"There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character." James Wood starts off his central chapter with this bit of hyperbole. But we buy it because it's JAMES F'in WOOD fer chrissakes! And we read on. "We can tell a great deal from a character by how he talks, and whom he talks to—how he bumps up against the world." Do tell.
Wood, in How Fiction Works carves out an interesting middle-ground for his view of character:
A great deal of nonsense is written every day about character in fiction—from the side of those who believe too much in character and from the side of those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are : we should get to 'know' them; they should not be 'stereotypes'; they should have an 'inside' as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should 'grow' and 'develop'; and they should be nice. So they should be pretty much like us. ...In other words, artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of—or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them. On the other side, among those with too little belief in character, we hear that characters do not exist at all.And he goes on to insult again that bête noire of "aestheticism", William Gass.
So, Wood says, fiction works somewhere in the space between "I didn't like that book because I just couldn't identify with the main character" (the point of view I satirize in my review of Bernhard's The Loser), and "I didn't like that book because it wasn't really well enough written."
How? "My own taste," he says "tends towards the sketchier fictional personage, whose lacunae and omissions tease us, provoke us to wade in their deep shallows."
Understanding and defining fictional character is akin to understanding and defining the manifold and polymorphous human self. This seems to be Wood's point, though he is nowhere quite so explicit.
So the vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence and even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger, philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character's actions are profoundly important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters.
Vitality, complexity, opacity of motive: these are the values Mr. Wood holds dear with respect to character. Reader—and more particularly writer—take heed!
Btw: if you haven't read the book or the on-line article and are wondering why Monty Python and The Office top the posts about character, Wood traces a certain sort of self-theatricalizing British character he loves from Shakespeare "...and on into the superb pantomimic embarrassments of Monty Python and Ricky Gervais's David Brent." There is a method in't.