What is it that we do with characters? And what do they do for us?
Different schools of literary theory have provided different answers to these questions. For the Russian formalists, character was above all else a “type,” one that served different narrative functions, a move that has been recently reawakened in the field of computer science in the great new work of David Bamman and Ted Underwood. For poststructuralists that came in the wake of Propp, character was instead a rhetorical “effect,” one more example of the referential phallacy of naïve readers. Characters were ambiguous semantic bundles, neither types nor individuals.
Alex Woloch’s work, which builds substantially off Deidre Lynch’s closing chapter in The Economy of Character, has emphasized a more distributional understanding of character, the ways in which the asymmetrical contrast between major and minor characters draws attention to a larger problem of social integration, of the one and the many in his words. Lisa Zunshine’s work, coming out of the field of cognitive science, has argued that characters, far from being rhetorical constructs, are models of “theories of mind,” means for learning about and hypothetically experiencing human cognition. We identify with characters, according to Zunshine, one mind to another.
Finally, Lynch’s work on character was instrumental because of the way it realigned our sites around the historically specific uses of character, the way round and flat characters were not to be understood normatively, as a movement towards some higher good, the deep character, but instead addressed historically specific concerns of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers. In this sense, characters still have functions, just not typologically as in Propp, nor are these functions related to the aim of psychological mirroring as in Zunshine; rather, the function of characters are more socially constructed, serving the contingent contextual needs of readers at given points in time.
Today I’m going to be making a different argument about what I think characters are for, one that is based on using computational methods to study character. Computation is an important tool to understand character because of the way it changes the scale of our understanding of the problem in two important ways: first, it allows us to talk about a much larger number of works in order to test the generalizability of our claims about character. With the exception of Propp what all of the works mentioned above have in common is that their insights about character are gleaned from a handful of individual examples. There is a disconnect between our evidence and our claims that sooner or later we are going to have to reckon with, and not just when we talk about character.
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