Illustration by Joanna Neborsky

What are fictional characters? Here are some answers. They are real people in the world “imposing [themselves] upon another person,” as an inconspicuous old lady named Mrs. Brown famously did upon Virginia Woolf. They are creatures under the dictatorial control of the authors who create them: “galley slaves” (Vladimir Nabokov). They are specimens of the species “Homo Fictus,” which resembles Homo Sapiens in most respects but differs in that “they need not have glands,” don’t have to digest food, and can be known completely (E.M. Forster). They are portraits of unique, irreducible individuals—the good “round” ones at least (it was Forster who popularized the distinction between “round” and “flat” characters, though he insisted that even the flat ones have their charm). They are formal representations of human types that recur across historical time and are thus capable of continual reiteration (Aaron Kunin). They are versions of public figures or the author’s social circle in disguise. They are (or ought to be) common property, capable of being repurposed and reimagined across eras and media (David Brewer). They are anthropomorphic entities (though not necessarily human) that invite identification (Rita Felski). They satisfy our insatiable psychological demands for “social information”—gossip, basically, even if it’s about people who don’t actually exist (Blakey Vermeule). They are vehicles that allow us to live other lives, see through other eyes: they “give us as-if experiments in knowing the world” (Peter Brooks). They are nothing in and of themselves, “merely an abstraction…in the mind of the reader or spectator,” epiphenomena of text on a page (L.C. Knights).

A strange fact about academic literary criticism is that this final view—that literary characters don’t even exist—has been the predominant one for almost a century, despite being the least intuitively satisfying and attractive to most people. Indeed, literary critics have been strict about policing readers (and one another) when it comes to talking about character, as Toril Moi notes in her pugnacious contribution to Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies, cowritten with Rita Felski and Amanda Anderson. Moi rattles off the rules:

We must not think of characters as “our friends for life” or say that they “remain as real to us as our familiar friends.” We must not talk about the “unconscious feelings of a character”….

We must never forget that “le personnage…n’est personne,” that the person on the page is nobody.

Moi calls this set of prohibitions “the taboo on character talk,” and anyone who’s taken a college literature course is likely to recognize it. How to transition from a naive identification with characters to a critical analysis of texts is supposed to be one of the fundamental lessons that literary studies imparts. But after decades of being personae non gratae, literary characters are finally getting scholarly attention again. Some of the most interesting and inventive academic criticism of the past twenty years has violated the taboo on character talk, denying or at least calling into question the broad assumptions that governed literary-critical ideas about character for most of the twentieth century.

Let’s start by giving those assumptions their due. Where does the idea that we need to be careful not to treat fictional characters like real human beings come from? Moi points to an essay published in 1933 by the English scholar L.C. Knights entitled “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Knights didn’t answer, or even properly pose, the title question, which by his lights is inherently nonsensical (since Lady Macbeth’s children are never referred to in the text of Shakespeare’s play, the question has no possible answer). Instead, he attacked his fellow critics for wasting time and energy on such nonissues. In Knights’s view, this emphasis on Shakespeare’s characters was the legacy of a sentimental tendency that had grown up in the eighteenth century, when “an inability to appreciate the Elizabethan idiom and a consequent inability to discuss Shakespeare’s plays as poetry” encouraged critics to blather on about his characters’ humanity in order to have something to talk about.

The era produced works such as Maurice Morgann’s Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), written to defend the title character against accusations of cowardice by Samuel Johnson and others. Morgann went so far as to claim that there was a “Falstaff of Nature” from whom one could extract “general principles” that might be at odds with the behavior of “the Stage Falstaff” in plays like Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dismissing what he took to be the patently absurd idea that Shakespeare’s characters could be extrapolated from the text of his plays, Knights insisted that “the only profitable approach to Shakespeare is a consideration of his plays as dramatic poems, of his use of language to obtain a total complex emotional response.” Forget about Lady Macbeth’s children or Falstaff’s general principles: we should be concerned with nothing but “the words on the page, which it is the main business of the critic to examine.”


