Character in the Corpus: Corpus and Character


Fiction, particularly literary fiction, does not shy away from reflecting on its own practice and purpose. Yet very few texts discuss the character educating possibilities of literature in so upfront a way as Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (one of our A-level set texts), which argues that the particularly moral flavour of English literature warrants its study in educating character.

Fiction, more typically, has an ambivalent attitude towards its moral capacities for which the word character acts as a barometer. As with other terminology discussed throughout ‘Character in the Corpus’, there is overlap between terms relating to virtue and discourse practice.

Character is no different, and its use to denote ‘letter’ the basic component of written language, is attested in the earliest and latest texts set at A-Level. William Beckford’s Vathek begins with the task of deciphering characters on a magical sword.

The newest text, Ken Liu’s ‘The Paper Menagerie’, also uses character in the same way. Reading Chinese text, the only character the narrator recognises is ‘son’, and so he must ask for help in deciphering his mother’s letter.

The idea that characters are linguistic signs to be deciphered is thus both the key task of literacy and literary criticism.

Defining character

For Aristotle, it is not just in his Ethics that character is a moral concept but even informs his literary consideration of character in Poetics. Character, he sees as subservient to plot; character action is what is important. Henry James’s famous dicitum, ‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’ (1884) reinforces that the link between character and action that has continued to hold true for writers of fiction, too.

This truism echoes present-day, character education definitions that define character as ‘a set of personal traits or dispositions that produce specific moral emotions, inform motivation and guide conduct’ (Jubilee Centre, 2017: p.2) and has particular importance to virtue ethics approaches that put a focus on the moral agent rather than abstract principles. The ability to contextualise concepts in relation to specific individuals and actions is particularly beneficial to the applied approach that underpins virtue literacy. Indeed, for virtue literacy, advocates have found that using the specific language of the JCCV Framework to teach about virtue in the English Literature classroom has proven effective (e.g., Lane, 2020).

In Poetics, Aristotle describes tragedy as a genre that should have characters that act as virtuously as they can within the circumstances of the plot (Heath, 1996: xliii). But the detailing of the kind of moral reasoning that leads to virtuous action is a later invention, with the soliloquy as a dramatisation of a character’s thoughts considered a Shakespearean innovation. The externalisation of internal processes is a contributing element to the novel form.

For the character educator, they offer the kinds of text that work not simply from the external perspective of exemplars but allow this to be more specifically tied to the process of moral reasoning and reflection, to critically understand its motivation.

The access to the interior thought actually sets fictional prose apart from any other genre in its ability to allow readers into the minds of others. What the formal innovations of the prose fiction can therefore offer are different levels of virtue as they open up action to audience scrutiny the reasoning that underlies why characters act in the ways that they do that can dovetail effectively with virtue understanding and reasoning.

Character across language

An informative way to understand a word like character is to look at its actual usage. Below is a snapshot of character’s frequency across different discourse types:

Frequency of character (per million words)


Of course, not all of these use character in the same or even a moral sense. A quick way to see those instances of the moral use of character is to prefix it with good. The term good is here selected as hyponym that stands atop a semantic field that includes evaluative descriptors. Hyponyms can inform literacy practices in much the same way as synonymy and polysemy as they get learners to think about how they understand vocabulary and how that vocabulary is organised within a linguistic system (British Council and BBC, 2008).

Comparing good character with another of character’s cognates characterisation is one way to distinguish between, say, moral and literary connotations of the term. When frequency within fiction is compared, good character alone represents twice (0.38) the frequency of characterisation (0.19), offering an indication that fiction concerns itself more with moral rather than literary discussions of character.

good character16.7%10.6%7.8%21.2%3.3%30.9%9.5%

All this suggests character is being used and understood in different ways according to the type of text in which it appears.  All forms are most likely in academic discourse, which accounts for the majority of uses of characterisation, which is unsurprising accounting for its abstract noun form.

Perhaps most surprisingly, characterisation is least likely in fiction – there is biggest disconnect between the language we use to describe the text and the language of the texts themselves. Instead, fiction is a more useful source (newspapers even more so) for examples that consider character as a moral concept (also encouraging is that the concept of ‘good character’ is part of everyday conversation).

Other insights into the use of the word character may be discerned through looking at collocational relationships, that is, the company that these words keep.

Moral and character appear as collocates almost ten times more than immoral character. This makes no pronouncement that we prefer to talk and write about good character over bad (after all, these clusters may extend to bad moral character or question of moral character) because moral has a broader classifying, rather than evaluative, role. What it does suggest is that discourse is interested in the overall category of moral character, which is encouraging for practical (open-ended) approaches that include moral dilemmas and questions about the components of moral character.

Character across time

Over time, character has declined in usage both in general and fictional discourse.

The chart indicates a century-by-century oscillation between fiction and general usage of character – its use pre-1818 and in the twentieth century more prevalent in fiction than general usage. 1818 was the year in which Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were posthumously published, and in which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appeared.

To an extent, this offers linguistic evidence for Victorian fiction as distinct from its preceding and following periods in its treatment of character as compared with its treatment in general discourse. This is particularly curious as this was the century of the great Victorian character novel and cautions us that our ‘corpus’ approach cannot simply seek out key terminology.

This, as well as the fast that in the Victorian period ‘Character was viewed as a class-based concept which contained within it a judgement regarding an individual’s status as much as their good conduct’ (Arthur, 2003: p.14) illustrates the importance of class-based, structured exploration of the language. For the purposes of virtue literacy, contextualisation is therefore crucial, and hence the associated ‘touchstone’ passages situate the understanding of character in relation to specific A-level literary texts.


This contextualisation of virtue terms is also possible via the literary-critical frameworks deployed in the A-level classroom. For instance, the idea of characterisation offers a twofold overlap with virtue literacy.

Firstly, characterisation places an emphasis on the top-down and bottom-up processes involved in reading. Studying characterisation thus requires students to consider how their own real-world experience informs their understanding of the text. In this way, characterisation is not seen as a speculative, literary exercise, but one which raises all sorts of questions about how language and real-life experience interact.

Secondly, a further theoretical underpinning of characterisation is Theory of Mind, a field that studies how we assign consciousness and speculate about that consciousness to others.

As a field, it has engaged literary critics and character educators alike. In recognition of the mutual benefits to be derived from the theories and skills common to virtue literacy and literary criticism, the associated exercises therefore draw their tools from characterisation analysis to provide virtue literacy approaches that complement existing subject curricula.


Arthur, J. (2003) Education and Character; the moral economy of schooling. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

British Council/BBC (2008) ‘Hyponyms’. [online] Available at:

Heath, M. (transl.) Aristotle (1996) Poetics. London: Penguin.

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (2017) A Framework for Character Education in Schools, Birmingham: Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham.

Lane, S. (2020) ‘Using the Vocabulary Of Character Education in the Teaching of English, and Using English to Teach Character’, [online] Available at:

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