Limits of Characterhood
A proposed panel for the annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, Dallas, TX, and online, March 1–4, 2023.
Most narratologists agree that narrative, by definition, requires human or human-like characters, but of course characters are not really humans: they exist as a function of words on a page (Barthes 1974); they inevitably include a synthetic dimension (Phelan 1989); they are necessarily incomplete (Gallagher 2006). Of character in Victorian realism, Megan Ward notes that characters are “artificial beings [that] both replicate human subjectivity and create it anew, representing and embodying a complex set of interwoven experiences that define what it means to seem—rather than be—human” (Ward 3). Despite ongoing debates among character theorists regarding whether character is purely constructed as a narrative function or whether characters can be considered real people in other possible worlds (Ryan 2018), artifice always plays a role in our understanding of fictional characters.
This truism becomes particularly interesting when the artifice is taken to extremes. Are there characters who are less likely to qualify as a character? When someone in a text is very minor, flat, non-mimetic, dehumanized, fragmented, etc., is there a point where we can no longer say that they are a character? Does the artificiality of character have particular valences in the case of autofiction or other narratives whose level of fictionality is partial or uncertain? Do delineations of characterhood differ in certain modes (i.e., video games, still images)? This panel proposes to investigate the limits of characterhood. We strive to analyze more impossible, contradictory, or nearly non-existent characters in order to expose why these entities do or do not qualify as fictional characters. In doing so, we hope to propose new and innovative understandings of character in general.
The panel will be proposed for inclusion in the 2023 ISSN conference March 1-4th, 2023 in Dallas, TX, and online. This panel aims to take place in person. Please submit, by October 24th, short proposals (max. 300 words), along with a brief biographical note, to Kayla Goldblatt (email@example.com) and Daniel Newman (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Barthes, Roland. 1974. S/Z: An Essay. Translated by Richard Miller. Macmillan.
Gallagher, Catherine. 2006. “The Rise of Fictionality.” In The Novel, Edited by Franco Moretti. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press.
Phelan, James. 1989. Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative. University of Chicago Press.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2018. “What Are Characters Made Of? Textual, Philosophical and ‘World’ Approaches to Character Ontology.” Neohelicon: Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum 45 (2): 415–29. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11059-018-0454-9.
Ward, Megan. 2018. Seeming Human: Artificial Intelligence and Victorian Realist Character. https://library.ohio-state.edu/record=b8407943.