Representing the Development of Character as Subject-Formation in Fiction.


“Life is Wanting” – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt

In his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, Abraham Maslow outlined his theory of the hierarchy of needs. Typically depicted as a pyramid, it begins with basic drives for survival and security which, once met, give way to more complex needs such as love, community, creativity, and finally the capstone of self-actualization. As the book’s title suggests, motivation and desire certainly underpin a person’s character in fundamental ways. Yet the pyramid form would seem to imply that self-actualization is separate from the needs that precede it, whereas the need to realize self-hood is not exclusively experienced by those who have had all their other needs fulfilled. Furthermore, even if our needs can be understood as broad categorical drives with distinct priorities, we experience these needs as particular desires conditioned by the social rules governing what is acceptable and unacceptable. Thus, if subjective understandings of character are fashioned out of the self-conscious negotiation between desires and power over one’s desires, then character is constructed in fiction through the representation of subjects navigating their own relationship between desire and self-control. In Freudian terms this is the struggle between the unconscious Id and the internalized Super-Ego but we need not take up explicitly psychoanalytic valences to delve into the complexities of representing characters who embody both desire and the will to suppress it.

What, then, can fiction tell us about the relationship between desire and self-control? In Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority, Lisa Zunshine contends that readers imagine characters in the same way that we try to conceive of the mental states of others in everyday life (150-151). This is done using theory of mind, “our evolved cognitive adaptation for explaining people’s behavior in terms of mental states, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions” (Zunshine, 147). Though particularities of representation and interpretation of cognitive states vary with historical context, paying attention to cognitive states allows us to read characters through their understanding of theirs and each other’s mental processes. In terms of interpreting desire and self-control, Sara Ahmed’s essay Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character suggests that we might approach the problem of character through notions of will which are “central to modern understandings of desire” (234).

Ahmed outlines the seemingly opposed notions of will and willfulness which are really two sides of the same coin we might call desirous motivation. Willfulness is a kind of unmitigated desire most identifiable in a child’s “natural potential for tyranny” and it represents a moral danger (238). On the other hand, will is described as “an internal influence” which is meant to inoculate one’s character against the influences of “happenstance and circumstance”; In the words of John stuart Mill, this is a will to seek “the improvement of our moral character” (234). In both contexts, will is a matter of motivation and habit which we use to interpret the quality of someone’s character within a moral frame; though it may be difficult to conceptualize the willfulness of a spoiled child and the cultivated will of a moralizing adult as manifestations of the same phenomenon, Amed illuminates this relationship in the context of pedagogy.

In general, the goal of education is to mold the child’s pliable will such that they genuinely desire what their parent, teacher, or other authority figure wants them to want. She cites John Locke’s writings on education wherein he claims, “what [the impressionable child]  is to receive from education, what is to sway and influence his life, must be something put into him, betimes, habits woven into the very principle of his nature” and that virtue “lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires” (236). In practice, Locke also “suggests that “awe” is crucial to directing the child. To be in awe of those with authority is how authority can be given” (236).  Thus, will is the internalized desire to achieve a sense of morally authorized character that can countermand the unmitigated willfulness of a child.

In fiction, this will can be attributed to God’s will, the community’s general will, a parent’s will, or one’s own moral faculties while one’s willfulness is often located within a part of the body such as the stomach, the heart, or the genitals. Ahmed suggests that this tension between willfulness and the general, moral, or authorized will can be represented as “rebellious parts” which seem to resist self-control and even threaten to assert their own control over the person (243). Indeed, it can be profoundly alienating (as in a splitting and distancing of the self) to experience both desire and the desire to remain in control of said desire. It is this splitting of the self, or the simultaneous experiencing of two contradictory wills, which allows characters to illuminate the problematic notion that persons can be said to have a character that is consistent, let alone knowable.