Knights’s argument traveled well: his strict textualism complemented that of the New Critics then ascendant in American academia, and his scorn for treating fictional characters as independent entities with any existence beyond the text was reinforced by successive waves of formalist, structuralist, and deconstructionist literary theory from Europe. It’s unsurprising, though, that the reaction against character criticism germinated in Shakespeare studies. Shakespeare’s characters had long been treated as if they were not only real people but exemplary ones. In Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession Marjorie Garber notes that, for European culture since the seventeenth century,

Shakespeare was the author who provided, through his dramatic characters, not only powerful “imitations” of human conduct, emotion, and attitude, but the blueprint, the language, and the responses that taught us how to be us.

Figures like Hamlet and Romeo were endlessly analyzed for clues to human nature and made into models of conduct, both good and bad. The idea that Shakespeare’s characters are somehow quintessentially human even left its mark on the sciences. Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) cites passages from Henry V to illustrate anger (“When the blast of war blows in our ears/Then imitate the action of the tiger”) and Titus Andronicus to depict shame (“Ah! now thou turn’st away thy face for shame!”). A generation later, Freud drew on Richard III, among other Shakespearean characters, for his 1916 paper “Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work”: “We all think we have reason to reproach Nature and our destiny for congenital and infantile disadvantages; we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism, our self-love.”

We could chalk all of this up to Bardolatry, of course; something about Shakespeare seems to make people (especially English people) act a little funny. For Garber, though, Shakespeare is merely a privileged example of a cultural dynamic operating across the centuries: the way specific literary characters inform a more general conception of human psychology, and vice versa. Reading about characters, it has long been thought, builds character; it also helps us to define and understand it. In the fourth century BC Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle, wrote a literary work entitled Characters, a collection of thirty brief descriptions of characters such as the Flatterer, the Chatterer, the Superstitious Man, the Boaster, the Coward, the Oligarch, and the Slanderer. Here, for instance, is the Gross Man:

The Gross Man is the sort of person who, meeting free-born women, pulls up his clothes and exposes his genitals. At the theatre he goes on clapping when others cease, and hisses the actors whom the public like. In the midst of a general silence he leans back and belches to make everybody turn round.

There’s already a tension here, one that will continue to haunt literary characters over the course of their history, between typicality—the Gross Man obviously is meant in some sense to represent all gross men—and specificity: the details need to be convincingly concrete in order for the imaginative exercise to have any value at all. Who is the Gross Man? A fiction? A satirical portrait of a real Athenian? A model for playwrights to copy? A type to watch out for, or avoid becoming oneself?

Theophrastus’ text was widely imitated by English and French writers of the early seventeenth century. Sir Thomas Overbury’s Characters, or Witty Descriptions of the Properties of Sundry Persons (1614) includes sketches of a Good Woman, a Dissembler, an Ignorant Glory-Hunter, a Braggadocio Welshman, and so on. John Earle’s Microcosmography, or, A Piece of the World Characterized (1628) stretches the conceit to cover not just persons (a Child, an Old College Butler, a Sceptick in Religion) but locations (a Tavern, a Prison, a Bowl-Alley). Such “characteristic writing” is often understood by literary historians as a primitive form of the more elaborate and intricate characterization found in realist novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But in his idiosyncratic, often brilliant Character as Form, Aaron Kunin argues that Renaissance writers like Overbury and Earle “had the right idea about character.”* Literary characters are not individuated examples of fictional personhood but forms that can encompass a range of examples across history: “Character…is a form of art by which examples are drawn into types.”

As Kunin acknowledges, this view of character might seem odd when considered from the vantage point of realist fiction, which does tend to treat characters as one-of-a-kind individuals. But it’s much more intuitive when you think of characters in plays, films, or television series, who can be portrayed by different performers without a sense of inauthenticity or paradox: on the contrary, the multiple examples create a sense that the character is much richer. Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig are all James Bond, despite being six distinct human beings, and we accept this state of affairs because we understand what a character is. (Queen Elizabeth II, for that matter, is Helen Mirren, Freya Wilson, Claire Foy, and Olivia Colman, as well as being a historical figure and a currently living person.) “Try…to think of character as a container that gives shape to the materials it contains,” Kunin instructs. The important thing about characters is not that they are unique but that they can contain lots of different contents, that they can be emptied out and filled up again.


