Is it feasible or worthwhile to discuss the personality traits of fictional literacy characters?

Having just read a whole website dedicated to the discussion of Buffalo Bill from Silence of The Lambs (most opinions and character analyses offered by female transgender experts) I wonder if it’s total rubbish and a complete waste of time arguing about the psyche and personality traits of a made up character, or whether it is a useful discussion into the workings of the human mind.

Can you really claim to know whether Heathcliff was a rugged, broken hearted lover or a violent masochist? And was Mary Poppins a liberated female teaching the elite a thing or two…or was she just a glorified governess making the children tidy their rooms and fold up their clothes by singing a song or two?

Can you really write a meaningful critique of someone who is not real?

Perhaps, but you should have a background in Psychology, & be really, really familar with the works.

I am an English teacher but sometimes wonder if I’m spouting complete drivel. How can I tell a class of students that Macbeth was a troubled soul, driven by his greedy wife and his insatiable ambition when in reality he’s largely a product of Shakespeare’s imagination (I know there WAS a Macbeth) I’ve never met the guy and can’t possibly claim to know anything about him.

I think that’s the key factor. When you discuss the mental activity of a fictional character, you have to remember you’re really discussing the mental activity of the author.

Exactly, take Joan of Arc. She was a real person. But was she really a heroic and determined woman of her times, fighting a war for the greater cause…or was she a lunatic with schizophrenic voices in her head? Who can possibly say? Historians can argue for a life time but as none of us were there to clarify, and as they are all long dead, who knows? We will never know, so is it correct to grade literary students on their answers to unanswerable questions?

If you’re at all competent as an English teacher, you’re not grading them on their answers to unanswerable questions, you’re grading them on 1) their ability to come up with a plausible interpretation and support it with evidence from the text; and 2) their understanding of how literary texts work in general. And yes, recognizing that Macbeth is a fictional construct is part of that understanding, but so is recognizing that Shakespeare does particular things to make that fiction plausible, such as giving his Macbeth-character a coherent set of motives and a conflicted attitude toward what he’s doing. We know this is what’s going on because it’s in the text, particularly in Macbeth’s soliloquies.

A really clever student, who really gets how Renaissance theater works, might raise questions about whether we can trust the reluctance that Macbeth expresses in soliloquy or whether he’s playing upon the audience’s sympathies by trying to make himself look more conscience-stricken than he really is. Either is a plausible interpretation that can be supported with evidence from the text, and both are, therefore, “right” answers even if they’re mutually exclusive. One of the most valuable things English teachers do, I’d argue, is introducing students to the idea of ambiguity and interpretability, to the idea that there ISN’T necessarily a single right answer and a bunch of others that are wrong.

Can’t at least some psychology be fairly obvious?

I mean, yeah, spoilers, but: I’m thinking now of an Agatha Christie novel where a guy murders someone. And then that guy murders someone else. And then he murders someone else. And then – well, yes, obviously he murders someone else; I think that goes without saying, at this point; but what makes this one notable is him staging it to frame another guy for it. But our hero, who we’re told is a great detective with a fine knowledge of psychology, long-windedly deduces who must’ve done what and why, so justice is done before yet another innocent meets an untimely end.

Can a reader weigh in on the psychology of that fictional murderer?

No of course they can’t because none of those characters are real. And whilst I agree with Fretful Porpentine, in this respect you are grading a student on their ability to infer, deduce and provide concise and well chosen arguments to argue a point and not on their indepth knowledge of a character, simply because that character is fictional; it doesn’t exist and so you cannot possibly comment on anything other than the plausibility and construction of a student’s answer.

An erudite and well written student could argue that Jack the Ripper was a Caribbean fishmonger if they had a convincing enough a case. And no one could argue otherwise because nobody knows, so all you are really marking is their ability to hold a weighty argument.

I never get too much into discussions of character motives because that kind if thing easily pops my suspension of disbelief and I’m faced with the real answer: the character acts that way because that’s how the author chose to write it.

Yes…but many authors also choose to write about the character’s internal mental status, and, via dialogue and directly quoted thoughts, give the reader material by which to judge.

A really good writer can let you know when his character is lying, for instance, without specifying in narrative, “He was lying.” It comes down to subtle behavioral cues.

It is absolutely feasible and worthwhile to discuss the personality traits of fictional characters, in those cases where the author has put in enough material for us to analyze.

It is also completely legitimate to “read between the lines.” Sometimes, this will lead us into error. (Too many people believe that Sherlock Holmes was in love with Irene Adler, even though the narrative specifically says he wasn’t.) Sometimes, it will produce insights (Sherlock Holmes seems to be a very lonely man, even though the narrative never specifically says he is.)

