Character Functions

For the purposes of analysis it is essential not simply to describe a character but above all to look at a character’s function in the narrative and that usually means considering a character in relation to other characters.

Plot- or character-oriented narratives usually have one or more major (also main) characters and any number of minor characters. The main character, especially when there is only one, is also called protagonist. The term protagonist has the advantage that it implies no value-judgement and can include heroes or heroines (i.e. positive main characters) as well as anti-heroes and anti-heroines (i.e. negative main characters).

The protagonist is the character who dominates the narrative. Moll Flanders is the protagonist of Defoe's Moll Flanders, Stephen Daedalus is the protagonist in Joyce's A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. In some narratives the protagonist has an influential enemy, the antagonist, such as Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels, Sauron in The Lord of the Rings or Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes.

Minor characters can serve as witnesses, i.e. someone reporting on the events though not directly involved thus achieving something of an objective report. This would be the case for Nick in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, where the protagonists are Gatsby and Daisy, but Nick observes the developments and acts as I-as-witness narrator.

An important function of minor characters is to serve as foil-characters. A foil is a piece of shiny metal put under gemstones to increase their brightness. A foil character thus provides a contrast to highlight the features of the main character. Maybe the most famous example of a foil character is Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, whose ordinary perceptiveness serves to highlight Holmes' genius. Another example would be the sensible and restrained Elinor and her emotional sister Marianne in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. The sisters serve as a foils for each other.

Another function of a minor character can be that of confidant, i.e. a close friend of the protagonist to whom he or she can confide in and thus disclose his or her innermost thoughts. The housekeeper in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw functions as confidant for the governess. This way the reader is always confronted with the contrast between the governess' perceptions and visions and the housekeeper's slightly helpless and unimaginative common sense.


Character Complexity and Development

Minor characters, not surprisingly, often remain mono-dimensional and/or static. This means that the narrative text presents only few or even just one characteristic of such characters (mono-dimensional) and that there is little or no development throughout the narrative (static). Such mono-dimensional characters can often be reduced to types, representatives of a single character category: the wicked step-mother, faithful servant, miserly old man, profligate youth, etc.). Allegorical characters might be classed in this category as well (i.e. Hopeful in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Despair in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene) since the function of such characters is precisely to represent this one characteristic. E.M. Forster’s term flat comprises both the aspect of mono-dimensional and static (see Forster 1927). In consequence the term has been criticised as too reductive (Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 40f) since it is quite possible for a character to be multi-dimensional yet entirely static, as for example Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, who remains obsessed by his love for Cathy and his hatred for everyone else from early childhood to his death.

Major characters are more frequently multi-dimensional and dynamic, though not as a rule. One might argue, for instance, that Oliver in Oliver Twist is decidedly mono-dimensional (i.e. ‘good’) as well as static. A multi-dimensional (or round, as Forster calls it, see Forster 1927) character, as the word suggests, has a number of defining characteristics, sometimes conflicting ones and such characters often undergo a development throughout the narrative (dynamic).

Louisa Gradgrind in DickensHard Times, for example, is both multi-dimensional and dynamic. The cold, ungraceful daughter of the fact-loving Thomas Gradgrind, arouses the reader’s compassion despite these unattractive features because she evidently struggles to suppress her more affectionate and imaginative qualities. Luckily for her, her struggles prove unsuccessful and the reader witnesses her breakdown under the fact-system and her eventual breakthrough to a more balanced emotional life. The development of characters is particlarly pronounced in the bildungsroman-tradition. Classic examples are Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre or Dickens' David Copperfield.


Key-Terms:

character    functions
major / minor  characters
protagonist
antagonist
witnesses
I-as-witness
foil-characters
confidant
character  dimensions &  developement
mono-dimensional
static
type
allegorical
flat

multi- dimensional
dynamic
round