Q & A: “What is the difference between a ’round character’ and a ‘dynamic character’?”

Q: “What is the difference between a ’round character’ and a ‘dynamic character’?”

A: The terms “round character” and “flat character,” first coined by British novelist E.M. Forster in his lecture, Aspects of the Novel (1927), refer to characters with multiple, often contradictory personality traits and those with a single character trait. Forster points out that both types of characters are essential to any narrative, and I tend to agree with him — if all literature consisted of only round characters, then every novel would read like War and Peace. The main characters of narratives are generally round — Dickens’s Pip springs readily to mind — though this is by no means a prerequisite. Flat characters may have single personality traits, but they needn’t be uninteresting: take, for instance, Romeo and Juliet‘s Mercutio — a character remembered only for his bawdy commentary on life — who is entirely absorbing, but entirely flat in terms of characterization.

The terms “dynamic character” and “static character” apparently predate Forster, and they refer to altogether different types of personages. The former refers to characters who change in some way over the course of a narrative, while the latter refers to characters who remain the same. Shakespeare seems to have created the dynamic character, for as Harold Bloom notes in his introduction to his Major Literary Characters series:

Remarkable as the Bible and Homer are at representing personages, their characters are relatively unchanging. They age within their stories, but their habitual modes of being do not develop. Jacob and Achilles unfold before us, but without metamorphoses. Lear and Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello severely modify themselves not only by their actions, but by their utterances, and most of all through overhearing themselves, whether they speak to themselves or to others.

Think about the Christians’ Christ, for example, and you will be hard-pressed to argue that he changes in any way over the course of his narrative: he is a peacenik preacher as a child, and he is still a peacenik preacher even while being crucified. Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, ostensibly changes as a result of his father returning home — we hear people say often enough that it’s time for him to man up — but he’s still making careless mistakes, and he stills needs to be saved by his father at the end of the epic. Even Shakespeare’s august predecessors, Dante and Chaucer, could not conceive of characters who change throughout their stories: by the end of Paradiso, we get the sense that Dante is still hopelessly infatuated with Beatrice; and many of Chaucer’s personages — think the Wife of Bath — would scoff at any notion that they would even need to change. Thus, all of these characters remain static. With Shakespeare, however, we start to see characters who not only artfully present themselves, but who also “modify themselves,” to borrow Professor Bloom’s language. Think of Juliet, who becomes rapidly mature and cognitively potent, but then just as rapidly unravels into impulsiveness; think of Beatrice and Benedick, who learn to trust the opposite sex in order to find happiness in each other; and think of Prospero, who learns to let go of his vengeance and pardon his enemies. All of these characters are dynamic, for they look inward and outward en route to metamorphoses.

Note that there is a difference between round characters and dynamic characters and between flat characters and static characters. Most protagonists tend to be round and dynamic, though even the best pre-Shakespearean literature proves that protagonists can be round and static. I would like to see a writer convincingly portray a flat dynamic character, for in theory it can be done; how it can be done, however, is far beyond this English teacher’s realm of thought.

Q & A: “Why are ghosts referred to as ‘shades’?”

A Ghost -- or "Shade"

Q: Why are ghosts referred to as ‘shades’?”

A: At least since the ancient Greeks — though probably reaching back much further — death (thanatos, θάνατος, in ancient Greek) has been associated with darkness, specifically melas (μέλας), meaning “dark” or “black.” This ancient Greek adjective is in fact attached to thanatos numerous times throughout the works of Homer, as here:

Πάτροκλος δ’ ἵπποισι καὶ Αὐτομέδοντι κελεύσας
Τρῶας καὶ Λυκίους μετεκίαθε, καὶ μέγ’ ἀάσθη
νήπιος: εἰ δὲ ἔπος Πηληϊάδαο φύλαξεν
ἦ τ’ ἂν ὑπέκφυγε κῆρα κακὴν μέλανος θανάτοιο. (Iliad 16.684-687)

[Patroclus then called to his horses
and to Automedon to pursue the Trojans,
the Lycians, as well.  How blind he was, poor fool!

If he’d done what the son of Peleus had told him,
he’d have missed his evil fate, his own dark death.]

(Translation by Ian Johnston; click here to view the full translation of Book 16.)

We can take this to mean that the Greeks saw the act of dying as the act of leaving the light. Thus, the spirit of someone dead would be out of the light, or literally in the shade — hence, a shade.

The Gift of Pop Culture to the Open-Minded English Teacher

I firmly believe that young people are capable of developing an understanding and appreciation of classical literature, but it is the naive teacher who thinks that his or her students will arrive at this appreciation at first glance; naturally, it requires nurturing. I have found that the best way to inaugurate this nurturing is to explain the various elements of classical literature using pop culture, films in particular. The teacher must structure the lessons so that the films are studied as seriously as any classical text, of course, but once an analysis of this nature has been facilitated, the students will have been exposed to the various ways to analyze classical literature. This in and of itself will not immediately turn young people onto the classics, nor will it give them much in the way of being able to understand the more difficult diction and syntax; but it will provide them with the basic framework needed to view complex texts, and it will provide useful reference points that the students can connect to later when reading the literature; e.g.: “Gawain’s complaining a lot and doesn’t want to really do anything — he’s gotta be one of those reluctant heroes, like Frodo.” Reading specialists have long upheld the importance of making connections like these while reading. (Follow this link to a brief discussion of that topic.)

