The standard reference in twentieth century writing on characters in literature is E.M. Forster’s division of characters into round and flat ones, elaborated in Aspects of the Novel (1927) with the same exemplary application of Cambridge method as that by which Ansell, in The Longest Journey, proves that there is a cow in the room. That is, distinctions are made, flare up in a burst of illumination, hold for an instant, are manipulated, and then retreat back to the dark. In the case of character, however, Forster is speaking in character as a novelist, and he wants to approach character as a technician: the point is that character enters narrative as a devise to be manipulated, worked on a grand scale and on a miniature one, and is ultimately in the hands of the reader, which is where the fun of the novel is. Readers, then, as well as novelists need a lesson in character, and this requires a lesson in distinguishing degrees, or types, of character. Forster relates his flat characters explicitly related to the comedy of ‘humor’ in the 17th century, and he writes that they are “sometimes called types, sometimes called caricatures” – the calling here being done by the critics. Round characters, on the other hand, have complexities that lie “under the surface”. Forster’s roundness is actually three dimensionality, and round characters have perspectival depth.
The distinction between flat and round is very much a pictorial reference, made explicit in the idea of “caricature”. In fact, in the early modern re-appearance of character, the Theophrastian ‘character’ and the Aristotelian “ethos”, which come down in two different lineages, could be and were figured under the metaphor of the sketch and the portrait. Both have different values. Both thematized character in different ways.
In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire speaks of a certain kind of croquis, or drawing, in which everything depends on the “velocity of the execution.” This velocity is not only the difference between the sketch and the finished painting – it is, transposed to the tradition we are looking at, the difference between character and ethos. The character writings, inhabiting the routines of the humors, the temperaments, up through Le Bruyare, were wedded to speed. Baudelaire, in fact, compares the painter of modern life – Guys – to La Bruyere at one point, for the combination of elements in his talent that are usually distributed among characters with different life-styles the amateur of life, the lover of forms, of sensation, of the crowd, who nevertheless possesses the art of being serious.
Baudelaire’s insight, on the threshold of modernity, can be taken backwards into the conjunctions between character and ethos that feature in the different types of literature of the early modern period in France – the play, the letter, the history, the story, the essay.