Entrance Stage Left: Introducing Characters to a Narrative

Stage design for Diaghilev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet; Christopher Wood

FALSTAFF: Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?
PRINCE HENRY: Thou art so fat-witted, with
drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after
supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that
thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou
wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou to do
with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of
sack and minutes capons and clocks the tongues of
bawds and dials the signs of leaping-houses and the
blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in
flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou
shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of
the day.

Well, that’s one way to bring someone new into your story: Have a second character deliver a scathing character assassination. All Sir John Falstaff asked Prince Hal was the time of day. But it can be a writer’s challenge and a reader’s trial, setting a character before us vividly enough that we welcome this newest cast member without the introduction’s sacrificing our attention. Sometimes, the frustrated writer wants to take the new character by the scruff of the neck and seat of the pants and hurl the poor devil out onto the stage, Here you go! You will recall how we meet the notorious gunfighter Kid Shelleen hired by Cat Ballou to save her father’s ranch. Shelleen, Lee Marvin, falls out of the baggage boot of the stagecoach at Jane Fonda’s feet, dead drunk and curled in a fetal ball.

But if writers are disinclined to sprawl their characters at their readers’ feet, they will have to devise some plausible means of bringing characters on stage and introducing them to us, whether that be by formal or informal means, by happenstance or contrivance. And then the vexing questions: At what moment of their lives? Occupied in what manner? Alone or in company? But before undertaking an exploration of how novelists through the years have done just this, brought their characters into our lives, we are obligated to ask ourselves two questions, the first directed at the creator of fiction, the second at the reader of fiction. First: Why is this even a problem? Why not do as was common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—simply roll your characters out, stand them up, and provide us a dense paragraph of pertinent data: height, weight, eye color, you know, what’s on your driver’s license? Several reasons. Call it a form of attention deficit disorder, but contemporary readers are fidgety; we’re action- and dialogue-oriented. Extended descriptions can be felt as heavy going. Along with retarding the action, they require a greater engagement on our part to visualize what you are telling us. Moreover, character descriptions represent a well-tilled furrow. What novel thing can one possibly say about faces? Full lips, moist lips, narrow lips, almond eyes, black eyes, china-blue eyes, a sallow complexion, a swarthy complexion, an evasive expression, a vacant expression—these tropes are so shopworn as to be without significant content to warrant our interest.

If it’s so much of a trial to devise original character descriptions then, why not do as Elmore Leonard counsels: “Try to leave out what people tend to skip.” Good advice, but that leads to another problem. Characters without bodies that cast no shadows and settings without hard surfaces are in their own way difficult to follow. Such dematerialized worlds become gauzy and eerily weightless, e.g., John O’Hara’s endlessly dialoguing disembodied voices. And so probably, as long as there are prose narratives, writers are going to be taxed with inventing interesting character introductions.

Second question: Writers may have to be concerned with how they go about populating their stages, but why should readers care? Just get on with the story. But to fall into a story is to not only follow the fate of a character, but—especially if it is someone strange to us—to wander into the pith of that stranger’s life and ultimately, by imaginative extension, to wander back into our own life challenged by the interval inside the skin of another. Erich Auerbach in Mimesis maps for us this transformative journey (W. R. Trask, trans.):

We are constantly endeavoring to give meaning and order to our lives in the past, the present, and the future, to our surroundings, the world in which we live; with the result that our lives appear in our own conception as total entities—which to be sure are always changing, more or less radically, more or less rapidly, depending on the extent to which we are obliged, inclined, and able to assimilate the onrush of new experience. These are the forms of order and interpretation which the modern writers here under discussion attempt to grasp in the random moment—not one order and one interpretation, but many, which may either be those of different persons or of the same person at different times; so that overlapping, complementing, and contradiction yield something that we might call a synthesized cosmic view or at least a challenge to the reader’s will to interpretive synthesis.

And so, I will argue that how writers go about this delicate task, how character introductions slip into a narrative and as often slip by us, is of natural curiosity not only to the writer but to the reader, as well. I am going to establish a taxonomy of three broad categories: One, third-person introductions, the traditional method, what I call the “Roll Them Out and Stand Them Up” school, and a more contemporary approach, “Characters in Motion”; Two, First-Person Introductions, “Introductions of Self” and “Introductions of Others”; and Three, “Characters With a Single Distinguishing Feature.”

Third-Person Introductions: Roll Them Out and Stand Them Up

Although we find first-person and epistolary narration in the latter half of the eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries, these coming-of-age decades of the novel were more frequently omniscient third-person narratives. And who better to call on as a guide to the nineteenth century than Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836):

Mr. Serjeant Snubbins was a lantern-faced, sallow-complexioned man, of about five-and-forty, or—as the novels say—he might be fifty. He had that dull-looking, boiled eye which is often to be seen in the heads of people who have applied themselves during many years to a weary and laborious course of study; and which would have been sufficient, without the additional eyeglass which dangled from a broad black riband round his neck, to warn a stranger that he was very near-sighted. His hair was thin and weak, which was partly attributable to his having never devoted much time to its arrangement, and partly to his having worn for five-and-twenty years the forensic wig which hung on a block beside him. The marks of hairpowder on his coat-collar, and the ill-washed and worse tied white neckerchief round his throat, showed that he had not found leisure since he left the court to make any alteration in his dress; while the slovenly style of the remainder of his costume warranted the inference that his personal appearance would not have been very much improved if he had. Books of practice, heaps of papers, and opened letters, were scattered over the table, without any attempt at order or arrangement; the furniture of the room was old and rickety; the doors of the book-case were rotting in their hinges; the dust flew out from the carpet in little clouds at every step; the blinds were yellow with age and dirt; the state of everything in the room showed, with a clearness not to be mistaken, that Mr. Serjeant Snubbins was far too much occupied with his professional pursuits to take any great heed or regard of his personal comforts. 

