In defense of ‘character’

Out of all the writing about people that is in existence, it is unbelievable how little seems to contain any life at all. It seems that it must be terribly difficult to write about a person in such a way that the reader can feel what he was like alive, what his presence was. History tends to be boring for just this reason – it does not often contain people.[1]

There is violence and license in the act of turning a real subject into the written ‘character’ who appears in historical writing.

Historians are rightly suspicious of this process.

On the one hand there is the desire to really know, to understand, to hear every thought as if through some internal dictaphone, as if that would tell us something meaningful. On the other, the romance of silence, unknowability, the alterity of historical consciousness.

‘Character’ seems a clumsy way to explore this knot.

Is it even meaningful to talk of the ‘character’ of someone who lived in a culture that did not worship individualism? Creative writing manuals are often written with a timeless vision of human selfhood and psychology, more often than not drawing on a diluted Jungianism.

John Yorke, for instance, declares that:

Everyone to a greater or lesser degree shares the same basic psychological make-up – we all have the ability to love, to be jealous, to procreate, to be defensive, to be open, to be vengeful, to be kind.[2]

How many historians would agree?

Recent scholarship on the history of emotions has tended to reinforce the point that many of the emotions we think of as fundamental today were different in the past, more or less important, or may not even have existed. Our ancestors knew feelings we no longer do. In a society where ‘openness’ is unthought, is it meaningful to think about the openness of an individual?

At the ‘Creative History Symposium’ in July 2016 at Sheffield Hallam University, one of the most interesting moments was a discussion between the novelists and the historians in the room. It seemed to me that there was a disagreement: the novelists, like Yorke, were interested in uncovering character psychologies that they broadly felt were universal. As one of the historians, I felt that precisely what was at stake in writing non-fiction characters was the universality of the psychological models we employ.

Alain Corbin’s The Life of an Unknown centers around this problem. By researching an illiterate nineteenth-century labourer and clog-maker who left little trace in the archives, Corbin is unable to turn his subject into a character. Was Pinagot greedy, grumpy, or gracious? We cannot know. We can hardly even know how he and his closest circles thought about human character. So little of their own ideas remain for us in their words.

And yet.

Don’t historians need a vocabulary to describe what it is that they write about when they explore the issues of selfhood, subjectivity, emotion, intention, and psyche? Each of those words gestures towards a historiographical debate. ‘Character’ is the central term for a different kind of conversation: one about writing. And by ‘character’ I mean only two things.

First, I mean the fictional construction by the historian of a more or less coherent biographical subject from the different factual evidence available. The limit case is Corbin’s Pinagot, or perhaps the unknowability of the identities of the characters in NZ Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre. The apotheosis is biography.

Second: all characters want something. What they want may be unattainable, unspoken, even unconscious, if that is a model of psychology that fits the evidence the historian has. Even those historical subjects who have no or few discernible ‘intentions’ want something as characters.

Otherwise what are they? For the historian Lyndal Roper, psychoanalysis offered ways to get into the minds of people in early-modern Germany. She suggested that to refuse the challenge was to risk turning these people into ‘dancing marionettes, tricked out in ruffs and codpieces’ who can ‘neither surprise nor unsettle’ us.[3]

You don’t need to accept that Freudian psychoanalysis is right about the unconscious mind to acknowledge that historians cannot help but imagine the inner depths of the people they study. And you don’t have to share your own thoughts and writing about the unknowable thoughts of people long dead. But you do have to ask.

We cannot help it. Just like novelists, we are compelled to write about our subjects’ most fundamental wishes, and appealing historical subjects often embody the clichés of creative writing: they want deeply, even if their desires are so obviously impossible, or inappropriate.

This could be called the ‘Napoleon effect’, the combination of manifest ambition with overwhelming contradictions.

Bonaparte was a successful republican, who later turned himself into an emperor. An authoritarian ruler, he is also associated with the codification of a secular state that had the potential to serve as the guarantee of liberties of speech and conscience. Quintessentially French, he was also not French, but Corsican. What has always fascinated historians about the French Emperor, Geoffrey Ellis points out, is the idea that there is some ‘vital key’ to unlock his ‘real ambition’.[4]

The important point in terms of how we think about writing is that the key does not really exist. For the historian, both the coherence and the desires of a given historical subject are always a fiction.

Yet they are a fiction we cannot do without.


  1. Create a folder for each subject where you keep notes about their character. Try using some of the following exercises to flesh out these notes. Use them as prompts for further research into your subjects.
  1. Take a detail you know from your character’s life, such as a short anecdote about them, or something they owned, and freewrite about what it meant to them.
  1. Write your character a letter.
    1. Write her reply.
  1. What is the coherence of the character you are writing?
    1. What are the guiding structures of ‘selfhood’, ‘identity’, ‘emotion’, or ‘psyche’ in the context you research? What would have been important to people at the time about ‘character’?
    2. Can you describe your characters in terms of how their own society valorized different aspects of selfhood?
  1. Freewrite about your character’s deepest fears and deepest desires. Speculate. No-one is making you publish this writing. Hide it, burn it, never speak of it again. But you’ll still be thinking about it.
  1. What further research will help you to substantiate your characters? Perhaps you need to look into their childhood in more depth. Perhaps you need to research their occupation. Use your imagination to guide your research.

[1] Hughes, Poetry in the Making, 42.

[2] Yorke, Into the Woods, 124.

[3] Roper, Oedipus and the Devil, 11.

[4] Ellis, Napoleon, p.223

3 thoughts on “In defense of ‘character’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s