Down with characterization

I think interesting character names are correlated with interesting characters. But am I supplying the correlation or is the author? Chi Luu at JSTOR Daily has a short essay about Charles Dickens’ naming of minor characters that made me think about the question.

I’m not going to be a downer by naming names, but the more a novel is built to sound like the real world, the greater the chance I will like it less than the critics.

But it’s not about realism. Certainly Dickens, or Thomas Pynchon, the contemporary standard-setter for evocative and unusual names, are not writing fantasy. They are writing, one way or another, about the real world. One reason I am so in love with Pynchon is that the perspective from which his novels are written is unique and compelling.

Take Against the Day. Pynchon’s novel is grounded firmly around the beginning of the 20th Century and includes the Tunguska Event, now-obscure arguments in academic mathematics, labor organization and mining in the Western states and territories… and yet the text feels dreamlike, vital, and unreal. What gives?

Maybe I’m suffering from selective memory here, but my impression is that the critics take a dim view of Pynchon’s “weird” character names. I am irrationally defensive of Against the Day, but maybe the world could meet me halfway, instead of, well, Michiko Kakutani:

It boasts a sprawling, Dickensian cast with distinctly Pynchonian names: Fleetwood Vibe, Lindsay Noseworth, Clive Crouchmas.

The problem is these characters are drawn in such a desultory manner that they might as well be plastic chess pieces, moved hither and yon by the author’s impervious, godlike hand. Sad to say, we really don’t give a damn what happens to them or their kith and kin.

I say down with characterization, down with relatability (Rebecca Mead’s wonderful 2014 essay), down with the hero’s damn journey. We live in a time when even sitcoms are subjected to Serious Analysis by the Internet (the A.V. Club’s Kate Kulzick on a recent episode of Veep: “[t]he groundwork laid here is entertaining and full of Veep’s trademark bite, and hopefully viewers’ patience will be rewarded later in the season when these arcs inevitably come to a head”). Perhaps we are at Peak Characterization.

Does Slothrop’s character not turn to air before the end of Gravity’s Rainbow?

The language of real life is a boring way to tell a story. I live in real life. I can’t taste the freshness of a story unless it uses a grammar distinct from real life.

But Against the Day is about real life. Things happen to these alleged non-characters, some intensely personal things, some world-significant things. Some are things that resonate in our histories, some have long grown obscure. But all the things are allowed to matter, hindsight free, in the text. I have lived them now too. What a generous way to treat history.

4 thoughts on “Down with characterization

  1. I think that, even in totally novel and interesting worlds, it is quite normal to demand some kind of relatable interiority. Take the Culture novels by Iain Banks: I finally decided to read some canonical sci-fi lit and I was worried that stories would be woefully underdrawn explorations in kind of intellectual masturbation (e.g. what would a world be like where there are no children/women/time/animals/religion etc??? Eurgh). However, Banks kinds of artfully prods at some interesting ideas but also draws very 3 dimensional characters whose internal life we can recognise as analogous to the richness of our own. Presumably what she’s really saying is that the vitality of the characters names does not match up with the deadness of their internal life. A fair critique, no? Unless we are advocating for lifeless, unrelatable characters?


  2. I think the critical shorthand in general for Pynchon draws an explicit line: “The gaudy names Mr. Pynchon gives his characters are like pink slips, announcing their dismissal from the realm of human sympathy and concern.” (

    But I am still going to reject the equivalence between “relatability” (which I very much take Rebecca Mead’s position on) and characterization. Is broadly-drawn satire not relatable? I think it’s fine to have characters just do stuff, and let character come out of that, if at all. I have no problem with interiority, but I don’t see it as a prerequisite for quality.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Point taken re.Pynchon.

    A kind of Butlerian “performativity” expression of internal character is fine. The aim is the same but approaches the task from different directions- like inductive and deductive logic. Literature, arguably, is about the communion of reader and character and seeing some of ourselves (or others) in the characters we see on the page. It might be- if artfully done- that people’s behaviours are so interesting to draw a character that is relatable and intriguing.

    In terms of satire, we often fill in the gaps ourselves based on the archetypes we observe and imagine what it must be like to be in that situation or knowing others like that character. Take books like Lolita or American Psycho. Of course we don’t totally relate with characters whose main indentifier is that they are a peadophile or murderer, but the genius of both authors is that we see the humanity in both. American Psycho also serves as amazing satire because we see those characters in the world around us: in any bar in the City of London or in swathes of Manhattan.


    • No argument from me on your points. I do though see some semantic space between “relating to” and “identifying with”. Maybe it’s splitting hairs.


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