A masterful paragraph. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Serjeant Snubbins’s Roll Them Out and Stand Them Up Introduction commences with portraiture detail, “lantern-faced, sallow-complexioned,” and Snubbins’s approximate age, both standard framing devices. Then the narrator hesitates as if he’s not certain of this latter information. He pushes the problem off onto his fellow novelists, “as the novels say.” Dickens breaks the fourth wall here, or tests it a little—the narrator is omniscient, he, if anyone, ought to know how old the man is. But by inserting a note of verisimilitude our chatty narrator’s faux hesitation brings him down to our level: How often when meeting someone new do we know that person’s exact age? Our perspective follows to Snubbins’s eyes, the traditional route, but with a startling detail, “boiled.” Contemporary readers will be forgiven if they picture a poached egg, but then a boiled eye meant something less spectacular, more in the nature of what Dickens has already redundantly furnished us, “dull.” He immediately relates that detail—and this he will do consistently—to some aspect of Snubbins’s life, in this case his lifetime of closeted study. We shift to his hair, also related to his character, his neglect of personal grooming and his need to wear a forensic wig, which explains his hat-hair and gives us his profession. We move to his clothes, the revolting hairpowder and neckerchief: He’s only come from court. But the narrator adds a telling reassessment. He remarks that personal grooming probably would not have helped Snubbins much anyway, the man’s too far gone for rehabilitation. Then the narrator’s viewpoint broadens to Snubbins’s setting, his disorderly office beautifully seen—“the doors of the book-case were rotting in their hinges; the dust flew out from the carpet in little clouds at every step; the blinds were yellow with age and dirt”—which leads to another generalization: Snubbins is so mired in his work that he’s even heedless of creature comforts.

And while Dickens is doing this, taking his time (nearly 300 words) to methodically frame his character—painting from face and hair to clothes and out to mise en scéne—Snubbins himself hasn’t moved, hasn’t said a word, has gone on doing nothing but pore over his dusty books. And yet, Snubbins in his careworn office emerges as a fully seen, three-dimensional character. Almost every detail is related to his life: Nothing is superfluous. So, a static portrait, yes, not something a contemporary writer is likely to attempt, or ought to, but, still, consummately carried off.

Another traditional introduction, perhaps the most memorable walk-on in all English literature, Huck Finn swinging a dead cat:

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim; his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing, the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up. 

Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.

Tom hailed the romantic outcast: 

“Hello, Huckleberry!” 
“Hello yourself, and see how you like it.” 
“What’s that you got?” 
“Dead cat.” 
“Lemme see him, Huck. My, he’s pretty stiff. Where’d you get him?” 
“Bought him off’n a boy.” 
“What did you give?” 
“I give a blue ticket and a bladder that I got at the slaughter-house.” 
“Where’d you get the blue ticket?” 
“Bought it off’n Ben Rogers two weeks ago for a hoop-stick.” 
“Say—what is dead cats good for, Huck?” 
“Good for? Cure warts with.”

We might say that when we meet Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) he is defined by negative characteristics—Huck is the exact opposite of what respectable boys are and thus their idol and the scourge of their scandalized parents. Despite its even livelier detail than Dickens’s Snubbins—Huck’s trampy idleness, his cast-off, adult clothes (“His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim”), his dissolute father, his nose-thumbing at community norms—his portrait remains an example of Roll Them Out, Stand Them Up. What distinguishes Huck is the macabre cat. Snubbins has his boiled eye and powdered wig, but nothing about him approaches such shocking grotesqueness and for what can only seem some talismanic significance. And to be sure, Samuel Clemons does not harp on the cat’s symbolism. But what can any parent think—what can we but think?—that a boy experiencing the freedom of a shiftless older man cannot be right, even if the boy glories in his legendary status. Who is Huckleberry Finn but St. Petersburg’s stray cat, and what is Huck’s cat—dead.

Third-Person Introductions: Characters in Motion

By the twentieth century, such static introductions seemed plodding. Readers of George Elliot and Henry James had been groomed for more natural and psychologically penetrating portrayals. A favorite device is what I call Characters in Motion. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922):

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.

The coals were reddening.

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.

The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high. 

—O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

When we meet such characters, they’re busy, preoccupied with some, usually trivial, occupation, and oblivious of the narrator and reader. It’s as if we’re voyeuristically peeping in their windows and have caught them at an unguarded moment. And, in fact, as Ulysses proceeds, we will be invited to look in on some extremely private scenes. Leopard Bloom may not be the first serious character to poop on stage (without doing a lot of research, I’d award that writer’s honor to Rabelais or Swift), but the novel possesses in quantity scenes intimate enough—nose-picking, masturbation, adultery, etc.—to get the book banned and burned.

