The Concept of Character in Literature

Carlos Reis, a world-renowned Professor of Portuguese Literature from the University of Coimbra and the inaugural Gulbenkian Visiting Professor of Portuguese Studies at UC Berkeley, stopped by Moses Hall to give a lecture exploring the ways in which the function of the character has evolved in literary productions over time. Refuting the common belief that narratology is on the decline, Reis argued that narrative studies has been completely revitalized and reconstructed in recent decades. He pointed out that the character is today no longer seen as a static thing but, rather, an unstable and constantly changing entity, influenced by the person who creates it. Reis drew from several texts to demonstrate the evolution of character from romanticism to realism and finally the digital age. In Eça de Queiros’ Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman the author describes the characters through an analysis of their shoes. This is a static representation of character that provides only one, surface level perspective of his/her qualities. In Almeida Garrett’s Travels in My Homeland, the character and scene are described not through their physical traits, but, rather, through their constantly-moving qualitative aspects. It is, Reis claims, an “unstable portrait.” Finally, Reis used video game narratives to demonstrate the modern, mutable form of character. Video game narrative, which develops along a timeline that is influenced by the player, is the ultimate active narrative. The character shapes the “author” and the author shapes the character, thus resulting in a blurring of the boundary between the two. Following his presentation, Reis and the audience of 20 engaged in a lively discussion about the changing role of the character in literature since Romanticism.

The lecture ended on a somewhat melancholic note as everybody pondered the consequences of the outcomes that ever-advancing technology could lead to in the coming generations. Not only are people able to participate in the authorship of character through video games, but there also now exists virtual reality technology that allows one to function as both author and character, fully immersing oneself into the narrative in a completely unprecedented way. Reis predicted that this would cause another shift in the way people defined the concept of character; however, in this case, there might cease to be a separation or boundary between character and author, completely altering narrativity as we know it.