A major unit in my curriculum each year is tragedy, which I divide into two parts: plot-driven (or fate-driven) tragedy; and character-driven tragedy. The former employs a narrative that is driven to its tragic conclusion by way of the plot events alone, which can be termed “fate” within the context of the narrative; the latter, on the other hand, arrives at its catastrophic conclusion by way of the protagonist’s faults — or, perhaps, those of other characters. Romeo and Juliet, in which every major character is in some way flawed and guilty of the lovers’ downfalls, is clearly -fatedriven; we know this from the chorus’s employment of the term “star-crossed” in the prologue to Act 1. Most ancient Greek plays are fate-driven in some way, especially Oedipus Rex, in which many characters try and fail to avoid their inevitable destinies. I would argue, however, that in our world of religious skepticism and scientific cultisms that fate-driven tragedies, as such, have little application anymore: this is not to say that these plays have little relevance to us as humans, but rather that we quite quickly overlook most of the discussion of fate, seeing it as “archaic.” Instead, we focus on the characters within these plays: we look at, for instance, Juliet’s near-perfection and Oedipus’s steadfast ignorance of the truth. In this light, character-driven tragedies have a greater relevance to our modern society and universal humanistic experiences, for these focus on how negative character traits lead to disastrous actions and, ultimately, to catastrophic endings. These require no acceptance of faith, but instead require us to accept that humans are inherently flawed — or, failing that, that humans are at least capable of being flawed.

Thus, character-driven tragedies are structurally quite complex, particularly for young people at first glance. Fate-driven tragedies are generally easier for them to accept, for when asked why something happens, they can easily respond with something along the lines of, “Because fate says it has to.” Character-driven tragedies, however, require a close analysis of the narrative’s plot structure and the characters’ personalities before any inherent flaw (or flaws) can be identified. As an English teacher, I could follow the tradition route and jump right into a character-driven tragedy like Hamlet while explaining the structure along the way, but this allows for much confusion among the students: not only do they have to decipher the archaic diction and syntax, but they also have to figure out the structure as they go. Instead, I like to prepare the students beforehand by having them study the structure of “pop-culture” character-driven tragedies. The Star Wars films — particularly the Original Trilogy — lend themselves well to archetype analyses: Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell prove this wondrously in The Power of Myth. While the Prequel Trilogy — at least Episodes I and II — tends only to appeal to young boys (and George Lucas’s ego), Episode III is a surprisingly perfect example of the classical character-driven tragedy: the protagonist has a clear fatal flaw, he struggles with a clear inner conflict, and he suffers a clear catastrophic downfall because of his actions at the end. In fact, you can even perfectly apply Gustav Freytag’s plot diagram — initially intended to analyze the plot structures of Shakespearean tragedies — to Episode III. Thus, I have my students view the full film and simultaneously take notes on the various types of characters (protagonists, antagonists, round and flat characters), the various types of conflicts, and the various plot elements. This is easy, because the film is generally fast-paced and thus engaging to the younger audience; and yet, it is also an obvious depiction of the classical character-driven tragic structure. They type these notes up into a more organized and formal form, and in so doing complete a classical structural analysis of a narrative that is easily accessible to them; in this way, when they approach more difficult texts such as Hamlet, they already understand the structure so that all they need to struggle with is the archaic diction and syntax — certainly, enough of a struggle for them as it is.

Showing films in class is always a dangerous activity for teachers, especially English teachers, since this has traditionally been the sign of a lazy teacher. The key to side-stepping this, of course, is to keep the kids active and productive while viewing the film: taking notes, for example, or completing graphic organizers, or even frequently discussing what they see. I use films in class to demonstrate structure, and generally nothing else; I only rarely show film adaptations of the texts we read since these movies are generally quite inferior to the original narratives. Familiarizing the students with the structures of the various types of texts we study sets them on the path towards the understanding and appreciation of classic literature. The truly unnerving aspect of this for the concerned English teacher is that we cannot force them to go any farther down this path, for it is a journey they must undertake alone. We can certainly provide them with the opportunities to travel down the path — we can, for instance, assign some classic literature for reading, once the necessary structure has been introduced — but we cannot make them become lovers of the classics. This individual act of reading is best illustrated by Harold Bloom, who says in his introduction to Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages,

The child alone with her or his book is, for me, the true image of potential happiness, of something evermore about to be. A child, lonely and gifted, will employ a marvelous story or poem to create a companion for himself. Such an invisible friend is not an unhealthy phantasmagoria, but the mind learning to exercise itself in all its powers. Perhaps it is also the mysterious moment in which a new poet or storyteller comes to birth. (21)

I am not so naive as to think that this illustration represents all young people, or even most, but they are out there, and it is the charge of every English teacher to ensure that these children do not disappear. If I have to nurture the potential of these children by showing the occasional film — well, I guess there are worse things I could do.