Apart from the paragraph’s peculiar focus on Bloom’s dietary proclivities (“fine tang of faintly scented urine”), the description is not noticeably different from Clemons’s and Dickens’s presentations, at least at first. It begins in omniscient narration. But then Joyce slips into stream-of-consciousness (“Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.”), a technique that twentieth century authors exploited. These are Bloom’s actual thoughts, not a rendering or interpretation of them. Additionally, in contrast with earlier authors, Joyce refuses to draw a line under the description and summarize it for us. And that, digressing a step, is a defining difference between older literature and our literature: Nowadays, you the reader are invited, nay, demanded, to do some of the work. Without apology, Joyce declares, “This is what Bloom likes to eat—you decide what it says about him.”1

Another study of Characters in Motion, this from perhaps English literature’s loveliest story—meet Mole:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said, “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

“This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!”

“So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged”—oh, how I would love to go on quoting The Wind in the Willows (1908), Kenneth Grahame’s graceful prose. Mole is one harassed fellow. His arms and back are sore from his spring cleaning, dust has gotten in his throat and eyes and whitewash on his black fur; meanwhile, divine nature is calling upon him to chuck his chores and rise into the sunshine. And—pop!—he does. What marks Grahame’s Character in Motion is that we meet Mole at a moment of crisis. Think about that: The book begins with a life-altering moment. How many writers would opt to delay this moment, to push it into the interior of the book and build gradually to it, say, fashioning it the climax of the first chapter: “All the Tedious Things That So Got Mole’s Goat Today That He Fled His Burrow”? No, in a few beautifully sketched sentences we learn everything we need to know about Mole to get underway. That he is an impetuous fellow, given to impulses; that he is simple, warm-hearted, and lonely; that he is an animal of restless longings who knows—who feels—that “rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow is better than whitewashing.” And what such a brave and headstrong beginning promises us—and this wonderful novel will more than deliver on—is that the events awaiting Mole will be even more momentous.

A blend of Roll Them Out and Characters in Motion is Alfred Döblin’s virtuosic, indescribable epic Berlin Alexanderplatz. One might argue that the primary character in this kaleidoscopic novel of 1920s Berlin that Walter Benjamin called “dizzying” is Berlin itself.2 But it is Franz Biberkopf, released from prison for manslaughter, who is our troubled and immensely troubling protagonist. Chapter One, we meet Franz:

He stood outside the gates of Tegel Penitentiary, a free man. Only yesterday, he had been on the allotments with the others, hoeing potatoes in his convict stripes, and now he was wearing his yellow summer duster, they were hoeing and he was free. He leant against the red wall and allowed one tram after another to pass, and he didn’t take any of them. The guard on the gate strolled past him a few times, pointed to the tram, he didn’t take it. The awful moment was at hand (awful, why so awful, Franz?), his four years were up. The black iron gates he’d been eyeing with increasing revulsion (revulsion, why revulsion) for the past year swung shut behind him. He was being put out. The others were inside, carpentering, varnishing, sorting, gluing, with two years ahead of them, with five years. He was standing at the tram stop. His real punishment was just beginning.

He shook himself, gulped. He stood with one foot on the other. Suddenly he took a run up and he was sitting in the tram, with passengers all around him. At first it felt like being at the dentist’s, when the dentist has the offending tooth gripped in his pliers and is pulling, and it feels like your head will explode with the pain. He craned his neck to look back at the red wall, but the tram rushed him away down the tracks, and he was left merely facing the general direction. The tram turned a corner, trees and buildings interposed themselves. The streets were full of bustle, Seestrasse, people got on and off. Something in him screamed: Watch out, watch out. The tip of his nose felt cold, something brushed his cheek.

Not much yet we can use to pin Franz down, even allowing for the narrator’s puzzling parenthetical asides. And as a matter of fact, we won’t get much more in the way of explanation for the next twenty-eight pages or so, only a record of Franz’s frenetic, frightened, and bizarre first hours of freedom. He’s taken in by a friendly, bewildered Jew, he tries and fails to connect with a prostitute, then a second, both strange women in their own rights, and finally he clumsily attempts to seduce the sister of the wife he killed. Franz makes little sense to himself and even less to us. But then, conclusion of chapter one, as casually as William Makepeace Thackeray steps into his 1848 Vanity Fair, Döblin steps into his to clarify matters:

That’s what he’s like, then, the cement worker, later furniture mover, Franz Biberkopf, a coarse, rough man of repulsive appearance, back on the streets of Berlin, a man on whose arm a pretty girl from an engineer’s family once hung, whom he turned into a whore and finally beat up so badly that she died. He swore to all the world and to himself that he would remain decent. And as long as he had money, he remained decent. But then he ran out of money, which was a moment he had been waiting for, to show them all what he was made of.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a tour de force, a grand comic synthesis of setting and character. Through a free-flowing, frequently destabilizing narrative, Döblin paints a mural of a kinetic urban pageant and a man’s oblivious descent into a more and more squalid life. Franz loses an arm along the way—an event that should be momentous but appears to provoke as little reaction as anything else that happens to him—and emerges by the end of his story as much an indecipherable, self-destructive, meaningless, and menacing creation as the city itself. 

