If “Realistic” Fiction Exists, How Can There Be Minor Characters?

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From Bernard Paris’s “The Uses of Psychology”:

“As critics we demand, indeed, that the central characters of realistic fiction be like real people, that they have a life of their own beyond the control of their author” (219). 

I didn’t like most of Paris’s article.  In fact, I was disagreeing and questioning pretty much everything he said up to page 220, where the division of the three dots was.  After the three dots, I began to agree with him. 

The first problem I had with the article almost from the very beginning of it, was this idea of “realistic fiction.”  After all, who gets to decide what is realistic and what isn’t?  Realistic is one of those words fraught with value-judgments.  What I think is realistic is not the same as what someone else thinks.  I was talking to a friend the other day and they didn’t think that the characters in the movie Ironman were realistic.  I, on the other hand, very strongly think that they are.  I think it is completely impossible to come up with some true way to differentiate between realistic and non-realistic.  But setting that idea aside, I still have other issues with Paris.

My second problem comes from the quote I chose for my agenda item above.  This whole idea of a character being uncontrollable to an author, I find to be questionable.  I agree with Paris that some characters do have a stronger personality, and that at times an author may feel moved to have the character act in certain ways because of these character traits.  However, even if the author puts aside all personal feelings and beliefs, the characters actions will still to some degree be limited to the author’s imagination and will always be chained to the author’s experience and creative-capacity.  The characters are not free entities in of themselves; they must rely on the author.  And if the characters did not rely to some degree on the author to create them, and the author faithfully depicted realistically what he observed in his everyday life what he wrote would cease to be fiction and instead become nonfiction. 

My third (and last major) problem with the article is in regards to the three divisions of characters that Paris sets forth.  He says there are: aesthetic characters which are one dimensional and rush the plot along; the illustrative that are almost archetypical in a sense and are simply meant to represent or illustrate some general principle, type of person, or idea; and then the mimetic who are the “realistic” characters.  My difficulty is that, if the aesthetic and illustrative characters are flat and the mimetic are not, how can this be realistic?  In real life are not all people complex?  Do not all people have their own motivations which we must concern ourselves with?  Considering this, if a work of fiction is to truly be mimetic or realistic then shouldn’t all the characters even the minor ones be complex, since that is how it is in real life?       

Read more on Paris’s “The Uses of Psychology.”   

2 Comments

Greta, I had the same initial reaction to Paris's essay. I wondered what he was thinking and why he set his essay up the way he did. After reviewing the article, however, things started to come together.
To address your first issue of what's realistic I have to say that you're right. I also believe that Tony Stark is a believable character because he has inner conflict and a tough outer shell (literally) that he shows the world as the "cool guy." He is a genius with some nice toys and is the owner of a large and prosperous company. Does that sound like anyone you know or at least wish you knew? (Bill Gates) Ok...so he has super powers, but it is only because he has invested a lot of his own time and money into developing this suit. It is entirely possible. (My boyfriend wants me to buy him an Ironman suit when they come out. lol) Back to the point, it is difficult to pinpoint a real answer but isn't that what English is all about?
As for your second issue, you are right. The author can never really detach themselves from the character. However, what I think that the critics were referring to was the fact that you should not be able to dictate all a character's moves before you create them. It seems like the realistic character needs to take the story into their own hands and lead the author to the ending. What I think they're trying to say not that the author and character that he/she creates are separate, but that they have a relationship. Think of them as a married couple. What one does definately will affect the other but they can still live lives of their own by going separate places and making independent decisions.
Your third concern I address on my own blog that you responded to. It was http://blogs.setonhill.edu/AngelaPalumbo/2009/02/the_reason_for_a_mimetic_criti.html

Greta Carroll said:

Angela, I really like your points, I think you helped me come to better terms with Paris’s article. I’m not saying that I like it. I still think mimetic criticism is one of the weaker schools of criticism, but I can see what Paris was saying better now.

First off, you’re right; there never is any real answer in literature. I supposed if I want to pick on the value-judgment fraught idea of the word “realistic,” we could do the same of anything. Take formalism for example, how does one define “form”? What one person says it is, could be different from someone else. Or if we look at historicism, what is truly history? Who writes these accounts of history are going to bias the “fact” (which as we know from Eagleton don’t actually exist, since all facts are based on value-judgments). No type of criticism is completely full-proof, so I suppose if we don’t stop our critique of the definition and meaning of words somewhere we’ll just go around and around in a big circle and never get anywhere, so I think what you said makes sense.

For the second thing you said, I really like you analogy of the writer and the character to being like a married couple. They are in a mutual relationship, the author affects the character and the character affects the author. That analogy helps it to make a lot more sense to me. I think I might have been being too hard on Paris. I mean, I think it was good to question the critic like I did, but I also think I was being so harsh on him that I prevented myself from seeing any of the value in his argument. So thank you, Angela, I think I have come to better terms with the article thanks to your explanation : ).

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