This seventeenth-century view of character was occluded by the rise of the novel, which, in Kunin’s words, rewrote “earlier literary history so that what used to be called character [had] to be renamed caricature or stereotype.” For novelists like Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, a character was not a container but an individual being with a name, an interior life, and a reasonably plausible biography—or, rather, a convincing simulation thereof. Catherine Gallagher has argued that eighteenth-century novelists had to train their readers to accept that the characters in their books were not either allegorical figures or thinly disguised portraits of real people: that they referred to nothing and nobody. Paradoxically, though, these novelists found that “readers attach themselves to characters because of, not despite, their fictionality…. Fictional characters…were thought to be easier to sympathize or identify with than most real people.”

Why did this new, more individualistic conception of character come about when and where it did? A number of ingenious arguments have been made over the years about how the history of novelistic characters interacts with the rise of market capitalism. Literary historians like Gallagher, Deidre Lynch, and Mary Poovey have pointed to the emergence of a credit economy in eighteenth-century Britain, and the attendant need to assess the trustworthiness of strangers, as a factor in the career of literary character. In a complex commercial society, speculating about imaginary beings who behave more or less like real people taught middle-class readers how to think about one another: whom to credit, whom to suspect, how to strategize and craft alliances. Evaluating the actions of a character like Tom Jones or Mr. Darcy could be good practice for judging a potential business partner (if you’re a man) or spouse (if you’re a woman).

If capitalism made fictional characters more individual, it also made them more reproducible. Another account of the parallel evolution of fictional characters and market society can be found in David Brewer’s fascinating The Afterlife of Character, 1726–1825 (2005), which deals with a phenomenon he calls “imaginative expansion,” or, more colorfully, “character migration.” This is the tendency of readers to invent further adventures for characters from popular literary texts, with or without the sanction of the original creators.

Such migrations accelerated in the eighteenth century. For instance, Lemuel Gulliver appears not only in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels but also in poems like “Mary Gulliver to Capt. Lemuel Gulliver; An Epistle” and “A Lilliputian Ode on the Engine with which Captain Gulliver extinguish’d the Flames in the Royal Palace,” plays like David Garrick’s Lilliput: A Dramatic Entertainment, and prose fictions like An Account of the State of Learning in the Empire of Lilliput—none of them written by Swift. The titular heroine of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela features in several further works, some of them satirical (there was an entire contingent of “anti-Pamelists,” including Henry Fielding, author of Shamela), some merely concerned with continuing her story. Even Falstaff returns, in William Kenrick’s Falstaff’s Wedding (1760), in which the old rogue finally settles down with a nice matron named Ursula.

Brewer argues that a peculiar technological and legal conjuncture drove the popularity of character migration in the eighteenth century. Post-Gutenberg print culture was disseminating literary characters far and wide, but modern copyright law had not yet emerged to put a brake on widespread recycling of what we would now call “intellectual property.” Rather than seeing specific characters as inextricably attached to their authors, eighteenth-century readers instead had “a persistent fantasy that literary characters were both fundamentally inexhaustible and available to all.” Indeed, the more fictional characters like Pamela were copied, the more they appeared to be fair game.

The practice of imaginative expansion has never entirely disappeared—witness the unlicensed fan fiction of today—but it was curbed considerably in the early nineteenth century by the passage of stricter copyright laws and by a more proprietary attitude on the part of authors. A pivotal figure was Walter Scott, the most popular novelist of his day, who was much more vigilant about protecting his characters than his peers or predecessors. In an astonishing moment in the preface to his 1820 novel The Monastery, Scott warns Captain Cuthbert Clutterbuck, a character of his own creation, not to pop up in any other writers’ books:

If, therefore, my dear friend, your name should hereafter appear on any title page without mine, readers will know what to think of you…. As you owe your literary existence to me on the one hand, so, on the other, your very all is at my disposal. I can at pleasure cut off your annuity, strike your name from the half-pay establishment, nay actually put you to death, without being answerable to any one.

