Characterisation as a narrative issue - Narrative theory and children’s literature - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


12. Narrative theory and children’s literature


Maria Nikolajeva


Characterisation as a narrative issue


To claim that characterisation is a neglected area of scholarship may seem a paradox. The characters of children’s literature have been in the focus of scholarly attention from a variety of viewpoints: socio-historical, psychological and psychoanalytical, gender-related and biographical. Yet the narratological aspects of character, that is a set of artistic devices employed by authors in order to reveal characters to readers, have been basically neglected by children’s literature scholars, with the exception of one recent publication (Nikolajeva 2002a), that takes up both ontological and epistemological questions around literary character.

A distinctive feature of character construction in children’s literature is the conspicuous use of collective or multiple protagonists, something that in adult literature is seen as one of the foremost achievements of modernism: elaborate examples are As I Lay Dying, The Waves or The Sound and the Fury (Docherty 1983: 116ff). Naturally, such depictions of multiple consciousness are more complex than the use of collective protagonists in Mary Poppins or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; yet the difference is in degree and not in nature. The concept of a collective protagonist follows naturally from the Structuralist approach to character: all characters (‘actors’) who have the same role in a narrative constitute the same actant (Greimas 1983). There are several reasons for using collective protagonists in children’s literature. They supply subject positions for readers of both genders and of different ages. They may be used to represent more palpably different aspects of human nature: for instance, if one child in a group is presented as greedy and selfish, another as carefree and irresponsible, and so on. Collective protagonists have thus a pedagogical as well as an aesthetic function (Nikolajeva 2002a: 67-87).

Another common assumption about children’s books is that they must not contain too many secondary characters, since young readers, it is assumed, cannot remember them and distinguish between them. As compared to many mainstream novels, such as Mansfield Park or Bleak House, children’s books tend to contain relatively few secondary characters. One could argue that the limited number of characters is a deliberate aesthetic device, reflecting a young person’s limited experience. On the other hand, unlike adult novels, children’s literature almost never features a solitary protagonist, for several reasons. First, a child living completely on her own is not plausible, unless there are some special circumstances, for instance, in a Robinsonnade. Second, there are pedagogical reasons: young readers must, it is assumed, be socialised, trained to handle human relations. There is usually at least one adult figure in the child character’s vicinity, acting as a guide and teacher. Finally, an isolated character does not allow much variety in terms of actions and interactions. The models for analysing character constellations are thus specific in children’s literature (Nikolajeva 2002a: 110-27).

Narrative theory also offers some workable tools for character analysis, such as the binaries of flat-round and static-dynamic characters, commonly used in children’s literature criticism (Lukens 1990: 43-9; Golden 1990: 41-53). While not radically different from their use in general narratology, these terms have their specifics in children’s literature, especially since the notions of ‘flat’ and ‘static’ are much too often inaccurately used in a pejorative sense. Flat and static orientation can be a deliberate pedagogical and aesthetic feature in certain genres, such as adventure, where each character normally possesses one typical, and often slightly exaggerated trait: for instance, courage, wit, hot temper or rationalism. Enid Blyton’s characters are a good example: they are not necessarily inferior to round and dynamic characters in other genres: their function is different. For child characters, the distinction between chronological (growing older) and ethical dynamism (spiritual growth and maturation) is crucial (Nikolajeva 2002a: 128-51).

One of the most profound problems in dealing with literary characters is their ontological status: are we to treat them as real people, with psychologically credible traits, or merely as textual constructions? In narratology, a distinction is made between two radically different approaches, described as mimetic versus semiotic. With a mimetic approach, we view characters as real people and ascribe them a background that may not have any support in the text. The semiotic approach treats characters, as all other textual elements, merely as a number of words, without any substance. I would suggest that a reasonable attitude lies somewhere in between these extreme views (Chatman 1978: 119ff; Rimmon- Kenan 1983: 35f; Bal 1997: 115-19).

The ontological question is highly relevant for children’s literature research, because critics and educators in the field tend to judge characters in children’s books as if they were real people; this reflects a general mimetic approach to children’s literature - that is, viewing it primarily as a direct reflection of reality. Empirical research shows that children often fail to acknowledge fictionality as a literary convention, including the fictional status of characters. However, literary characters do not exist outside their texts and, from a narratological point of view, discussing characters’ psychological credibility is not an issue (Nikolajeva 2002a: 3-25). Instead, narratology offers a number of epistemological questions: that is, questions about how readers can understand characters they meet in books. For many critics, the appeal of literature is exactly the fact that we can understand literary figures more easily than we can ever understand real people (Forster 1927/1985: 55f). Characters are transparent in a way real people can never be, or, as Dorrit Cohn puts it: ‘Narrative fiction is the only literary genre, as well as the only kind of narrative, in which the unspoken thoughts, feelings, perceptions of a person other than the speaker can be portrayed’ (Cohn 1978: 7). However, far from all means of characterisation allow this transparency.

