I'VE poured my WINE

Fictional Characters

I still remember E. M. Forster’s 1927 Aspects of the Novel and William Somerset Maugham’s 1954 Ten Novels and Their Authors (it was in fact the revised and expanded version of Great Novelists and Their Novels 1948), and Aristotle’s 335BC Poetics, amongst other books of criticism with certain reference to characters in a creative writing, and am of the opinion that literary criticism aimed at understanding characters in fiction or drama is a dynamic field. Interesting is also the read of Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist meta-theatrical play Six Characters in Search of an Author.

We have to, as the time passes, redefine characters as our perception of the growing world changes with the passing time. For instance, the definition of ‘characters’ in a drama, by Aristotle, is sufficiently based on moral virtues. The philosopher says that a character in a tragedy (because in Poetics, focus is laid on tragedy) must be ‘good’ and that goodness must be expressed through his speech or action as a manifestation of ‘moral purpose’. The philosopher is also of the view that a character in a tragedy is an imitation of the persons who are above the common level. In addition to this, he says that in characters ‘valor’ is manly, but if the same is expressed through a woman, it is ‘inappropriate’. On the other hand, if we look at what Forster suggests, we learn that he lays his emphasis on a character’s internal (psychological) traits, and nowhere he discusses things to morality as a sacrosanct element in a character. Indeed, both, Aristotle and Forster, and even Maugham have one thing in common: they tend to suggest that characters can be types picked from reality, everyone of them discusses the same point from their own perspectives though. Nonetheless, we learn that ‘characters’ need renewed criticism with the passage of time.

The discourse warrants a fairly careful scrutiny because, at a certain stage, as Forster emphasizes in the afore-mentioned book, to which I agree in toto, we have to, subsequently, separate characters in fiction from the ones in drama. And when we do so, we also agree to the fact that the way a character is carved in a drama has to be different from the one in a novel. Indeed, the structure of a drama, being entirely different from a novel, would play its pivotal role in delineating its characters in accordance with the setting and plot the dramatist has knitted it with. Drama provides narrow space to a character for possible exploration than does novel. Novel, as Forster states, provides sufficient space to a novelist to portray a character’s hidden life. Forster himself disagrees to what Aristotle says about a character. He (Forster) says, when “the characters rise and comply” the result is a “novel that should have been a play”.

To me, characters are marvels of their creators, primarily because they turn fuel to fantasy and fancy (By ‘fancy’, I am not referring here to Coleridge’s definition of the same), and essentially because they are supposed to be different from characters or people in reality. I deal with the second point first.


Usually characters emerge from the real world as we perceive it. Of course, it is a writer’s perception of the world and people that ignites in him the fire of creativity–the creativity that is subject to his understanding of life and people and the meanings he thereby attaches to each one of them; thus, all hinge upon the writer’s perception of the world as a whole. So, it is the perception of a character in a real life that emerges as one in fiction. Undoubtedly, perceptions being a subjective phenomenon vary from person to person, writer to writer. So if we take the character of Meursault that Albert Camus carved in his L’Étranger (The Outsider/Stranger), we are in possession of the perception that Camus has of an outsider. We cannot ignore the impact of ‘existentialism’ on Camus’ mind, nor the life he went through; thus, we have Meursault–an indifferent soul, who is least bothered as to his mother’s demise, Marie’s love, or killing of an Arab. Had the same character existed in Dostoyevsky’s mind, we would have seen several elements of Crime and Punishment’s protagonist, Raskolnikov (Rodion). Virginia Woolf and Herman Melville would have dealt with this character from altogether a different perspective. Now, since it is a writer’s perception of people in the world that helps him portray his characters, we assume that his perceptions and subsequently his characters may and/or may not delineate universal images of them (perceptions and characters). If they turn out universal, we tend to fall victim to a belief that they are the imitations of real life. I said “fall victim” intentionally, because by that I mean it is possible from one angle and not from the other. The possibility emerges from the fact that majority of the world agrees to such perceptions and characters. But the impossibility has a sway because when those so-called ‘universal perceptions in shape of characters’ appear in novels, they kill the very basics of reality. It is due mainly to one reason, which I think Forster also explained: characters in novels are those entities that we know and understand completely; however, people in real life, be it our bosom friends or relatives, are never known to us completely, as they are someway or the other hidden from us, emotionally, psychologically, morally, ethically, intellectually etc, as we are from them. Therefore, for instance, picking a character from a novel we cannot place in real world because if through some magic he/she becomes a real human, he/she would grow to be like us–not completely understood and known to the world. Accordingly, perceptions and subsequent carving of characters and presence of complete understanding and knowledge of humans depicted in novels ostracize characters from the real world. However, these characters, as different from real people, can be types, because types can exist, not a real universal human in novels.


