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Copermesch fractal
Copermesch courtesy of
Janet Preslar, FrActivity


Character is not a discussion of the morality or ethics of a particular player in the story. Character analysis is a specific type of discussion in which you examine how the author has presented the actors or players, characters in terms of their complexity and importance in the story, often focusing on whether those characters are Round or Flat. As part of your analysis, I do not want you to simply discuss what the character did or what the character is like. You must use very specific literary terms, described and explained below, to examine the author's portrayal of the particular character and their conflicts and, ultimately, overall, whether the character is more round or flat in that context.

CHARACTER PRESENTATION -- character presentation has to do with the manner in which the author tells us about the character and reveals that character. Narrative voice and Presentation are the important factors in how much we know or do not know about character and ultimately how which we are supposed to like or dislike the character or least understand their motives and actions.

  • NARRATIVE VOICE -- an important factor as to character portrayal is how the author chooses to tell the story, and part of that specifically has to do with WHO tells the story. This discussion of Narrative Voice is discussed elsewhere on this website under Narrative Voice/Point of View.
  • Presentation -- character presentation has to do with the method by which the author informs you about the character's actions and motives within the story. The choice the author uses has a direct effect on several elements of your perception of that character, including whether or not you feel that you understand the character and also whether or not we're being told how to perceive the character or whether it much of that is left up to us in terms of our own morality scale. To that end, there are two types of character presentation style: direct and indirect.
    • Direct -- through the use of a third person narrator or a first-person narrator that is not the character themselves, we are told what to think, how to feel about character by narrator. In other words, the author may actually say in a narrative voice Character A was not trustworthy... or Character B was a good man... -- not dramatized, and less interpretive.
    • Indirect -- often through the use of an objective presentation, an objective, reliable first-person narration or an objective third person omniscient presentation, we are shown what the character is like, and we draw our conclusions as to relative goodness and badness. Often we are simply shown what the character did or what the character says that we must use to decide whether or not that makes the character moral or immoral, good or bad, likable or not -- dramatized and more interpretive.

TYPES OF CHARACTER -- generally, literary analysis of character often centers around whether characters are Round or Flat. For this course, the focus of roundness and flatness, a major element of the first paper in English 101, is dependent on four major factors: stereotyping, complexity, change, and internal conflict. As part of your discussion, you must mention all four of these and whether or not they exist, and if they do, you must explain how and where that occurs in the story with a specific example from the story. In order to understand roundness and flatness and how they apply to character, you must understand what each of these terms means in a literary context.

  • Stereotyping -- While most people understand generally what stereotyping is, in the literary context, Stereotyping has to do with creating a character that falls into a clearly identifiable category that will predict behavior and attitudes. For example, stereotypical roles concerning job very often might have a range of behaviors and some stereotypes associated with that particular role, whether it is teacher, police officer, homeless person or politician, but the idea is that the descriptors that you apply to that character will fit a particular stereotype of that person. For example, stereotyping someone as a parent is vague, but explaining the single parent, the absentee parent, the doting parent, the unprepared parent, the overprotective parent and the like creates very specific images and ideas that the reader can quickly identify in terms of how the character is going to behave and respond within the story. If you are claiming is that the character is a stereotype, explain what the stereotype is and give examples of how that character fits within a stereotype. Because stereotypical characters are easy to identify and therefore create predictability in the story, they are quite common in escapist/commercial fiction, although they will also be minor characters in interpretive/literary fiction as well. Stereotypical characters are flat.

  • Complexity -- You can also use this analytical approach to discuss Complexity in a character. Complexity in a literary context means that the character, like human beings, is inconsistent. That means the character may demonstrate intelligence in some situations and a specific lack of intelligence in others. A character may be morally strong in some places but demonstrate a profound lack of immorality in other places. For example, Jackson Jackson in "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" spends a great deal of time spending what little money he gets on other people, providing them with alcohol and food, as well as offering emotional support. However, he also demonstrates a certain lack of morality (in some cultures' eyes) when he steals from Junior, who was passed out. This character is complex. This character is also round because of this complexity. This character inconsistency is a certain level of complexity that authors write into characters to demonstrate their human aspects. Lack of complexity, on the other hand, tends to create stereotypical characters that we often see when an author is not interested in developing minor characters. Certainly the villain who is portrayed as all bad... evil, sadistic, even unattractive... will not be given any complexity because we are not intended to care about the character or to try to identify with them. Complex characters are, on the other hand, intended to reflect human nature and therefore to get the reader to question whether or not they like them, whether or not they can respect them, whether or not they identify with them, and whether or not the characters' actions in some ways are a reflection of issues that the reader herself would encounter. As part of literary analysis, therefore, complex characters are part of interpretive/literary fiction, whereas lack of complexity is very common in escapist/commercial fiction.