Let’s move closer to our times. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996):

There is no jolly irony in Tiny Ewell’s name. He is tiny, an elf-sized U.S. male. His feet barely reach the floor of the taxi. He is seated, being driven east into the grim three-decker districts of East Watertown, west of Boston proper. A rehabilitative staffer wearing custodial whites under a bombardier’s jacket sits beside Tiny Ewell, big arms crossed and staring placid as a cow at the intricately creased back of the cabbie’s neck. The window Tiny is next to has a sticker that thanks him in advance for not smoking. Tiny Ewell wears no winter gear over a jacket and tie that don’t quite go together and stares out his window with unplacid intensity at the same district he grew up in. He normally takes involved routes to avoid Watertown. His jacket a 26S, his slacks a 26/24, his shirt one of the shirts his wife had so considerately packed for him to bring into the hospital detox and hang on hangers that won’t leave the rod. As with all Tiny Ewell’s business shirts, only the front and cuffs are ironed. He wears size 6 Florsheim wingtips that gleam nicely except for one big incongruous scuff-mark of white from where he’d kicked at his front door when he’d returned home just before dawn from an extremely important get-together with potential clients to find that his wife had had the locks changed and filed a restraining order and would communicate with him only by notes passed through the mail-slot below the white door’s black brass (the brass had been painted black) knocker. When Tiny leans down and wipes at the scuff-mark with a slim thumb it only pales and smears. It is Tiny’s first time out of Happy Slippers since his second day at the detox. They took away his Florsheims after 24 abstinent hours had passed and he started to perhaps D.T. a little. He’d kept noticing mice scurrying around his room, mice as in rodents, vermin, and when he lodged a complaint and demanded the room be fumigated at once and then began running around hunched and pounding with the heel of a hand-held Florsheim at the mice as they continued to ooze through the room’s electrical outlets and scurry repulsively about, eventually a gentle-faced nurse flanked by large men in custodial whites negotiated a trade of shoes for Librium, predicting that the mild sedative would fumigate what really needed to be fumigated.

Here, it is content and tone that set the piece apart. Wallace refuses to spare us the news from the raunchier sides of life; his people are embedded—enmeshed—in their gritty, frequently sordid circumstances that he’s happy to detail with candid precision (“big arms crossed and staring placid as a cow at the intricately creased back of the cabbie’s neck…  As with all Tiny Ewell’s business shirts, only the front and cuffs are ironed”). Wallace’s fictional techniques are not far removed from Dickens’s, but, whereas Dickens’s characters are typically seen with a benign eye—his characters, save his Uriah Heap villains, are usually guilty of not much more than being foolish—Wallace’s characters are presented without leavening; the irony is icy, borderline sarcastic and merciless (“negotiated a trade of shoes for Librium, predicting that the mild sedative would fumigate what really needed to be fumigated”). And when the irony grows this savage, the characterizations begin to tail off into implausible caricature.

Another example of a Character in Motion is the opening of Rabbit, Run. John Updike’s Roger “Rabbit” Angstrom also greets us at a moment of crisis, his sense that his life peaked ten years ago when he was a high school basketball star and has since gelled into a stultifying grind as a petty salesman trapped in a deadening marriage. And he too, like Mole, takes off, driving all night into the gloomy Pennsylvania landscape. During Rabbit’s flight, Updike paints Rabbit’s life and milieu in the panoramic, lyrical, and realistic detail only Updike can summon. It’s a long night we share with Rabbit—the sunsetting of a young man’s dreams. As introductions go, having “six of them and one of him” sets the stage:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he’s twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

His standing there makes the real boys feel strange. Eyeballs slide. They’re doing this for themselves, not as a show for some adult walking around town in a double-breasted cocoa suit. It seems funny to them, an adult walking up the alley at all. Where’s his car? The cigarette makes it more sinister still. Is this one of those going to offer them cigarettes or money to go out in back of the ice plant with him? They’ve heard of such things but are not too frightened; there are six of them and one of him.

One Rabbit against the fold.

First-Person Introductions: Of Self

Here’s my life stories can be challenging to bring off successfully. They are exercises in monologue, and that lone voice has to carry not only the cargo of story detail, pertinent driver’s license data, action to date and to come, etc., but also the narrators’ inner lives, the closed soundscape of emotions they live within, the wounds they bear, the prejudices they harbor, the insecurities they cannot acknowledge or perhaps even see, their self-doubts and anxieties, all this and more to be delivered within the constraints of the myopia of their vision… and they have to be entertaining.

First-person narrations appear to be fashionable. By my unscientific reckoning, I estimate that these days first-person point of view is far more common than traditional third-person. An answer I suppose is that the first-person seems more natural, easier to do, and, as some young thing once remarked, Soooo much us! And the fact is, they are not easier to write. Listen, if you take the seat next to me on the Amtrak Boston to New York run and inform me that you are planning to preempt the next three and a half hours of my life relating the story of your life, you had better be entertaining—or I’m moving to the Quiet Car.

Given that, if your assignment as a first-person narrator is to carry me away with your voice, to transport me, how to go about it? In earlier times, you might have taken the pseudo-memoir route, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847):

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question. 

I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed. 

The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mamma in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarreling or crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group, saying. “She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner—something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were—she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy little children.”

In this path-breaking novel, Brontë provides us a psychologically acute portrait. Jane is clear-eyed, intelligent, and devoid of nineteenth century sentimentality. Her narrative is grounded in concrete detail, she sees, rather than explains. Within a few paragraphs we learn a great deal about her oppressive situation, “a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority…” Despite the incisively seen perception of her humiliation, Jane remains a kind of dispassionate reporter. We sense the pressures within her (“Me, she had dispensed from joining the group”), but, as understandable and expected as it might seem, she’s not emotionally demonstrative or even judgmental. This is your life, I want to cry, you’re a child, you’re being treated cruelly! But Jane remains cool, formal and restrained, well within the tonal folds of polite society. 