Saying, “He’s just fictional” goes a little too far in rejecting avenues of interpretation. The best writing indulges in what Tolkien called “sub-creation,” an act that echoes the actual creation of reality. Good fiction has enough substance to warrant suspension of disbelief.

(Was Boromir corrupted by the Ring, or would he have been equally tempted if the Ring had no power over minds, but was just a really powerful weapon that Gondor needed? We can never know, but it is absolutely legitimate to discuss and debate.)

Exactly so. And it’s an interesting question as to whether and how the ambivalence/ambiguities of some authors’ characters affects the audience’s sympathies, and their aesthetic satisfaction with the way the story plays out - Shakespeare being a prime example (Shylock, say). You also get it with Brecht, as in Mother Courage or Galileo, (though one wonders whether that’s just a way of having it both ways, politically, in his case).

But sometimes the author creates a character with psychological depth that is unintended, that comes from the author’s subconscious. Many authors report that characters come alive for them and insist on acting in certain ways. Hell, psychology did not even exist when Shakespeare wrote, yet he somehow invested his characters with enough depth that we’re still debating it 400 years later.

In depth knowledge of the character here means being able to show all the evidence in the work for a position while not ignoring evidence against it. The plausibility of the psychology inferred might count for something also.

While we don’t know who Jack the Ripper was, we do have lots of evidence of what he did, so if someone could use that evidence to say he was a fishmonger, more power to him or her. But far out hypotheses usually work by leaving evidence out, and it is good for students to be caught doing this. That is why one of the first steps of a PhD is a thorough literature search. You don’t want to do research based only on what you remember or what struck you.

The OP is right: Any such critique is fanwank, but some fanwank is marked out by being more supported in the text and by logic. Saying it is “true” or “false” is missing the point, because it is all false, because it is fiction, and the sole reason anything happens in fiction is because the author demanded it so.

However, we politely ignore that, and analyze for depth, as a way to use that work as a lens to view our own psyches and, perhaps, in some rare cases, the outside world. The essential similarity between literary analysis and the psychological works of Freud and Jung is probably going to get some people really, really angry with me, but it cannot be denied.

Yes. Because the person isn’t real, there isn’t a True Right Answer; but that doesn’t make the discussion/critique meaningless.

That’s f’sure! I once wrote a story about cats and dogs…and an astute reader said that it was really about blacks and whites in American society. And the most wonderful part is that he’s not wrong. It wasn’t what I meant at all at all, but his is one entirely valid interpretation of the story!

Most authors will be familiar with the “mind of their own” effect, where their characters sometimes (often!) develop personality traits that the writer did not intend. The character seems to “come alive” in an eerie way. Many times, I’ve had my characters tell me, “No, I’m not going to do that.” Not literally…but it feels very much as if they are taking on a kind of personality of their own.

I’d say the ability “to infer, deduce and provide concise and well chosen arguments to argue a point” and “hold a weighty argument” are pretty important abilities to have, and that it is worthwhile for students to get some practice. It’s rather depressing that a teacher would think otherwise.

As for Jack the Ripper, people could and would “argue otherwise” about an off-beat theory as to his identity. People have been arguing about who Jack the Ripper really was for more than a century. That his true identity has never been proven (and likely never will be) is the reason why many people find this an interesting topic to debate.

They’re not real people, folks. The author can create a character, and take any article that fits out of the closet and dress him up with it. You never find out if the character in a book carries a set of jumper cables in his trunk. You never know if he is ever constipated and is troubled by having to strain at the stool. You never find out if he likes or hates cilantro. You don’t even know if he is left-handed.

A hypothesis I’ve seen used to explain it is that humans have “people simulators” in their heads, evolved to simulate and predict the behavior of other people. Authors re-purpose those simulators to predict the behavior of imaginary people, but as they have no conscious control over or awareness of them pretty much have to take the output they are given. If they try to write against what they are given by their simulator them they are abandoning their best tool for understanding human behavior, and so the quality of the characterization tends to drop markedly.

Basically you aren’t literally arguing with the character, but with a semi-independent subsystem of your own mind that is pretending to be the character.

But that seems to take this to a different place: instead of asking if it’s feasible or worthwhile to discuss the personality traits of fictional characters, you seem to be saying here that we’re in a Who-Can-Possibly-Say and We-Will-Never-Know situation when it comes to any real-life None-Of-Us-Were-There-To-Clarify scenario that ends with us throwing up our hands and saying, quote-unquote, “who knows?”

If that’s the logic powering the original post, then why was it limited to fiction? Won’t the exact same factors stymie psychological speculation just as much when discussing historical personages or literary characters?