This statement is so obvious, it hardly seems worth mentioning – let alone justifying. Yet our common practice as readers and students demonstrates how easily we tend to forget this supposedly self-evident truth in practice. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that the tendency to treat literary characters as if they were real flesh-and-blood people with life experiences and a history outside of the narrative in which they appear is the main impediment to students producing adequate readings of works of narrative literature.
What, then, is the fundamental difference between literary characters and real people? And why does it matter? To answer the first of these questions first, the primary difference is that literary characters consist solely of words and they exist only in narrative form. Real people such as you and I, by contrast, are composed of many more elements than just words (we have, for instance, genes, molecules and physical organs as well) and, while we often use narratives to seek to understand and make sense of who we are, we are not ourselves wholly dependent upon those narratives for our existence. As such (and again, this is where we differ from characters in literature) we are not solely the product or creation of a narrative into which we have been written. Our selves and our identities, that is, are phenomena we may on occasion seek to express through narrative, but we would never wish to reduce them to that narrative. To a certain degree, our selves and our identities both precede narrative (in the sense that we already possess them before we seek to put them into narrative) and they exceed narrative (in the sense that aspects of our selves and our identities will always get missed out when they are put into a narrative). None of this is true of literary characters, who have no life, self or identity to speak of outside of the narrative(s) in which they appear.
Why does this difference between literary characters and real people matter? It matters because it means we cannot analyse literary characters in entirely the same way – which is to say using entirely the same techniques or assessing the same data – that we might try to make sense of and understand a real person. We can only interpret them by paying close attention to the words out of which they are composed and by considering the various devices by which the narrative presents them too us and awards them their specific characteristics.
Return to Characters