Thursday 9 September 2010

Love and Character

How do literary characters come to be loved? In a 2004 paper on the nature of love, Maja Djikic and I started with an epigraph from Margery Williams's The velveteen rabbit. “'Real isn’t how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It’s a thing that happens—to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'” The same can happen with literary characters, with Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, or Pierre in War and peace. It takes a long time, and this point was made also by Wendi Gardner and Megan Knowles in their study of young people's liking of favorite characters in television series, which Raymond Mar discussed in a previous post (click here). Gardner and Knowles also quoted from The velveteen rabbit.

Here's a question. Does a piece of fiction need to be as long as a novel or a television series for a fictional character to become real, to be really loved? Right from the first story, "The death of a clerk," (of 1883) in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translated collection, Anton Chekhov: Stories, the focus is on character. Chekhov is able to introduce us to a character and then to show us that person in a glimpse or two that is so characteristic that, as well as the episode of outer behaviour that is depicted, we see something of that person's soul. But it remains as if from the outside. We don't really (do we?) come to love any character in Chekhov's stories, even any of the admirable ones, or ones whose predicaments move us. We take up Chekhov's phrases and images and, with them, start to build a mental model of the character, as we do with someone who interests us whom we've recently met, and then meet again a few times. We don't come to know this character, as the Skin Horse says, "for a long, long, time."

Perhaps E.M. Forster's discussion of character in Aspects of the novel might help. He distinguished between flat characters whose characteristics can be summed up in a single sentence, and round characters who come alive beyond the page. But I think we might need an extra term, something between flat and round, for characters who are seen as more than flat, who do come alive (in the way that Chekhov's characters do), but who do not become fully round, who can't yet be fully loved.

Forster says we often like flat characters because they are recognizable and permanent, and  because permanency is comforting. But what about characters who come alive beyond the flat, but are not yet round? Forster himself offers a suggestion. Dickens's characters are not round, he says, though some of them do vibrate. The fully round character can sometimes be loved, because with love one takes the person into one's inner life, to become a part of the self.  What would the series be?  Flat character—vibrating character—round character. Flat  character—caricature—round character.

Caricature seems to be in the right domain (and the word is used by Forster), but it doesn't fit perfectly. Perhaps it could mean character seen, as with Chekhov's stories, from the outside, sometimes with contempt sometimes with profound sympathy and understanding: one only has to think of the work of some of the great caricaturists. Caricature might be a good middle term if its connotations were not so derogatory. Perhaps these connotations need to be revised.

Anton Chekhov (1883-1903). Anton Chekhov: Stories (R. Pevear & L. Volokhonsky, Trans.). New York: Bantam (current edition 2000).

Maja Djikic & Keith Oatley (2004). Love and personal relationships: Navigating on the border between the ideal and the real. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 34, 199-209.

E. M. Forster (1927). Aspects of the novel. London: Edward Arnold.

Wendi Gardner & Megan Knowles (2008). Love makes you real: Favorite television characters are perceived as "real" in a social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition, 26, 156-168.

Margery Williams (1922). The velveteen rabbit. New York: Avon.

Image: Anton Chekhov by David Levine
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