Let’s contrast that. A much-neglected masterpiece, Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910, M. D. Herter, trans.):

So, then people do come here in order to live; I would sooner have thought one died here. I have been out. I saw: hospitals. I saw a man who swayed and sank to the ground. People gathered round him, so I was spared the rest. I saw a pregnant woman. She was pushing herself cumbrously along a high, warm wall, groping for it now and again as if to convince herself it was still there. Yes, it was still there. And behind it? I looked on my map: Maison d’Accouchement. Good. They will deliver her—they know how. Further on, rue Saint-Jacques, a big building with a cupola. The map said: Val-de-Grace, Hopital militaire. I didn’t really need this information, but it can’t do any harm. The street began to smell from all sides. A smell, so far as one could distinguish, of iodoform, of the grease of pommes frites, of fear. All cities smell in summer. Then I saw a curiously purblind house; it was not to be found on the map, but above the door there stood, still fairly legible: Asyle de nuit. Beside the entrance were the prices. I read them. The place was not expensive.

And what else? A child in a standing baby-carriage. It was fat, greenish, and had a distinct eruption on its forehead. This was evidently peeling as it healed and did not hurt. The child slept, its mouth was open, breathing iodoform, pommes frites and fear. It was simply like that. The main thing was, being alive. That was the main thing.

We still have a factual account, the guise of reportage, an opening passage that offers little about our narrator. And yet, the narrator oozes out at every line: “The street began to smell from all sides. A smell, so far as one could distinguish, of iodoform, of the grease of pommes frites, of fear.” Or, “A child in a standing baby-carriage. It was fat, greenish, and had a distinct eruption on its forehead. This was evidently peeling as it healed and did not hurt. The child slept, its mouth was open, breathing iodoform, pommes frites and fear.” The repetition of “iodoform, pommes frites and fear” coming so close to its first mention is striking, especially described as odors issuing from the mouth of an infant. But leaving the queasy halitosis aside, the image of the baby is disturbing, it’s downright ghoulish, as are the swaying man who sinks to the ground and the pregnant woman “pushing herself cumbrously along. I’m not even sure how one pushes oneself along, but the image sticks. And the narrator’s disquieting dissociation: “Yes, the wall was still there; all cities smell in summer; … the place was not expensive; it was simply like that … the main thing was, being alive. That was the main thing.”

Just who is sick here? First-person narrators have a tendency, sometimes a need, to tip over into psychosis. And if not that, then something. Fiction is not reportage. In fiction’s luggage are not only the pants and shirts and socks we wear, but the whole freight of the felt human experience that colors everything. Fictional worlds are unstable; they are in a constant state of perturbation as they work toward resolution, and so, almost of necessity, must their first-person storytellers reflect that instability. Here, one of literature’s most puzzling self-introductions, Eudora Welty (1941):

I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking “Pose Yourself” photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I’m the same. Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am and for that reason she’s spoiled. 

She’s always had anything in the world she wanted and then she’d throw it away. Papa-Daddy gave her this gorgeous Add-a-Pearl necklace when she was eight years old and she threw it away playing baseball when she was nine, with only two pearls.

So as soon as she got married and moved away from home the first thing she did was separate! From Mr. Whitaker! This photographer with the popeyes she said she trusted. Came home from one of those towns up in Illinois and to our complete surprise brought this child of two.

Mama said she like to made her drop dead for a second. 

Interpretations abound of this strange, off-kilter story. Beneath Sister’s unreliable narration is there a shadow story? Are we to read “Why I Live at the PO” as an allegory, the decline of the South? A portrayal of paranoid schizophrenia told from the inside? I have heard the story described as a symbolic rendering of World War I post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’m going to avoid such murky waters and concentrate on presentation, primarily on voice. If Eudora Welty’s narrator happened to take the seat next to you on Amtrak, you might well decamp to the Quiet Car, but you would long carry with you that aggrieved, distracted, and, dare I say, crazy voice. Initially, we are drawn to the tumbling, confusing history that so animates Sister, her indictment of Stella-Rondo’s outrageous betrayal—“Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first”—that commences at first breath and rushes along in a jerky, propulsive torrent. But it’s not the chronology that makes the story work, it’s its Sister’s voice, its cadences, its disjunctive starts and stops, its gasps: Sister is having a kitten, as Stella-Rondo might say, so infuriated is she that she’s practically sputtering (“So as soon as she got married and moved away from home the first thing she did was separate! From Mr. Whitaker! This photographer with the popeyes she said she trusted. Came home from one of those towns up in Illinois and to our complete surprise brought this child of two.”) Is everyone in that benighted Southern household nuts, or is it merely Sister? We aren’t likely ever to know. All we have is Sister’s voice, and Sister’s voice is a masterpiece of ventriloquism, a flawless record of a fractured mind.