  • Change -- changing character is not change of mind. Change of character is, especially in interpretive literature, and element in which a character sees himself or the world in a different way. Change must be demonstrable.
    • While many characters change their mind, they are not necessarily round because they have not fundamentally changed. For example, the pawn broker in What You Pawn I Will Redeem initially refuses to give Jackson Jackson regalia that Jackson has clearly and convincingly identified as belonging to his family. Later in the story, the pawn broker relents and gives Jackson the regalia. This character has changed his mind. However, he has not changed. He is Static, essentially the same as he was at the beginning of the story. Evidence of this is that he acknowledges early on that the regalia rightly belongs to Jackson, but he is struggling with whether or not he can afford to lose $1000. The fact that he recognizes the right thing to do (and the fact that he recognizes that he wants to do the right thing) make his decision to change his mind quite fitting within his moral struggle. Furthermore, the fact that he not only takes a dollar off the price, which is not remarkable, but moreover starts Jackson off with seed money of $20, tells us that he is a generous person and he's trying to be fair. When Jackson returns and verifies that he has worked for what little money he has, the pawn broker returns the regalia, creating a consistency in a character who is looking for some kind of moral resolution to the situation. This character is static, as he has not changed and is the same morally bound, Essentially generous person he was when we first met him. This character is, therefore, flat. Static characters are commonly seen in escapist/commercial fiction.
    • Conversely, fundamental character change would require some kind of change of perspective about the way the character sees the world or sees himself. That means if you're going to identify a character as changing, Dynamic, you must deal to explain the mindset of the character prior to the change and how the mindset of the character after the change is different. For example, at the beginning of the story Jackson points out that society does not see him and others like him. In fact, he makes the comment that he has been "disappearing" ever since the loss of the regalia. At the end of the story, he gets the regalia, puts it on, and begins dancing in the middle of the street. Besides claiming that he's dancing with his grandmother, he points out that people can see him -- that people are watching him. At the beginning of the story he felt himself invisible, and at the end of the story he feels himself no longer invisible. There is a fundamental change in how he perceives himself in society. Therefore, he is dynamic. He has changed. This character is, therefore, round.
    • Dynamic characters are common in interpretive/literary fiction, but characters that are changed for the sake of creating happy endings, like the bad boy turned good, often seen in romance novels and the like, are also part of escapist commercial fiction.
    • For many people, this change versus change of mind issue can be difficult to discern, but what we are looking for is something that essentially says that the character has been transformed by inexperience and become, in some ways, a different person. If you cannot identify fundamental change for the character, the character is static.
    • Based on:
      • Consistency -- only change if there is a good reason
      • Motivation -- we need to understand actions, especially changes
      • Plausibility -- reflective of reality within the context of the story

  • Internal Conflict -- Conflict is discussed in greater detail elsewhere on the website, but when we are discussing roundness versus flatness of character, INTERNAL conflict is the conflict that matters.
    • Internal conflict, simply put, is an identifiable struggle within the character between two choices or two feelings about the same action, decision or person. For example, the police officer in What You Pawn I Will Redeem struggles with internal conflict. While internal conflict is usually associated with the main character in a first-person narrative, in this case, the internal conflict is actually explained verbally by the character in his discussion with Jackson. Jackson is asking for money. Officer Williams is inclined to give him money because he likes Jackson, and in some ways he wants him to get the regalia back. In fact, he offers to go down there and use his power to simply confiscate the regalia. However, he also realizes, and states explicitly, that he is also fairly sure that Jackson will take the money and simply get drunk on it. Simply put, he wants to give Jackson the money and he does not want to give Jackson the money at the same time. His internal conflict leads him to give Jackson the money but also admonish him to try to stick to his plan.
    • Internal conflicts are often present in first-person narratives. However, not every conflict a character has is internal. Jackson Jackson's homelessness is not in internal conflict, primarily because he says it's the only thing he's ever been good at. We cannot imbue our own feelings and values onto a character that does not share them. In other words, we cannot simply surmise that because we ourselves would not want to be homeless, that the character must agree with our perception of the situation. However, Jackson Jackson does have a battle... and internal battle of will. He wants to save the money that he gets in order to get the regalia, but he also, in some way, wants to use that money on other people that he is surrounded by. As one observant student once wrote in a paper, he wants to be hero both to his family and to his friends and he cannot do both at the same time. This battle keeps them looking for money for the regalia, and at the same time spending what money he gets on others for food and alcohol.
    • Internal conflict is an important motivator for character. It is often the main focus of literary fiction. Certainly a character that demonstrates internal conflict is creating aspects of in interpretive/literary fiction. However, stereotypical internal conflicts, such as the struggle a main character might encounter in a romantic comedy over which handsome man to marry, is also part of the escapist/commercial fiction. Your explanation of internal conflict must indicate the two sides of the conflict clearly. If there is no internal conflict, you must state the character has no internal conflict. A character with no internal conflict is flat. A character with internal conflict is demonstrating roundness.

    Keep in mind that ultimately you are trying to evaluate the overall effect of the characters, but by dissecting them into these three elements, you can more clearly identify how the author has presented these characters. To that end, there are some things that you must keep in mind.

    • Relative terms -- not a "yes/no" question. Characters can be BOTH round and flat by having multiple elements. For example, a character can have internal conflict but be neither complex nor have changed and therefore they are both round and flat.

    • No internal conflict
    • Simplistic, unidimensional, predictable, easily labeled as "good" or "bad"
    • Stock character -- usually stereotypical, with no real complexity
    • Static character -- will not undergo change
    • often associated with minor characters, but major characters can also have aspects of flatness.

    • Conflicted character -- has an INTERNAL conflict that may or may not be satisfactorily resolved, often creating conflicting emotions or feelings about a situation or person
    • Complex and multi-dimensional, often unpredictable with varying shades of "good" and "bad"
    • Developing (dynamic) character -- changes or evolves, often as central focus of story
    • Usually major characters of quality fiction are round

© T. T. Eiland, 1998-2017
Last modified: February 17, 2016