While this tension between between desire and the desire to master one’s desires underpins any well-written character’s motivation and self-conception, the process of subject formation is most recognizable in the familiar context of a family. In Lindsay Hunter’s novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, Greg embarks on a road trip to find his missing drug-addicted son while grappling with his failures as a parent along the way. Hunter situates questions of self-control and addiction in an intergenerational context by depicting a tense visit Greg pays to his father mid-search and by simply naming his son Greg Junior (GJ). Greg may not be a compulsory drug user, but we experience his penchant for overeating and excessive drinking first hand through pit stops and meals interspersed with flashbacks to his time at college, GJ’s childhood and rebellious adolescence, and ponderings on the relationship between self-control and parental discipline. These musings are often presented in italics without quotation marks and they often reflect common notions about parenting and addiction such as If you don’t watch it, children will walk all over you and Addicts can’t risk even a single sip of alcohol (79, 149). These phrases, though they are narrated from Greg’s perspective as is the rest of the novel, don’t quite read as his thoughts. Rather, they seem to be pieces of general wisdom and knowledge which, though Greg knows them, somehow exist beyond him and cannot be attributed to him entirely. This is especially clear when we learn that he may have caused GJ’s first post-rehab relapse by offering him a beer with dinner (32); though he has internalized these tenets of the general will, that doesn’t mean he acts on them.

Ultimately, Greg not only fails to find GJ, but also suffers a heart attack and a serious mental breakdown after which it is revealed that the narration was only reporting a fraction of the eating he had been doing on the trip. This revelation clarifies the narrations’ relationship to Greg as we now see that it faithfully depicts Greg’s inner monologue and consequently omits that which Greg cannot face himself. In the aftermath of his crisis Greg receives a letter from GJ wherein, we are told, his son forgives him, rejects his narrative, and plainly declares in italics we’re both addicts (208). These morsels of its content and the letter having been typed, stamped, and properly mailed suggest that GJ is getting his own life together and came to understand his substance use problems and their cause before his dad could. By rejecting his father’s narrative and recognizing their shared struggle, GJ becomes an authority over himself and, I suspect, an authority that can encourage his father to recognize his own problems and exercise better self-control.

While Eat Only When You’re Hungry draws fairly direct lines of causation between Greg’s upbringing, poor self control, and the effects they have on GJ, it should be noted that causality is an unreliable means of understanding character, particularly in the realm of desire. In Reflections, Walter Benjamin argues that the typical causal relationship established between fate and character is false because “the distinction on which it rests is theoretically untenable.” (305) The distinction between the realms of character (the interior world) and fate (the exterior world) fail because they cannot actually be separated from one another as they are experienced simultaneously; in terms of will, we might say that distinctions between internal influences and internalized external influences are similarly untenable. Benjamin ultimately suggests that the distinction has given rise to the two artistic modes: comedy as character focused narrative and tragedy as fate focused narrative (310-311). Thus it behooves us to examine a self-described tragicomedy like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home that interrogates the distinction between fate and character.

At its core, Fun Home is a highly visual bildungsroman that focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father. In elucidating her Father’s hidden queer sexuality and how her upbringing in turn influenced and suppressed her own queer desire, Bechdel uses the pliable form of the graphic novel to demonstrate the overlapping internal and external influences shaping how they interact with their desires. In the first chapter, she carries out an extended metaphor whereby her father’s closeted is compared to his obsession with their home as a facade. She combines panels that describe his artificer’s behavior with illustrations depicting how she and the rest of the family became inculcated in his facade by virtue of sharing the project of home. However, on page 17, she clarifies that in spite of the shambolic nature of their home and family, it was still their home and they were still a family. Bechdel further blurs the lines between character and fate by depicting the differing conditions of social possibility for her and her father. While she extensively and intimately illustrates her exploration and immersion in queerness at college and in New York’s Little Village (74-76, 80-81), her father’s return to Pennsylvania to run the family business is depicted as an obligation to his parents (32) and she includes an illustration of the confined space within which his life can be mapped (30).

