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Dissertation Part 5: Why think of character as a narrative?

an abstract pastel painting with textures that mimic oils dispersed in water

Why should we think about character as a kind of narrative? What is the range of narratives of character that we can tell? Why do we care about narratives of character?

In this chapter, I argue that character is a kind of narrative that we tell which is constructed from a number of different elements I have already argued should matter in a good account of moral responsibility: judgments, choices, and history.

Why Narrative?

As I am arguing that character is a narrative (or at the very least narrative-like), I need to say something about what a narrative is. While narratives of character are likely distinct from traditional literary narratives, they share a number of core features. Peter Goldie’s (2012) account in The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind most clearly lays out the conception of narrative that informs how I understand narratives of character.

Per Goldie’s definition of narrative:

A narrative or story is something that can be told or narrated, or just thought through in narrative thinking. It is more than just a bare annal or chronicle or list of a sequence of events, but a representation of those events which is shaped, organized, and colored, presenting those events, and the people involved in them, from a certain perspective or perspectives, and thereby giving narrative structure—coherence, meaningfulness, and evaluative and emotional import—to what is related (2).


For narratives of character, we take a sequence of attitudes and choices, understood within context, and present those events with an evaluative and emotional import that evokes the reactive attitudes, most notably gratitude and resentment, but also the rich range of attitudes around and between them. This process is active and constructive, done in response to matters of interpersonal import.

As Goldie notes,


thinking through a narrative, and narrating a narrative publicly, are kinds of action, done for reasons, and an account of these reasons can explain why someone thought through or related this particular narrative at this particular time in this particular way (perhaps distortingly, perhaps passionately but without distortion) (150).


These narratives do not have to be intentionally and consciously constructed step-by-step nor publicly narrated. When developing narratives, “it is not as though there is first, a completed narrative, and then, second, an evaluation and emotional response to the narrative; rather, the evaluation and emotional response themselves infuse the narrative, shaping and colouring it” (11).

Even though narratives are perspectival and inextricably bound up in practical reasons, narratives can still be accurate or inaccurate, charitable or uncharitable. Goldie claims that:

A narrative can be objective in this sense: it can be appropriate, involving an appropriate evaluation of, and emotional response to, what is related. So it is possible for a narrative to be objective, albeit emotionally engaged and perspectival (155).


Finally, narratives of character do not need to reveal a consistent character trait or disposition. Sometimes they reveal deep inconsistencies or sets of conflicting attitudes that sit at the edge of what we can psychologically understand as fitting together in the same person. And not all actions and attitudes need to be fully explainable by the agent in a way that coheres—sometimes people act against their best judgment or on a whim, and they can’t give any good reason why. These features do not necessarily exclude these events from narratives of character.

A Few Examples of Narratives of Character

Narratives of character come in a wide variety of forms. They can span a single incident or a full lifetime; they might be reasonably told out of order or they may need to be told in the exact order that everything happened.

As a first example, take a single instance in which a rude customer spouts off at a service worker for no good reason. Say, for instance, that a customer repeatedly insists that she should be able to have a large party of people seated immediately on a busy night at a restaurant without a prior reservation and only escalates her behavior when she is denied. The service worker who interacts with this customer can potentially construct a narrow narrative of character based off of this single interaction, should she have sufficient reason to do so.

This kind of narrative is a circumscribed account of character that includes limited information, but the contextual details may still be enough that it’s reasonable to assume that the customer is entitled and to respond accordingly. At the same time, the limited nature of these snapshot narratives can mislead us in our interpretations. Perhaps someone is in chronic pain or having a particularly bad day. Those details might change the narrative dramatically. However, epistemic humility does not require total skepticism about whether we can tell accurate narratives in any instance. Sometimes the details are clear, even at first glance.

As a second example, take gratitude within a close friendship. One of my very close friends has repeatedly helped me reinterpret how I see myself in a more loving light. I am particularly bad at accurately and charitably assessing my own motives and actions, as I tend to over-emphasize my faults and under-emphasize my virtues. I will always be grateful for that friend’s insights, which helped me cut through the ever-present self-critical voice and dampen its influence.

This is a wider narrative of character than the first, in that it spans a larger pattern unfolding over time. It may intersect with other narratives I could tell about this friend’s character, but it can also stand on its own, depending on the context and which stories need to be told. Note, however, that in other contexts I may tell other stories about this friend’s character for other reasons. These narratives are not competing accounts; they are complimentary accounts constructed for different purposes.