Now I shall turn to ‘fantasy’ and ‘fancy’.  The former gives a particular direction; the latter is generic and can have any direction. We may have a fantasy to be the protagonist of (talking from a male point of view) Moulin Rouge, yes, Christian, and sing a romantic duet song with Satine (Nicole Kidman) in the dreamy environment of Paris as created in the movie. We may through ‘fancy’ fly from Paris, as Christian and Satine, to the Moon above in the heavens and do a salsa dance, plunge into the hyper-waves of the Atlantic Ocean and be one with Greek mermaids, and may kill the Duke anywhere at the Baltic Sea. Fantasy may be a feeling of pleasantness that a character would spark. Fancy may be any feeling that a character may ignite. The more the ideal the character, the more the force of ‘fantasy’; and the more the versatile the character, the more the force of ‘fancy’. Thus, at a stage, ‘fantasy’ may turn ‘fancy’.


Characters can be ’round’ or ‘flat’ as Forster has said. They can be the ones who ignite ‘fantasy’ and/or ‘fancy’ too. They can influence us and widen horizon of our imagination, incite hatred or inspire love, gain our sympathies or instill fear (as Aristotle said on Catharsis), weaken us or embolden our souls. One may feel the power of ambition if one comes across Dr. Faustus (please ignore my example from drama), or feel the force of alienation when Meursault meets one on one’s way to Algeria, or feel the beauty of love when one finds Satine in one’s imagination, etc. I don’t know what one would feel when one comes across Frank Slade (Al Pacino) of Scent of a Woman. Helpless or proud? I don’t know. And when I say ‘I don’t know”, I basically refer to the impact of ‘fancy’ or say, limitation of ‘fancy’; here, ‘fantasy’ has a little role to play, but if there is some, it may be from a different angle.

(PS: I shall continue the discussion in other posts)


  • Thomas Kent

    I like something that Sidney Lumet said; that is a drama the characters drive the story, whereas in a melodrama the story drives the characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it defines genre fiction (this is my expansion and precis of what he said).

    I have always held that it is wrong to complain about characters in genre fiction, such as horror and science fiction, not being deep or believable. They can look real up to a point – consider the way the ‘Alien’ opr ‘The Evil Dead’ benefited from flawed, gritty, human characters – but that is about as far as you can go. If you put ‘real people’ in them, the story starts to suffer. Another good example is ‘Game of Thrones’, where the characters act very logically in accordance with their perspectives and goals, but are genre figures if you look at them more closely.

    • Syre

      I appreciate you, Thomas, for having visited the page and commented on the topic with so much interest. And I agree to Sidney Lumet’s point as to the definitions of drama and melodrama characters as you have put it, and your input mainly in regard to characters in genre fiction.

      I am of the opinion, which I think you may agree, that whether characters drive the story or the story drives the characters, one or the other way, characters have to have their identity in relation to the story and even the plot, and that there is not a single formula as to whether the characters would drive the story or vice versa. As humans are dynamic in nature, always learning and growing, so is the fiction, a reflection of human image, learning and growing. We can have several formidable definitions with versatile angles, can’t have a single, sacrosanct one though.

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