This outburst resembles nothing so much as the classic parental threat: “I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it.”

Once the borders between books began to be regulated by the state, character migration became rarer, but internal migration, as it were, intensified. The most extravagant experiment with this technique—having characters circulate among multiple books by a single author—is the celebrated retour des personnages in The Human Comedy, Honoré de Balzac’s immense series of linked novels about nineteenth-century French society. Figures such as the doctor Horace Bianchon, the moneylender Jean-Esther van Gobseck, and the criminal mastermind Jacques Collin play crucial parts in multiple novels, and minor characters in one narrative will frequently be recast as protagonists in the next. Balzac’s characters, as György Lukács wrote in 1950, “protrude beyond the framework of one novel and demand another”: they’re rarely content to remain minor.

Balzac didn’t invent the recurring character, but he did carry it further than any writer before or since. It’s estimated that there are 2,472 separate characters in The Human Comedy, hundreds of whom appear in more than one novel. In his delightful new book Balzac’s Lives, Peter Brooks offers chapter-length “biographies” of nine of them, alongside critical commentary on the works in which they appear. It’s an interesting experiment, which throws Balzac’s peculiar method of character construction into relief.

Although he is regarded as a master of realism, by contemporary fictional standards his characters seem more melodramatic than realistic: they are, in Forster’s terms, relatively “flat,” usually motivated by a single desire or idée fixe. In Le Père Goriot, for instance, Eugène de Rastignac wants to be a success in Parisian society; Père Goriot loves his daughters and will do anything for them. Knowing these simple facts allows you to understand most of the relevant details of their psychologies, and Balzac doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on fussy behavioral tics or interior ruminations. What we get in place of psychological nuance is sociological detail: we always know his characters’ parentage, class status, income level, and address, and what these facts communicate about their position in French society.

Brooks argues that Balzac’s distinctively exhaustive way of handling character is a reaction to a “postrevolutionary France [that] has abolished the distinctive marks of identity of the ancien régime…. How can you tell who people are, what milieu they belong to, what their past histories may be?” You can tell by telling their stories, in encyclopedic detail. One wants to say, if the distinction makes sense, that Balzac doesn’t have interesting characters: he has characters with interesting lives. This is because, for Balzac, character is plot, and vice versa: the way to make characters more “real” is simply to make their histories more elaborately narrated.

If this conflation of character and narrative is determined in part, as Brooks suggests, by the political history of postrevolutionary France, it also owes something to the dynamics of literary history sketched above. Once a character is conceived not as a type or form but as a specific individual with a unique life history, what principle allows you to stop narrating—especially when you are depicting a milieu as crowded as nineteenth-century Paris? As Alex Woloch points out in his important study The One vs. the Many (2003), Balzac’s novels register “the unthinkable multiplicity of nineteenth-century urban life”; they are not merely populated but overpopulated. Like the metropole itself, Woloch argues, the nineteenth-century realist novel is “structurally destabilized…by too many people.”

Within each novel jostles a multitude of characters, each of whom, under the right circumstances, can lay equal claim to the writer’s attention. This formal instability reflects “the competing pull of inequality and democracy within the nineteenth-century bourgeois imagination.” In a modern capitalist democracy, nobody is inherently better than anyone else, but a few people necessarily have many more resources and thus a higher social status. Hence the formal and sociological law that underlies all fiction since the nineteenth century, according to Woloch: “Any character can be a protagonist, but only one character is.” In principle everybody matters, but in practice only a few of us do.