As a third example, take the podcast You’re Wrong About, which tells extensive accounts of character through deep dives into the stories of people’s lives. This podcast re-tells a series of stories about the lives of maligned women in the 90s, engaging in sensitive biographical work that aimed to more accurately and charitably interpret these women’s lives.

These rich stories are almost always mixed and complex, and they tend to elicit a wide variety of evaluative and emotional reactions in us. These stories also tend to have the richest historical context and background, which is decidedly relevant for our reactions and assessments. We frequently have these very complicated relationships with other people, deeply admiring them for some features and resenting them for others. Narratives of character allow us to hold these tensions together and respond to the whole that emerges.

The preceding three cases are all stories about character told for different reasons at different times. They stand on their own grounds with their own sets of details—they do not need to be derived from some complete story of character that encompasses every potentially morally-relevant detail in a person’s life. They have not only their own sets of details but also their own interpretations that fall out of the details.

The Details We Care About

What details matter for narratives of character? What elements can be included in stories about character and moral responsibility? Something like the following list:

  • our judgments/attitudes/reasons/cares/values,

  • our choices/things we reflectively endorse,

  • our histories and present context, and

  • other aspects of what we’re like, including our social identities, personal conceptions, embodiment, etc.

This list is meant to be pluralistic. Each element in this list might be broken down into finer-grained distinctions, but we do not tend to distinguish between, say, values and reasons when telling our everyday stories of character. When we deploy the mode of character, we are trying to say something relatively holistic about real people and their complexities.

Though some element from the first or second bullet point is required and sometimes sufficient to get a narrative of character off the ground, narratives of character tend to presuppose the last two bullet points, which can dramatically change how we understand the reasons an agent recognizes or the choices they make. With regards to choices and judgments, I do not think there is a clear priority between the two—things under our direct control are not necessarily better nor more truly ours than those under our indirect control. Our choices and our judgments simply matter to us in different ways.

As I argued in Chapters 2 and 3, both our choices and our judgments (which may be non-voluntary) are necessary to capture the unfolding patterns of activity and passivity within our relationships that are commonly targeted by reactive attitudes such as resentment and gratitude. The complex interplay between what is under our indirect control and what is under our direct control can produce a number of different narrative structures that bear on how we respond to agents engaged in internal strife: Does the person find themselves with entrenched bad attitudes that they are actively working to remedy? Did they intuitively know the right thing to do and choose to do the wrong thing anyway? Are they inconsistent in their choices, only sometimes working to become a better person? Are they internally conflicted at the level of their attitudes but don’t realize it?

The third bullet point, our histories and present context, is often needed to make sense of how a pattern developed, or what information someone had access to and which actions they could have reasonably taken in a given situation. As Bernard Williams (1981) states in Moral Luck, “one’s history as an agent is a web in which anything that is the product of the will is surrounded and held up and partly formed by things that are not” (29). Our histories and context help us answer questions like: Is a son's intense reactions to his father inappropriate given their long history, in which the father has said many nasty things to the son and still fails to respect him as much as he does his other children? Is resentment a justified response to a roommate’s failure to adequately contribute to cleaning, or did a long history of enmeshment in the slighted roommate’s family prime them to become codependent in this relationship?

When it comes to our broader self-conceptions, they are as much a part of the details others might employ in a narrative about us as they are themselves a kind of interpretation that we construct for ourselves. If someone sees their flaws accurately yet lacks any desire to remedy them, we tend to respond differently to that person than to someone who hasn’t yet seen the problem.

Finally, embodiedness appears to inform all the prior elements, at least when we’re talking about the character of human beings. We often want to place this piece away from our stories about responsibility, treating conditions like being hormonal or hangry as somehow wholly separate from our responsible selves. It is unclear to me that these conditions can be so easily separated, as they frequently modify our assessments of how deeply we hold certain attitudes or why we made certain choices. Tiredness, drunkenness, and rich experiences of disability can matter for our stories of character, and not necessarily in a way that removes responsibility. See, for instance, the assessment that “he’s a mean drunk.” That appears to be a character judgment, despite the fact that the man’s drunkenness would tend to remove responsibility on many other contemporary accounts.

None of these categories can be neatly cleaved from each other, and many actively shape each other. Social identity makes up part of your present context, and the present context is already informed by history. Choices are made within a set of available reasons within a context, and all of this is mediated by embodiedness.

