the author has been successful.

I know a fictional character is strong when the story or novel would crumble without them being in it. When the plot revolves around them, and the other characters are meant to compliment or confront that main character in order to examine how that main character reacts to certain situations. I think that Farrington is an example of a strong main character, because without Farrington in the story, who or what then is the story about? Everything seems to revolve around Farrington's day, even at the end when he is beating his child, the story is not about the beaten child and his feelings, but still about Farrington and his motives.

An unreal character, the "stock" character, is an excellent type to play off of a more developed and central character. This works especially well when highlighting a certain characteristic in the main character that is best show by showcasing the exact opposite trait due to the fact that most stock characters have one exaggerated trait they are known for. Additionally, the stock character already has a predetermined personality and thus less energy is required to establish the character in the story as Tony said before me.

A strong character to me comes alive in their own right. It's not just what they would do in the situation presented by the author but any number of situations not even considered by the author in the text. A strong character has a personality (good, bad or indifferent that's up to the author), but it is there so that when the character acts or does not act, you as the reader have some reaction to that decision. The best stories, in my opinion, have two to three very strong characters (if not more) that if not relatable to the audience are at least understood as people in their own right.

Finally, certain personalities definitely lead a story better than others. If the goal of your story is to paint a sympathetic view of Jews in the death camps of Germany, the best narrator for the story most likely would not be one of the officers who placed them in the camps. A sympathetic character definitely works well when a tragic event has happened against them or something life altering and significant has just affected or will immediately be affecting the character. Unsavory narrators give an edge to dark material, spy novels, darker chronicles in history or murder mysteries where the reader might wish to find out something deeper about the character and why they commit certain awful acts. Not to say that in some cases the idea cannot be flipped, but I would say as a general statement, those personas would work best with those categories.

It is difficult to think of a story where there is a faultless character - except maybe in the Bible. So the perceived ''realness'' of characters for me is not only in faults and being able to relate to them, but in small details. Santiago Nasar's mother could only explain the meaning of the dreams before dinner, for example. Little details make otherwise forgettable characters come alive and off the page by making them complex. It is the sweeping character traits used to make stock characters and parodies that make characters unreal. Marquez and Joyce not only give characters an I've-been-there-too fault or two, but they give their characters complex bits and pieces that make them a more interesting study.

Stock characters, on the other hand, seem to be most useful for teaching the readers a lesson. Taking one flat personality / trait / flaw and filling a character vessel with that and only that can make them into examples. At least in my mind, the only characters that are unfailingly good or evil or greedy or giving are ones in fables.

Strong fictional characters are hard for me to fashion a cookie cutter for. I would like to say real, easy-to-relate to characters are the strongest. Then again, some of my favorite characters are outrageous, and when the author gives them something I can sympathize with or recognize in people I know, it ruins them for me. In that case, however, they might not be strong, and instead caricatures. Difficult one to call, I guess.

The strongest characters I think are the ones that have motivations we can relate to, because we know enough about them to know what we would do in the situation, or how they would feel. The details of the character are important, it gives them a past, something to tell you that they existed before the story started. the details give you a sense of the person' habits and psychology, so that when they react in a strange way you know why he is doing something differently than a rational person would. Details aren’t nearly as important as the details of how they react, what they know, how other people treat them. These details are outside the “moral constitution�, that is only what gives the story direction, their morality or decisions.

‘unreal’ characters are place-holders, or symbols, they fill a need for a certain line to be said, or to represent a group or idea. Also having some ‘stock’ characters in the story lets you know who to focus on. If the character gets a lot of screen time then you know to pay attention to them.

And, to piggy-back on what Jeremy said, "it gives them a past, something to tell you that they existed before the story started..." Also, characters also feel more real if we know they're doing something outside of the action of the story, that they have life/legs even beyond where we can see them.

It's the little details as well as his or her greater actions that make a good character. Protagonists usually have something about them which progresses a story but, what if the main character(s) is not as "dynamic." Main characters are obviously memorable but, stock characters play an important role in building the enviornment in which the story is taking place. The supporting cast of a story can either make it, or break it. An example off the top of my head would be "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings" Frodo was rather dull character in my opinion. It was the upholding crew travelling with him which gave motion to the story. With out them, it would have been a very short story as Frodo would have died.

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