What has motivated the return of character criticism in the twenty-first century? It was probably inevitable, given the tendency of literary studies to revive old, stigmatized methodologies under the banner of “the New” (New Criticism, New Historicism, New Formalism, and so on). But it also reflects deep professional anxieties about declining student enrollments, the scarcity of tenure-track jobs, and a perceived loss of prestige for literary studies in general. Moi, Felski, and Anderson are explicit about this in the introduction to their book:

Concern with character is a defining aspect of reader or viewer engagement with many forms of fiction. It is one of the means by which fiction makes claims upon us. Yet criticism has often failed to give this concern its due.

One reason for this, they think, is that “scholars of literature in the early twentieth century felt impelled to underscore the difference between their own practices of interpretation and everyday forms of reading,” thus alienating large swaths of lay readers. Literary criticism, on this account, is simply not devoting enough attention to the things that readers actually like about literature.

This echoes a critique of the profession made ten years ago by Blakey Vermeule, in her lively and provocative Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? (2010). “The founding gesture (or was it a sin?) of literary criticism may have been to suppress a psychological interest in character in favor of more difficult topics,” Vermeule writes. “Theorists have long fashioned themselves as crusaders against the pleasures and dangers of literary absorption, reacting suspiciously to the ordinary pleasures people take in fictional characters.” In order for literary studies to survive, she implies, it needs to take seriously “the importance of what we care about.” And what people care about is people.

According to the evolutionary psychology narrative Vermeule favors, humans as a species have evolved to try to read one another’s minds, in order to better cooperate and compete with one another. For this reason, “the human intellect is extremely well-suited to thinking about other people, their problems, and the situations they get themselves into.” This would explain our interest in fictional characters: even when we know they aren’t real, humans and human-like entities are endlessly fascinating to us. Literary critics should accept this fundamental fact about human cognition, Vermeule argues, and not try to abolish it by theoretical fiat.

There’s a slightly desperate hope underlying these methodological arguments: Perhaps reengaging with character can help put the human back in the humanities? It would be nice to believe that all literary academics need to do to reverse the tailspin in which our discipline appears to be locked is to throw out some old theoretical assumptions and stop scolding undergraduates for finding Emma Woodhouse relatable. But this seems unlikely to have more than a marginal benefit, as far as the systemic problems facing the humanities go.

That said, there’s truth in the observation that characters are among the aspects of literature that people most intuitively gravitate to, and that academics should accept this and use it to their advantage. As a teacher, I’ve often found that the easiest way into a complex literary text is to begin with speculation about characters’ behavior, motives, and relationships, a mode of discussion that, as Vermeule suggests, isn’t terribly far removed from gossip.

Take Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance: any adequate discussion will eventually encompass questions of genre (the Southern Gothic novel, magical realism) and history (the traumatic legacies of American slavery). But I usually start where Morrison does: with the protagonist, Sethe, and her daughter Denver, two taciturn characters whose feelings about each other we are invited to guess at from the novel’s first pages. A purist like Knights would disapprove of this gambit: Sethe and Denver aren’t real people, after all, and if Morrison doesn’t tell us specifically what they’re thinking and feeling about each other, then there’s no way we can know. But as Vermeule says, trying to read other people’s minds and scanning for “social information” is something students are already skilled at (in part, perhaps, because they’ve learned it from reading fiction).

We don’t have to leave it there, of course, and we shouldn’t. Vermeule reductively suggests that a lust for social information underlies all literary interpretation, that “most stories are gossip literature.” But in my experience the desire to understand characters is merely one on-ramp for the reader, one way to access all of the other valuable things a literary text might be able to give. “The problems we care about come packaged in human form,” as Vermeule puts it, but one of the indispensable things about the packages called fictional characters is that we can fill them up with whatever problems we want others to care about, too. Characters not only usher students into classrooms and hold their hands through the more tedious moments; they are also load-bearing mechanisms for ideas that exceed them (neoliberalism, the Bildungsroman, white supremacy, différance: take your pick). In their approachability, flexibility, and complexity, characters do professors a great service. The least we can do is admit that they’re real.