Interestingly, not all elements are necessary for each narrative of character—depending on practical needs, someone’s history might either be irrelevant or take center stage. The stories we tell about character are constrained by relational needs and by our practical judgment. In the process of crafting narratives of character, we make judgments about what is character-relevant and necessary for understanding the pattern or incident in question. For this reason, choosing the details to include is itself already tied up in interpretation.

Getting the Interpretation Right

Our moral interpretive language is rich and varied, including the traditional language of virtues and vices, as well as a vast range of other interpersonal patterns that we have named, such as enmeshment, gaslighting, active listening, nit-picking, etc. Our interpretations of the patterns in others’ choices and attitudes (understood within context) make use of this general language, but the details of the story help us understand how someone is cowardly or courageous, callous or kind. A pattern of codependency, for instance, may look markedly different from one relationship to the next.

Our interpretations can also involve multiple emotional and evaluative valences and be quite complex—they are often interestingly mixed. Narratives are rich structures that are perhaps more like poetry than cold, analytic philosophy; they allow for multiplicities of meaning and new interpretations. Unlike poetry, however, we can directly and clearly communicate the core evaluational and emotional content that a narrative evokes.

In constructing and interpreting a narrative, we may never say everything that there is to possibly be said about it. But we can capture the core details and importance of the story into something that we can tell and re-tell, feel and feel through again and again. For this reason, narratives are not stable and complete, nor should they be. As our relationships develop and we glean new information, the narratives we tell about character should shift and change.

Interpretations are good when they are accurate and charitable. But part of what makes an interpretation good or not is whether the right details have been included. Which details count as the right details is further determined by the practical reasons (which can be legitimate or illegitimate) behind telling this narrative of character, including the relationship, the context, the significance of the action or pattern involved, and a host of other considerations.

The specific reasons within the situation, such as an immediate need to name and understand the problem that’s causing friction in a romantic relationship, draw our attention to specific details like the fights that have occurred or the moment at which things appeared to turn sour. But these details are not fully pre-set. We may try to decide whether a particular historical fact about a partner’s childhood has any bearing on the present situation or if the irritation the partner exhibited two weeks ago was due to the ongoing conflict or something unrelated. If I am right that we are the ones who actively draw these features together into narratives, there is not some pre-determined narrative or narrative structure that we are picking up on—we are creating it ourselves.

At the same time, we can absolutely tell false narratives of character and get the interpretation wrong. In cases in which we have very limited information about the details involved, we may have a difficult time getting the right interpretation: Is this person just missing social cues? Are they maybe also an asshole? Is someone grieving a recent breakup and stuck in their own world? Or do they genuinely not care about other people as much? Is this person acting for the best interests of others like they say they are, or are they secretly motivated by their own selfish ends?

We also have tendencies to over-vilify and over-valorize individuals. If we oversimplify character into some reductive, stable disposition, we can easily flatten out the characters of others and treat them as if they were fictional villains or heroes in a way that molds all our interpretations of their character in a particular light, regardless of the details. Goldie notes that “as a result, we tend to expect too much of our heroes and too little of our villains” (169).

Though literary fiction and non-fiction can oversimplify our expectations when it comes to character, behavior, and narrative interpretation, a diet of good, nuanced, and varied narratives can improve our ability to construct good narratives of character. If we are not subtle enough with our own narrative vocabulary and ability to handle nuance, we can quickly fall into inappropriate evaluations and emotional responses.

Upshots and Next Chapter

Character is often conceived of as a set of stable dispositions or, when understood as a narrative, something that necessarily extends throughout a person’s entire life. If my view is right, it is possible to tell narratives of character that reveal a set of stable dispositions or that span a person’s life. However, narratives of character have a much broader range than these narrow definitions allow—they can be incomplete (relative to the standard of a whole life) and reveal someone to be unstable and inconsistent.

On my view, no person has a single narrative of character that attaches to them—different narratives may pick out different features for different reasons, and they may all be reasonably accurate and encompass the details needed to make sense of the particular pattern or instance of it. Nor are these narratives derived from one master narrative. Since narratives of character are told in particular contexts for particular reasons, the stories we tell at different times can pick up on different features of our lives and emphasize different aspects, depending on the needs at hand and new events that might inform how we understand the old ones.

Up Next:

In Chapter 6, I consider edge cases of responsibility and try to determine whether we can ever successfully build a taxonomy of who is responsible and who is not based on ability.

Photo Credit: Sigmund

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