Foster explains that one of his favorite jokes in the classroom comes in the form of pointing out how quickly Hector’s charioteers are killed in The Iliad. This is the problem of surrogacy, or the fact that characters close to the hero/main character are likely to be killed because the main character won’t be. In The Iliad, Patroclus is Achilles’ best friend since boyhood—they even grew up together like brothers. One day, Patroclus wears Achilles’ armor in battle and is literally killed as Achilles’ surrogate. Rather than protecting him, Patroclus’ proximity and resemblance to Achilles put him in even greater danger.
It’s useful to recognize which character is the protagonist (or main character) and which is the surrogate (or sidekick). This may be obvious if, as in the Iliad, the protagonist is clearly described as the “hero” of the narrative. In other circumstances, this requires the reader to think structurally. How soon is each character introduced? Which character is the reader most encouraged to sympathize with? These questions can help in identifying the protagonist.
Characters’ deaths are important plot devices. Patroclus’ death, for example, leads to an important and moving scene during which Achilles mourns his friend through ritual debasement. It also prompts Achilles to receive new armor forged by the gods, an important step in becoming “the greatest hero ever.” In fact, the death of the hero’s best friend is such a useful plot point that it happens all the time—think of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1597) or Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans (1826).
Here Foster displays a good example of how archetype, pattern recognition, and intertextuality can improve our understanding of a text. Through comparing different works of literature, Foster finds a pattern: the death of the best friend (archetype) being used in order to advance the plot.
Although this might seem unjust, it is important to remember that “characters are not people.” Although they may be based on real, living humans, characters are not real or alive. They are simply figments of the author’s and readers’ imaginations. While writers etch out an impression of a given character, readers inevitably “shape, or rather reshape, characters in order to make sense of them.” This makes us sympathetic to characters and invested in their fate.
The statement “characters are not real people” might seem glaringly obvious. However, Foster emphasizes this point in order to help the reader understand that characters have an instrumental purpose in a role of literature, meaning they exist in order to serve a particular role in the plot, not as an end in themselves.
With this understanding of characters in mind, Foster returns to the surrogacy trope. He examines three 20th century films that explore the idea of the dangers posed by a young, immature, and reckless character: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Top Gun (1986). All three movies feature a young man “at war with the world” who is forced to learn a terrible lesson when he accidentally causes the death of someone close to him. It is necessary that it is this proximate person who dies, and not the character himself—otherwise there would be no opportunity for the character to grow.
Again, Foster uses analysis of intertextuality, patterns, and archetype in order to build a deeper understanding of three different, yet interconnected texts (note that movies can also be considered texts). In this example, the main archetype is the “young man at war with the world”; however, a secondary archetype is also at play—the close relation whose death is ultimately caused by the young man.
Secondary characters can be mercilessly killed off because works of literature are not fair—unlike in the real world, some characters’ lives matter more than others. The novelist and critic E.M. Forster explains that some literary characters are “round,” while others are “flat”––meaning some characters are complex, contradictory, and capable of growth, whereas others have a more simplistic, instrumental role to play. In real life, of course, everyone is a “round character,” but this is not true of works of literature, because characters are not actual people.
When reading a work of literature in a surface-level way, readers will likely not consciously distinguish between round and flat characters, and may feel sympathy every time something bad happens to a character (unless they are a villain!). However, deeper reading considers distinctions between the level of importance of different characters, seeking to identify why certain characters are made round and others flat.
There are further reasons why not all characters are “round.” Firstly, if all characters were round, the reader would not know on whom they should focus their attention. Creating flat characters also saves the author the effort (and space on the page!), as the author does not have to develop a full, detailed back-story for everyone who happens to feature in the work. Furthermore, it would simply not be necessary to include this information for many characters, as the purpose they serve is more akin to a literary device (like rain) than an intricate depiction of a human person.
Foster is speaking in general terms here, and the use of round and flat characters he describes varies widely depending on the work of literature under consideration. Some works, for example, have only one or two characters, and it is likely those characters will be round. Other texts mention hundreds of characters, many of whom are flat. Often, these numerous flat characters are used to create a sense of realism.
Note that although it is possible to speak of a binary between flat and round characters, in reality it is more of a continuum, with some characters being rounder—meaning more detailed, complex, and important—than others. Some authors rebel against the concept of having completely flat characters, and try to make each character at least a little round by including unique, memorable details about them. Other authors have taken minor characters from preexisting literature and put them in the spotlight of new works, such as Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), which borrows its titular characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Although Foster maintains that “characters are not people” and should not be considered by the same standards as we consider real humans, in this passage it is clear that some authors do think of character construction in an ethical way. There are several reasons for why this might be the case, one of which is that literature is thought to shape people’s sense of morality. As Foster points out elsewhere in the text, reading literature is a way of seeing the world from another person’s perspective, which is only possible through the use of round characters.
Aristotle argued that “plot is character revealed in action,” meaning that plots must be driven by the choices, actions, and development of characters. Nowadays, we tend to equally follow this maxim in the other direction—characters are a function of plot. All characters, flat and round, share the task of providing narrative momentum, moving the story toward its conclusion.
At the chapter’s conclusion, Foster returns to the idea that characters have an instrumental use in literature. This is not to say they are less or more important than the plot overall, but that the characters and plot function together in order to create an impact on the reader.