The main characterisation devices in children’s fiction are not in themselves different from those in general fiction; however, they all have their own specifics due to the nature of children’s literature (Nikolajeva 2002a: 182-267). The crucial question is the interaction of authorial and figural discourse (or, in Aristotelian terms, of ‘telling’ and ‘showing’). There is a tendency in children’s literature towards external characterisation (description, comments, actions, direct speech), closely connected with several literary factors. First, it occurs in earlier rather than in contemporary texts, especially block description, such as we find in the beginning of Little Women or What Katy Did. Second, for obvious reasons, external characterisation is more common in plot-oriented narratives focused on what characters do rather than on how they feel about what they do. Third, it is more frequent in formulaic fiction than in psychological narratives. Fourth, it is more likely to be used in texts addressed to younger children. Last but not least, external orientation more or less presupposes an omniscient perspective.

External orientation does not imply deficient characterisation. While today higher aesthetic quality is attributed to psychological portrayal, it is merely a different device. Moreover, external characterisation is part of the overall didactic adaptation of children’s literature to the cognitive level of its implied readers. Young readers can allegedly more easily understand and judge characters’ actions, external descriptions or the narrator’s direct statements than subtle psychological motivations. Since literature depends on language to describe internal life, it demands a rich and multi-faceted vocabulary to convey the nuances of meaning, which young readers may not master yet. There is a clear tendency in books for younger children towards external characterisation, while young adult novels frequently employ internal means.

Yet descriptions can also be figural, if a character’s looks are presented through another character’s perception, either by means of focalisation or in a first-person narrative. Such a description obviously characterises the viewer rather than the viewed person and is highly subjective. Narrators’ statements (‘telling’) can contradict the characters’ actions (‘showing’), which is frequently the case, for example, in Heidi or The Secret Garden. The readers are encouraged to choose between what the text says explicitly and the inferences they can make for themselves. The balance between the authorial and figural discourse can reveal covert didacticism, or help us to discover the subversive levels of texts (Nikolajeva 2002a: 182-97).

Devices such as direct and reported speech and thought are frequently used in children’s fiction more to carry the plot than as a characterisation device. Here, too, the interplay of authorial and figural speech is decisive, as a narrator’s comments are likely to manipulate the reader to interpret the characters’ utterances and thoughts in a certain way. Although direct speech and thought may seem to present characters in the most immediate manner, they are ambivalent as a characterisation device. Even when a child character is given a voice through direct speech or thought, there is often an adult voice accompanying it and adjusting it to guide the reader towards ‘correct’ understanding. The narrator of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, for example, constantly comments on the characters’ thoughts as if he does not trust the readers to draw their own conclusions.

Mental representation is the most sophisticated characterisation device, allowing readers to penetrate the characters’ mind. It is therefore essential to distinguish between figural discourse as a plot vehicle and as a means of characterisation. Narratology discerns a number of artistic devices to depict inner life or consciousness, in personal as well as impersonal narration (Hamburger 1973; Pratt 1977; Cohn 1978; Banfield 1982; Fludernik 1993; for children’s literature Nikolajeva 2001a, 2002a: 241-67). This direction has used as its sources linguistics and particularly speech act theory (Austin 1962; Searle 1969). The incentive to depict inner life is a relatively recent development in literature, often associated with Henry James; in Western children’s literature it becomes prominent in the second half of the twentieth century, even though occasional examples can be found earlier (see Kuznets 1989). The reason is once again the adult writers’ prejudices about the implied readers. Supposedly, readers need certain life experience to be able to interpret characters’ thoughts, and still more their unarticulated emotions, such as fear, anxiety, longing or joy. The transition from telling (for instance, stating ‘He was anxious’ or ‘She was scared’) towards showing, that is conveying complex and contradictory mental states, is perhaps the foremost achievement in contemporary psychological children’s literature: for instance, when a child’s response to death in Bridge to Terabithia is never directly articulated but depicted in a subtle and challenging manner. Telling is an authorial and thus authoritative narrative form, allowing adult authors to impose their judgements and opinions on child readers. Early children’s fiction and especially popular fiction tends to employ telling rather than showing based on the oversimplified assumption of the readers’ needs. Showing, that demands the readers’ active involvement in interpretation, presupposes the writers’ greater trust in the reader. We need the precision of narratological tools to examine the artistic devices for mental representation (Nikolajeva 1997, 2002b).

One superior device to convey complex mental states, which for obvious reasons has been neglected by general scholars, is the illustration. When words are no longer sufficient, images can take over, often affecting our senses in a stronger and more immediate way. The wordless doublespreads in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) or Anthony Browne’s The Tunnel (1989) are good examples (see Nikolajeva and Scott 2001).

Characterisation and its evolution in children’s literature are closely connected to the movement from hero to character, from vehicles of certain actions necessary for the plot toward fully developed psychological portraits (see Nikolajeva 2001b, 2002a: 26-48). The use of characterisation devices is also genre-dependent: when children’s literature at large is accused of poor characterisation, critics often gather their examples from Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl, where characters by definition cannot be anything else than flat and static. For analysing characters in psychological novels, we need to be aware of a wide scope of complex characterisation devices, which narrative theory of character provides us with.