Sometimes we are so hopelessly lost inside a character’s solipsistic fog that we’re left to fumble about as if blindfolded. In an uncategorizable set of three linked novels, Samuel Beckett’s narrator begins in inscrutability and only gets more inscrutable as he goes. The beginning of Molloy (1955, English edition):

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not. He gives me money and takes away the pages. So many pages, so much money. Yes, I work now, a little like I used to, except that I don’t know how to work any more. That doesn’t matter apparently. What I’d like now is to speak of the things that are left, say my goodbyes, finish dying. They don’t want that. Yes, there is more than one, apparently. But it’s always the same one that comes. You’ll do that later, he says. Good. The truth is I haven’t much will left. When he comes for the fresh pages he brings back the previous week’s. They are marked with signs I don’t understand. Anyway I don’t read them. When I’ve done nothing he gives me nothing, he scolds me. Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much. For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know. Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet. In any case I have her room. I sleep in her bed. I piss and shit in her pot. I have taken her place. I must resemble her more and more. All I need now is a son. Perhaps I have one somewhere. But I think not. He would be old now, nearly as old as myself.

The narrator’s monologue seems to be a series of non sequiturs: “For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury.” Viewed independently, the lines—short declarative sentences, as flat as conversation—make sense, sort of. But taken together, they are weirdly off-putting, as disturbing as they are baffling, as baffling as they are hilarious. Jane Eyre’s life we can more or less plot out, even Malte Laurids Brigge’s. Those traditional narrators walk streets that become increasingly distorted, agreed, but streets we can recognize. Our grip on reality is secure. Beckett’s nameless narrator walks a neighborhood no one treads but him. “All I need now is a son. Perhaps I have one somewhere. But I think not. He would be old now, nearly as old as myself.” And yet, as unworldly as Beckett is, we identify with his narrator, we feel the man’s profound estrangement and, in some unaccountably disturbing way, sense that he is us.

First-Person Introductions: Of Others

When introducing oneself, one’s inhibitions naturally intrude, but more critically, in terms of fiction, first-person self-depictions tend to lack perspective. As lively as they may be, they all but insist on remaining one-dimensional portraits. Other than hearing indirect reports, we never see such characters from the outside. We don’t know how they appear in another’s thoughts. And most particularly, they have difficulty expressing convincing heightened emotional states. In the last act, the diva, lying crumpled and bleeding on stage, lifts herself to an elbow to sing powerfully about the pain she is dealing with at the moment, just how deep that knife went, wow, how wronged she’s been by her jealous lover and irrational father; furthermore, not to put too fine a point on it, all her life she’s been misunderstood; then, emitting a deep sob, she explains in a series of crescendos once again in case we didn’t get it the first time why we should feel sorry for her.

Wonderful music, wretched dramaturgy.

But first-person introductions of others are merely third-person narratives by another name. And like third-person narrators, first-person narrators, released from inhibition, can be as objective or as distorted as they wish. We’ll look at two wonderful examples. First, Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953):

That would be Five Properties shambling through the cottage, Anna’s immense brother, long armed and humped, his head grown off the thick band of muscle as original as a bole on his back, hair tender and greenish brown, eyes completely green, clear, estimating, primitive, and sardonic, an Eskimo smile of primitive simplicity opening on Eskimo teeth buried in high gums, kidding, gleeful, and unfrank; a big-footed contender for wealth. He drove a dairy truck, one of those electric jobs where the driver stood up like a helmsman, the bottles and wood-and-wire cases clashing like mad. He took me around his route a few times and paid me half a buck for helping him hustle empties. When I tried to handle a full case he felt me up, ribs, thighs, and arms—this was something he loved to do—and said, “Not yet, you got to wait yet,” lugging it off himself and crashing it down beside the icebox. He was the life of the quiet little lard-smelly Polish groceries that were his stops, punching it out or grappling in fun with the owners, head to head, or swearing in Italian at the Italians, “Fungoo!” and measuring off a chunk of stiff arm at them. He gave himself an awful lot of delight. And he was very shrewd, his sister said. It wasn’t so long ago he had done a small part in the ruin of empires, driving wagons of Russian and German corpses to burial on Polish farms; and now he had money in the bank, he had stock in the dairy, and he had picked up in the Yiddish theater the fat swagger of the suitor everybody hated: “Five prope’ties. Plente money.”

Bellow’s breakthrough novel, his most exuberant piece, one would love to quote the entire six hundred pages of this dazzling story. The detail is copious, Bellow’s pen seems to gush, he’s a narrator intoxicated by life’s fecundity, its absurdities, its clownish theatricalities. Yet nothing here is an inexperienced writer’s fantasy, nothing slipshod or imprecise, nothing dreamed up for empty effect. Vivid yes, over the top, yes, yes, but untrue to life, invented nonsense, no. Every one of these descriptions is spot-on:

long armed and humped, 

his head grown off the thick band of muscle as original as a bole on his back, 

hair tender and greenish brown, 

eyes completely green, clear, estimating, primitive, and sardonic, 

an Eskimo smile of primitive simplicity opening on Eskimo teeth buried in high gums, 

kidding, gleeful, and unfrank; a big-footed contender for wealth. 

I like “unfrank.” I cannot think of a writer who wouldn’t for this character have chosen “frank.” And confronting the battery of adjectives, “clear, estimating, primitive, and sardonic,” you have no choice but to sit up: This is a very complicated individual Augie is describing, someone who drove “wagons of Russian and German troops to burial on Polish farms and now, rich and shrewd, carries himself with the fat swagger of the suitor everybody hated.” Five Properties’ introduction, in form if not content, is not terribly far removed from Snubbins’s. Hair, eyes, body, occupation, history, setting, etc. Writers all work on the same farm: Mr. Serjeant Snubbins meet Five Properties.

