3

A chat discussion about this Wuthering Heights question raised the question of the scope of the tag. The tag wiki excerpt says:

Questions relating to the analysis of characters in works of literature: for example, their traits, construction, or other aspects. This tag should be used together with any relevant work, series, or author tags.

What exactly do we mean by traits? A person's ethnicity is certainly one of that person's traits, but to claim that ethnicity is part of a person's character tips over into racism. The problem here appears to be that character is doing double duty. On the one hand, character refers to the invented personages that populate the fictional world created by a writer: e.g., Elizabeth Bennet is a character in Pride and Prejudice. On the other hand, character also means the psychological makeup, moral values, overall disposition, etc. of an individual: e.g., Elizabeth is witty and ethical, but quick to judgment.

The tag seems to cover either or both of these senses of the term, depending on the question:

A look at the tag wiki excerpt's history shows that this dual use of the tag is intended, which is fine. But this double duty leads to the problem where if we say that a given character is supposed to be a particular ethnicity, we also slip silently into saying that this ethnicity is part of that person's character, thereby trafficking in stereotypes.

The dangers of negative ethnic stereotyping are, I hope, too obvious to require rehearsal here. But even when couched in allegedly positive terms, attributions of character traits to ethnicity are ultimately harmful. For example, researchers at Northwestern U have noted:

Although people commonly hold positive stereotypes about Asians' mathematical skills, making those stereotypes salient prior to performance can create the potential for "choking" under the pressure of high expectations.

"When Positive Stereotypes Threaten Intellectual Performance: The Psychological Hazards of 'Model Minority' Status." By Sapna Cheryan and Galen V. Bodenhausen. Psychological Science Vol. 11 No. 5, September 2000, pp. 399–402.

I rolled back the edit that added to the Wuthering Heights question for this reason. I am certain that no implication was intended that Heathcliff's ethnicity determined his character, but the ambiguous tag might lead to the accusation that we are being racist. One could of course make an argument that Heathcliff's character is shaped by the other people's treatment of him because of his ethnicity, but (1) that's rather different from attributing his character to some innate traits based on ethnicity, and (2) the question isn't about that.

The tag wiki excerpt as it currently stands also leaves ambiguous to what construction refers. A character's physical frame, like "How tall is Cedric Diggory?" Or how the writer uses vocabulary, style, and allusion to direct the reader to form a certain psychological and physical image of the character? The excerpt's revision history makes clear construction started off as the latter. But I think that in the current iteration of the excerpt we'd fall into a sort of phrenological determinism because of this ambiguity.

2
  • 1
    You may find the revision history of the excerpt interesting and/or discuss-worthy in your question or answer
    – bobble
    May 16 at 4:14
  • Thanks @bobble. Edited my question based on your comment. Answer unaffected, I think.
    – verbose
    May 16 at 4:21
2

Here is a suggested edit for the tag wiki excerpt that might finesse the issues raised in the question:

Questions about literary characters, addressing: the structural role one or more characters play in a given fictional universe; their psychological traits, physical appearance, sexuality, motivation, emotions, behavior, actions, ethnic or racial background, etc. as represented in that universe; and/or how the writer's linguistic choices shape that representation. This tag should be used together with the relevant work, series, or author tags.

I believe this excerpt distinguishes the two meanings of the term character while allowing the tag to be used for both. Appropriately for this site, it foregrounds the literary roles played by characters in a fictional universe. It also avoids ethnic or racial determinism by making writers, rather than some essentialist principle, responsible for shaping their characters and their characters.

Feedback requested. If this suggestion (after the requisite edits) is adopted, I would be more comfortable with 's being applied to the Heathcliff question that started me off here and the rollback I made can be reverted in its turn. We would be able to point to the tag wiki as the source of truth for our view of the character of fictional characters.

There is always the danger that someone might mistakenly use the tag for a question about graphology or about the meaning of particular ideograms, but we can burn that bridge when we come to it.

2
-2

For me, "character analysis" has always referred to the analysis of what a character thinks, feel, says and does. It is about behaviours and motivations. For this reason, "traits" in the tag wiki excerpt would refer to psychological traits rather than physical ones. The concept includes a character's psychological development throughout the literary work (if relevant). This is why I found the tag a rather odd choice for the question What was the ethnicity of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights?.

From this point of view, questions about character analysis are about a character's "psychology", not about race (unless that somehow influence a specific character's perception of the world, etc) or about the definition of specific types of characters, such as the Byronic hero (so the tag does not fit the question Can Byronic heroes be funny?)

So let me suggest an alternative tag wiki excerpt for :

Questions about a specific character's "psychology" as reflected by the thoughts, feelings, emotions, statements, behaviour or any other psychological traits or mechanisms (including subconscious ones) that are presented in a literary work.

4
  • We already have tons of questions using this tag that aren't about the character's psychology, e.g., this one. Limiting this scope would require going through all the questions and retagging those that are about the social or structural role of characters or about their linguistic representation. And I don't think there is any reason to separate out these sorts of questions. (I also think that questions about characters' psychology, as though they were real people, reflect a somewhat naïve approach literary analysis, FWIW.)
    – verbose
    May 16 at 19:26
  • @verbose (1) I am aware that accepting a narrower scope for the tag would require retagging of a number of questions. There is more than one way of defining "character analysis". (2) What you regard as naïve may still be the subject of a valid question here. (3) One specific type of character analysis would be psychoanalytic criticism, which I don't think is naïve (whatever its merits may be).
    – Tsundoku Mod
    May 16 at 19:38
  • (1) I guess I don't see why one would want to separate out character analysis from other questions about characterization (2) Psychoanalytic criticism is not restricted to (and in contemporary iterations, not even interested in) analysis of a character's psychology as defined in the alternative tag suggestion.
    – verbose
    May 16 at 19:47
  • @verbose To be fair, broadening the scope of character-analysis to simply characters might also involve retagging a lot of questions. I'm sure I remember asking questions about characters but not adding the CA tag because I didn't feel the question was about analysing the character.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    May 21 at 6:51

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .