Narrative theory part III: characters and focalisation

By Fariha Uddin - English Student @ Keble College, Oxford

“The character is not a human being, but it resembles one”, writes Mieke Bal in Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Using this example, I want to highlight that theories in literature are not facts, and you should not treat theories about narrative as the be-all and end-all but as the point of further debate. Are not characters actually human beings we read about in books? I think what Bal tries to argue here is that characters are the fictitious products of the writer’s imagination and do not exist in real life. Consider the warning at the beginning of some books/films: “Any resemblance to actual persons/events is purely coincidental”. Characters are human beings but only in books: their exact replica does not exist outside the 300-page book or so. Bal goes further to suggest that characters have “no real psyche, personality, ideology, or competence”: they are created by authors who control these aspects. Arguably, an author might take someone they know in real life and turn them into a character in their book, but in one way or the other, some levels of fictionality will come through in their portrayal.

Since we have established the distance between characters and human beings, characters have been famously theorized by E.M Forster in his book, Aspects of the Novel (1927). He suggests viewing characters as “round” or “flat”. Consider Bal’s explanation of it in Narratology:

Round characters are like complex persons, who undergo a change in the course of the story and remain capable of surprising the reader. Flat characters are stable; they are stereotypical, and they exhibit or contain nothing surprising.

Characters are “round” or “flat” depending on your interpretation. Take Jane Austen’s Emma for example. Emma Woodhouse’s matchmaking efforts are futile, and her own confused feelings of love throughout the novel might make you think she is a “flat” character. She undergoes little development in the novel. But someone else might argue that she does undergo significant change, realising her faults near the end and coming to terms with the fact that she must marry no one except Mr. Knightley! In that case, she is a “round” character.

Finally, other than characters, focalisation is also a key part of narrative theory. The Oxford Reference on ‘focalisation’ explains the term with brevity and separates it well from the ‘narrative voice’:

The term used in modern narratology for ‘point of view’; that is, for the kind of perspective from which the events of a story are witnessed…The nature of a given narrative's focalisation is to be distinguished from its narrative ‘voice’, as seeing is from speaking.

Note two things. Firstly, focalisation is the perspective from which a story is witnessed not ‘told’. Secondly, it is separate from the narrative voice as seeing is from speaking.

When the character is the focaliser, you get ‘character-bound’ focalisation (Bal, 2017). We get ‘internal focalisation’ when the focus is on the character’s feelings and thoughts, and ‘external focalisation’ when the focus is on the character’s actions and sayings. “Dorothy dropped her fork” is ‘external’ focalisation whereas “Dorothy felt secure in her marriage since Mark started spending more time at home” is ‘internal’ focalisation. When you gain an insight into something that you would not be able to know by physically being around the character, that is ‘internal’ focalisation.

A few other types of focalisers are listed below:

  • Free indirect focalisation: this is where the narrator uses free-indirect speech to present approximately the character’s own words without giving the character dialogues (Bal, 2017). See Austen’s Emma for effective uses of free indirect speech.

  • Ambiguous focalisation: Difficult to determine who the focaliser is. (Bal, 2017)

  • A special case of focalisation is a “memory” since it is an act of “vision”. (Bal, 2017).

As is the case with characterisation, focalisation can be explored further in more complicated ways. The further reading given below will assist you with this.

Further reading:

  1. Austen, Jane, Emma (1815)

  2. Bal, Mieke, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, third edition, 2017

  3. Forster, E.M., Aspects of the Novel (1927)

  4. ‘Narratology’ in Beginning Theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory (4th edition), ed. Peter Barry, pp. 223- 246.