Our second selection is about as far removed as possible from Bellow, a nice contrast for us, Alice Munro, “Chaddeleys and Flemings” (1977):

Cousin Iris from Philadelphia. She was a nurse. Cousin Isabel from Des Moines. She owned a florist shop. Cousin Flora from Winnipeg, a teacher; Cousin Winifred from Edmonton, a lady accountant. Maiden ladies, they were called. Old maids was too thin a term, it would not cover them. Their bosoms were heavy and intimidating—a single, armored bundle—and their stomachs and behinds full and corseted as those of any married woman. In those days it seemed to be the thing for women’s bodies to swell and ripen to a good size twenty, if they were getting anything out of life at all; then, according to class and aspirations, they would either sag and loosen, go wobbly as custard under pale print dresses and damp aprons, or be girded into shapes whose firm curves and proud slopes had nothing to do with sex, everything to do with rights and power.

My mother and her cousins were the second sort of women. They wore corsets that did up the side with dozens of hooks and eyes, stockings that hissed and rasped when they crossed their legs…

Alice Munro’s deft, gemlike prose is gentle, calm, beautifully balanced and surprisingly faceted, but always clinically informed by her intelligence and her dry, unsentimental judgment: “they would either sag and loosen, go wobbly as custard under pale print dresses and damp aprons, followed by the devastating summation, or be girded into shapes whose firm curves and proud slopes had nothing to do with sex, everything to do with rights and power.” Bellow judges “unfrank” as good an example as any—but Munro is as steely as a prosecutor. We see her people as clear-eyed as if they were sitting in a witness box. We know them, we can measure them against their backdrop to a centimeter: “bosoms were heavy and intimidating—a single, armored bundle—and their stomachs and behinds full and corseted as those of any married woman … stockings that hissed and rasped when they crossed their legs.”

You have to love “hissed.”

Introductions of Characters with a Distinguishing Feature

The final category we’ll visit are characters anchored with a single, distinguishing feature, or limited number of features. This may be a physical characteristic—a disability or deformity, how he or she carries himself or herself, how he or she dresses—or non-physical, a personality tic, a foible, an identifying catchphrase, a delusional fantasy, a special possession, an affinity with a clandestine group, a possessor of a secret or of a problem, or any of a myriad of possibilities. Recall Mr. Micawber, “Something will turn up,” or Old Mr. Turveydrop’s daily parade through his son’s dancing class, the master of deportment and little else (indeed, Dickens worked this coal seam to death). Granted, this category cuts across the categories above, but it is such a time-honored—and much abused—technique for getting a character before us that it is well worth spending some time on. First, Graham Greene, This Gun for Hire (1936):

Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job. You had to be careful. You had to use your brains. It was not a question of hatred. He had seen the minister only once: he had been pointed out to Raven as he walked down the new housing estate between the little lit Christmas trees—an old, rather grubby man without any friends, who was said to love humanity.

The cold wind cut his face in the wide Continental street. It was a good excuse for turning the collar of his coat well up above his mouth. A harelip was a serious handicap in his profession. It had been badly sewn in infancy, so that now the upper lip was twisted and scarred. When you carried about you so easy an identification you couldn’t help becoming ruthless in your methods. It had always, from the first, been necessary for Raven to eliminate the evidence.

He carried an attache case. He looked like any other youngish man going home after his work; his dark overcoat had a clerical jut. He moved steadily up the street like hundreds of his kind. A tram went by, lit up in the early dusk; he didn’t take it. An economical young man, you might have thought, saving money for his home. Perhaps even now he was on his way to meet his girl.

But Raven had never had a girl. The harelip prevented that. He had learned when he was very young how repulsive it was. He turned into one of the tall grey houses and climbed the stairs, a sour, bitter, screwed-up figure.

Outside the top flat he put down his attache case and put on gloves. He took a pair of clippers out of his pocket and cut through the telephone wire where it ran out from above the door to the lift shaft. Then he rang the bell.

Raven might resemble “any other youngish man going home after his work … an economical young man, you might have thought, saving money for his home.” But he’s not just another youngish man coming home from work, Raven’s a hired assassin. Greene gets much mileage from Raven’s disfigurement, a poorly repaired harelip: “A harelip was a serious handicap in his profession. It had been badly sewn in infancy, so that now the upper lip was twisted and scarred. When you carried about you so easy an identification you couldn’t help becoming ruthless in your methods.” But even in our first meeting with Raven we sense that he is far more damaged, far more of a menace, than a physical malformation, no matter how grievous, can explain. He’s about to murder someone for a paycheck. “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven. It was just a new job.” He’s chillingly methodical, “You had to be careful, you had to use your brains.”

Greene’s prose is immaculate, the staccato delivery and film noir detail: “walked down the new housing estate between the little lit Christmas trees … tram went by, lit up in the early dusk … dark overcoat had a clerical cut.” We have no trouble believing that we are in Raven’s twisted world, privy to his cool, tight, economical, humorless plotting. In his own eyes, Raven’s harelip may have persuaded him that he is repulsive and that it has unfairly blighted his life, pardoning him from moral responsibility, but, because Greene’s a master at close third-person narration, he slips in the authorial indictment—and it’s important to see this—that closes the paragraph: “a sour, bitter, screwed-up figure.” And though at the moment we do not know a lot about Raven beyond his grisly trade, we can be assured that we are about to plumb some dark corners of the human psyche.

