(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
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
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
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
the initial plan. They cannot help but face some disruption in
some of their standard ideas and familiar routines. But if they
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
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
mechanisms are highly complex. The folk psychological notion
of belief, however, is an attitude that permits limited complexity
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
have done similarly in the past, what your current situation
is, and how you intend to act in the future. That is, when you
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,
that we think about them in ways that are too simple. When we
think about the cognitive component of intention, we have to
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
My argument is this. The cognitive component of intention is
quite complex. It is temporally divisible into two: prospective
The cognitive function of prospective intention represents
our current situation, how we have similarly acted in the past,
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.
What Counts as a Character?
* 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
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
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
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
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
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.
a. THE COURT'S denial of summary judgment was without cause.
b. THE COURT denied summary judgment without cause.