The sketch and the portrait: 1

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 Cambridgianly in Aspects of the Novel (1927) – that is, the distinction is made, held to the light, manipulated, and shown to be grossly workable and perhaps of some interest to the novelist, but – in terms of where the fun in literature is, the emotional affect of the narrative, the affair that one has with the text – not very useful. Forster’s flat characters are explicitly related to the character of ‘humor’ in the 17th century, and are “sometimes called types, sometimes called caricatures”. Round characters, on the other hand, have complexities that lie under the surface. Forster’s roundness is actually three dimensionality. The figures have perspectival depth.

The distinction between flat and round connects to a vocabulary that connects character to the sketch or the portrait, thereby, I think, negotiating the difference between the two thematics of character that were re-discovered in the 16th and 17th century: the Theophrastian character, and the Aristotelian ethos.

Jean Lecointe has examined the transmission of the rhetoric of ‘the person’ that takes up this second source of the early modern notion of  ethos. Aristotle introduces ethos in his Rhetoric as one of the three sources of legal argument, where character lends plausibility to the argument either that a person did something or didn’t do it, or did it excusably. Plausibility is a very important realm of social reasoning in Aristotle  - the plausible makes logic socially respectable, in as much as what is plausible is what is believed by credible, or respectable, persons. Probability, a mathematical concept, bows here to a pseudo-mathematical concept, the majority, meaning the majority of people – or rather, people who ‘count’. As Lecointre points out, ethos, which was taken up and expanded in the Roman tradition of  rhetoric, largely disappears from the rhetorical tradition in the Middle Ages in Europe, in favor of a Christian typology and an ideology of imitatio. It reappears in the rhetorical tradition with the Renaissance turn to Cicero,  especially On Invention, and the diffusion and translation of Plutarch’s Moralia and Lives.

It was at this point in the intellectual history of character that the organizing pictorial metaphoric makes its appearance. The two aspects of character divided between the sketch, or character, and the painting, or portrait.