Here we can see how Bechdel’s retelling of the story and its interpolation of internal and external influences on behavior are not necessarily meant to forgive her father’s transgressions, so much as to recognize how their experiences of queer desire differed as a result of their relationships with themselves, each other, and the world. For example, Bechdel juxtaposes her father’s implicit and explicit efforts to prevent her gender performance from drifting in a masculine direction (15, 117-119) with his secret desire for the masculine form as confirmed by the photograph he kept of their babysitter Roy (100). That picture is presented in Bechdel’s hand and surrounded by several text boxes narrating her attempts to interpret the image and his weak attempts at censorship in order to emphasize the disorientation she was feeling at the moment of discovery. That disorientation, which comes up other times when she attempts to reconcile her experience of queerness with what she knows of her father’s’ (57), seems to become less jarring over the course of the novel as she develops a more holistic understanding of his struggle with queer desire in context and with all its contradictions. Page 120 also depicts her hands holding several photos of her and her father posing in queer ways; this moment is charged with as much discomfort and complexity as the photograph on 100-101, but we can discern from the lack of a comparable disruption in narrative flow a growing comfort with the complexities of their relationship. An understanding of his struggle with queer desire and the need to suppress that desires takes the place of her attempts to parse out who he was on the outside and the interiority concealed by that facade

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer, also attempts to parse the influences of culture and authority on desire by presenting a main character who, in addition to being half-Vietnamese and half-French, acts as a spy in South Vietnam and the U.S. on behalf of the Ho Chi Minh’s regime. The unnamed main character’s early childhood education from his Father and violent interrogation at the hands of his superiors are both represented as catechisms (207, 344). As a tool of education, their question/answer format embodies the educational process of molding a child’s will and speaks to the similar means by which which religious figures, parents, and even state apparatuses impart culture and ideology through the internalization of authority. Though the main character’s torture at the hands of his former friend is primarily meant as a demonstration of true discipline and contrition for the other Vietnamese officials, he is also being taught a doubles lesson in the value of freedom above all else. The main character comes out of the process able to recognize that capitalist, colonialist, and communist enterprises all aim to direct the individual through operations of power and desire, and that this power relationship makes them fundamentally similar (375-376).

This recognition of power’s operation both within and between individuals seems to be the end goal of such artful depictions of character as subject-formation. In Fun Home we see it in the difference between Alson’s father’s depiction as a towering figure on page 197 that seems to echo Locke’s imperative that authority grows from awe and how his conversation with Alison on pages 220-221 is depicted. Over the course of this extensively drawn out conversation, Alison’s facial expression relaxes as they approach a place of mutual understanding and it ceases to be clear which is playing the role of the father. This moment of recognition fits Ahmed’s description aptly; “The recognition of willfulness can become part of a shared feminist inheritance that is between texts and between characters, as well as a point of connection between fictional feminists and feminists who read fiction” (249). Moments like this  illustrate crucial moments of mutual recognition to impell the reader to likewise recognize the machinations of authority and desire in their own lives.

Ultimately, as Ahmed suggests, characterization is a tool of attribution (233). Attributing behaviors to specific influences on a person’s behavior is a necessarily fraught practice insofar as we can never know precisely what influenced a given choice or habit or how internal and external influences are balanced at a any given moment. Fiction intervenes by demonstrating how narrative is used to make sense of experiences, to parse desire and motivation in ourselves and others. Fun Home, The Sympathizer, and Eat Only When You’re Hungry all include recognitions of this as well as reversals and nullifications of authority to artfully depict the ways in which everyone’s behavior is less a matter of character and more the outgrowth of an interaction of desires which cannot be sorted into simple categories. Indeed, as Benjamin argued, the interior and external parts of our experience are inseparable; even if one does believe individuals can be said to have a certain character or fate, the two are not causal so much as they are co produced and interpreted in hindsight.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara “Willfull Parts: Problem Characters or The Problem of Character.” New Literary History, vol. 42, no. 2, 2011, pp. 231–253. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP], doi:

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

“Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority.” CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH NOVEL, by Lisa Zunshine, CAMBRIDGE UNIV PRESS, 2015, pp. 147–162.

“Fate and Character.” REFLECTIONS: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, by Walter Benjamin, MARINER BOOKS, 2018, pp. 304–311.

Hunter, Lindsay. Eat Only When You’re Hungry. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. Grove Press, 2016.