“Grow” and “Develop”: James Woods on Characters In Fiction

But a great deal of nonsense is written about characters in fiction – from those who believe too much in character and from those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to “know” them; they should not be “stereotypes”, they should “grow” and “develop”; and they should be nice. So they should be pretty much like us. A glance at the thousands of foolish “reader reviews” on Amazon, with their complaints about “dislikeable characters”, confirms a contagion of moralising niceness. Again and again, in book clubs up and down the country, novels are denounced because some feeble reader “couldn’t find any characters to identify with”, or “didn’t think that any of the characters ‘grow'”.

On the other side, among those with too little belief in character, we hear that characters do not exist at all.


The novelist and critic William Gass comments on the following passage from Henry James’s The Awkward Age: “Mr Cashmore, who would have been very red-headed if he had not been very bald, showed a single eyeglass and a long upper lip; he was large and jaunty with little petulant ejaculations that were not in the line of type.” Of this, Gass says: “We can imagine any number of other sentences about Mr Cashmore added to this one. Now the question is: what is Mr Cashmore? Here is the answer I shall give: Mr Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organisation, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy. He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him.”

But of course characters are assemblages of words, because literature is such an assemblage of words: this tells us absolutely nothing, and is like elaborately informing us that a novel cannot really create an imagined “world”, because it is just a bound codex of paper pages. Gass claims that “nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him”, but that is exactly what James has just done: he has said of him things that are usually said of a real person. He has told us that Mr Cashmore looked bald and red, and that his “petulant ejaculations” seemed out of keeping with his large jauntiness.

Still, even if there must clearly be a reasonable middle position, somewhere between the book-club self-identifier and the full-blown postmodern sceptic such as Gass, the difficult question remains: just what is a character?

From “A Life Of Their Own”, by James Woods, via The Guardian UK, with thanks to Melanie.

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2 thoughts on ““Grow” and “Develop”: James Woods on Characters In Fiction

  1. koreanish says:

    If you haven’t read it, In The Heart Of The Heart Of The Country is one of the best short stories, ever. By Mr. Gass.

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