Our final selection, from a writer gifted in a way that Greene was not, Richard Wright, his memoir, Black Boy (1945):

One winter morning in the long-ago, four-year-old days of my life I found myself standing before a fireplace, warming my hands over a mound of glowing coals, listening to the wind whistle past the house outside. All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise. And I was angry, fretful, and impatient. In the next room Granny lay ill and under the day and night care of a doctor and I knew that I would be punished if I did not obey. I crossed restlessly to the window and pushed back the long fluffy white curtains—which I had been forbidden to touch—and looked yearningly out into the empty street. I was dreaming of running and playing and shouting, but the vivid image of Granny’s old, white, wrinkled, grim face, framed by a halo of tumbling black hair, lying upon a huge feather pillow, made me afraid.

The house was quiet. Behind me my brother—a year younger than I—was playing placidly upon the floor with a toy. A bird wheeled past the window and I greeted it with a glad shout.

“You better hush,” my brother said.
“You shut up,” I said.

My mother stepped briskly into the room and closed the door behind her. She came to me and shook her finger in my face.

“You stop that yelling, you hear?” she whispered. “You know Granny’s sick and you better keep quiet!”

A character with a problem, someone who is “angry, fretful, impatient and aches with boredom.” A four-year-old, so we do not know how seriously we are to take him, but the point of view is that of an adult and the setting of a sober one, an imminent death—and it’s too taut, too throttled back, too vividly seen (“Granny’s old, white, wrinkled, grim face, framed by a halo of tumbling black hair, lying on a huge feather pillow, made me afraid”). The scene’s pregnant with expectancy. These are not merely children playing: Something’s going to happen. And of course, something does. But it’s not death, which we expect, it’s something as we read forward altogether terrifyingly else. The boy in his boredom—the problem that has defined him—not so accidentally sets fire to the house, not resulting in fatalities, but destroying most of the family’s home, and is punished for it by being beaten close to death by his mother. 

An incredible beginning. And if a work is good, as Wright’s searing memoir is, the character who has found anchor in this initial characteristic will transcend it, will deepen and broaden, will grow round in E. M. Forster’s notation, and not be doomed to remain a flat character, a minor, often risible player, and Wright’s memoir, like all the magnificent books we have considered, will reach into our hearts.

And that’s the point.

Some Modest Conclusions

In our criticism of literature and in our classes on the craft of fiction, we place much stress on character development—establishing a character’s motivations and particularly a character’s actions (show, not tell) and, ultimately, a character’s plausibility. Is this a believable character? Do we care about this character? And of course, it is the fate of the character that draws us in and stimulates our attachment and identification. But in our analyses we do not always probe beyond these obvious questions, and, accordingly, our assessments are often superficial and fall short of the mark. James Wood in How Fiction Works, his insightful analysis of the intricacies and practices of fiction, urges us to press more deeply: “ … the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility—let alone likability—than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important [emphasis his], that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of the character like God over the face of the waters.” Dickens broods over Snubbins and Richard Carstone and David Copperfield, no matter how antiquated his fictional techniques strike us; Tolstoy broods over Pierre Bezukhov and Anna Karenina; Kafka broods over Gregor Samsa. And we too, drawn into these timeless stories, brood over these characters whose fates are somehow inexplicably interwoven and linked to ours.

Why are we so moved by made-up people? Let Walter Benjamin remind us: “Writing a novel means taking to an extreme the incommensurable in the depiction of human existence. In the midst of life’s fullness and through the depiction of this fullness, the novel makes manifest the profound perplexity of the living” (T. Lewis, trans.). When we are talking about literature—or any art, I suppose—it is easy to overlook what we keep barging into, not simply human artifice but human life. Admitting a character into our hearts is no different from admitting a stranger into our lives, no different from admitting strangeness into our lives, and that literature, by marrying artifice and life, can gracefully minister to us in admitting the other is an inestimable gift of the imagination. To cite a hypothetical: I would probably respectfully decline an invitation to spend an evening with Alice Munro’s family matrons. But secure in the halo of brilliance that Munro casts across the page, my imagination rises in happy response to hers to ponder with pleasure and with amusement these women who have swelled and ripened to a good size twenty and whose firm curves and proud slopes have nothing to do with sex, everything to do with rights and power—and yes, to admit and welcome them into my life. ∎

  1. Perhaps in tentative answer why Joyce may have chosen to give his Jewish Bloom this particular culinary delectation: Gifford and Seidman’s Ulysses Annotated, my ultimate source book on Ulysses, states that the “Organ” of “Calypso,” Episode Four, Bloom’s first appearance, is indeed “kidney” and expands in a footnote: In ancient Jewish rites (as in “the sacrifice and ceremonies of consecrating the priests,” Exodus 29:1-28), kidneys were regarded as “the special parts to be burned upon the altar as a gift to Yahweh” (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, New York, 1962). 
  2. Berlin Alexanderplatz is sometimes compared to Ulysses, and Döblin’s list of the stops of Tram 68 here is reminiscent of “Aeolus,” Episode Seven of Ulysses, which opens with a list of the trams leaving Dublin’s central terminal area: “Before Nelson’s pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingston and Dalkey… The hoarse Dublin United Tramway Company’s timekeeper bawled them off: —Rathgar and Terenure! —Come on, Sandymount Green!”