Which Kind of Character? What Counts as a Character?


(Click here for "What Counts as Character")

Thus far, we have talked about characters as though they were always flesh-and-blood persons. But writers often tell stories about objects, institutions, abstract entities, and even actions expressed in nominalizations.
 
12. Some nominalizations name familiar concepts that we know so well that we treat them almost as though they were objects.

Few issues have so divided America as abortion on demand.

A major issue in past elections was the Equal Rights Amendment.

 
13. Other nominalizations name the special topics of a discipline or profession. For specialists, these terms of art name concepts as familiar as their friends and families. They feel very comfortable with stories told about those special concepts, though these "insider" stories can often defeat the rest of us. This story seems perfectly readable to management consultants:


Strategic planning can only succeed at Abco if it wins the hearts and minds of line managers. As a planning exercise builds credibility with the managers closest to the shop floor, it begins through them to take root in the culture of the organization so that the planning process is no longer something imposed from above but part of the daily life of the business. For that reason, the initial plan has to present as little threat to line managers as possible. It cannot help but disrupt some of their standard ideas and familiar routines. But if it benefits them personally right from the start — improves their productivity, enhances their sense of participation in key decisions, promises to enhance those areas of the business by which they are evaluated &emdash;then a plan can help line managers get past those early, knee-jerk resistance and make them champions for its continued implementation.


These kinds of stories can easily be translated into a version focusing on flesh-and-blood characters:

Abco will only succeed with strategic planning if line managers buy in. As the managers closest to the shop floor begin to believe in a planning exercise, they begin to embed it in the culture of the organization so that the planning process is no longer something imposed from above but part of the daily life of the business. For that reason, line manages must see as little threat as possible in the initial plan. They cannot help but face some disruption in some of their standard ideas and familiar routines. But if they personally benefit from the plan right from the start — improve their productivity, feel that they are participating more fully in key decisions, receive better evaluations because their area of the business is enhanced — then line managers can get past those early, knee-jerk resistance and become champions for the continued implementation of strategic planning.

14. A third kind of nominalization names a character created for the particular purposes of the author:

The argument is this. The cognitive component of intention exhibits a high degree of complexity. Intention is temporally divisible into two: prospective intention and immediate intention. The cognitive function of prospective intention is the representation of a subject's similar past actions, his current situation, and his course of future actions. That is, the cognitive component of prospective intention is a plan. The cognitive function of immediate intention is the monitoring and guidance of ongoing bodily movement. Taken together these cognitive mechanisms are highly complex. The folk psychological notion of belief, however, is an attitude that permits limited complexity of content. Thus the cognitive component of intention is something other than folk psychological belief.

Myles Brand (1984), Intending and Acting, MIT Press
 
 
These kinds of stories do not always fare so well when we translate them into a purely agent-action style:

I would argue like this: Whenever you intend anything, you behave in ways that are cognitively complex. We may divide these ways into two temporal modes: You intend either prospectively or immediately. When you intend prospectively, you cognitively represent what you have done similarly in the past, what your current situation is, and how you intend to act in the future. That is, when you intend prospectively, you cognitively plan. But when you intend to do something immediately, you monitor and guide you body as you move it. When we take these two cognitive components together, we must recognize that they are highly complex. But when we consider what most of us believe about these matters on the basis of folk psychology, we realize that we think about them in ways that are too simple. When we think about the cognitive component of intention, we have to go beyond folk psychology.
 
 
In a passage that does not have all of the peripheral nominalizations but retains as its main character the nominalization prospective and immediate intention, the abstract character seems to be the right approach:


My argument is this. The cognitive component of intention is quite complex. It is temporally divisible into two: prospective and immediate. The cognitive function of prospective intention represents our current situation, how we have similarly acted in the past, and how we will act in the future. That is, the cognitive component of prospective intention lets us plan ahead. On the other hand, the cognitive function of immediate intention monitors and guides our body as we move it. Taken together these cognitive mechanisms are too complex for us to explain by folk psychological notions alone.
 
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What Counts as a Character?
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* Characters are either (a) the agents of actions or (b) the receivers or objects of actions. Your "default" choice (what you choose when you have no special reason not to) should be characters who are agents.
 

* Characters can be people, organizations of people, non-human living things, tangible objects, and even concepts.


In the examples below, character-agents are CAPITALIZED:


a. READERS understand better and faster when WRITERS express characters as subjects.
b. Since 1976, INFORMATION CONCEPTS has offered an Employee Guidance Program to our employees and their immediate families.
c. My cat LEONARD jumps off my third-floor balcony.
d. DUSTY MILLER is a greyish-blue plant that people often use as groundcover.
e. The APPLE STYLEWRITER II, an ink-jet printer, costs only half as much as the Personal LaserWriter.
f. UPWARD MOBILITY is something today's youth no longer expect.
g. HEAT-TRANSFER is far more efficient in third-generation boilers.
 
 
* Although abstract concepts can be characters, you can always tell these stories with concrete characters instead:


f. TODAY'S YOUTH no longer expect to be upwardly-mobile.
g. THIRD-GENERATION BOILERS transfer hear far more efficiently.
 
 
* You can use a nominalization as a character when it names a tangible object:


h. The LEASE AGREEMENT binds you to pay for all damages caused by your cats.
i. The FRONT SUSPENSION SYSTEM holds the road far better on a Honda than on a Subaru.
 
* You can use an abstract nominalization as a character if it names a concept so familiar to your reader that it seems to act in your story.


Normally, the abstract nominalizations which can act as characters are those with a long history of investigation and discussion in a given field or profession:


j. INFLATION helps no one but the IRS.
k. DEBT FINANCING raises the rate of return on assets.
 
 
A Note about Characters and Subjects
 
If you follow the two principles we've learned – characters in subjects and actions in verbs – then the characters in your sentences will appear before the actions. But the fact that there is a character before the action doesn't necessarily mean a sentence is readable. For a sentence to be readable, the character at or near the beginning the sentences has to be the subject of that sentence – not a minor part of a complex subject with a nominalization at its head. Watch out especially for characters that are possessives attached to a nominalization. For example, in "a" (below) the head word in the subject is a nominalization and the character is a possessive. In "b," however, the whole subject is a character, and that character is the agent of the sentence's action.
 

Subject-Verb

a. THE COURT'S denial of summary judgment was without cause.

character nominalized action
 

Subject-Verb

b. THE COURT denied summary judgment without cause.
character action