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Characterisation in the novel: an aesthetic of the uncanny

Dublin City University. School of Communications
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  • Literature
  • Novel Writing
  • Creative Writing
  • "The Uncanny"
  • Linguistics
  • Literature
  • Philosophy
  • Psychology


The aim o f this dissertation is to devise techniques for characterisation in the novel which eschew the dominant, rational and integrated model o f subjectivity promoted in creative writing discourse. It examines the Freudian uncanny and cognate concepts of the sublime, the abject and ontological confusion which lead readers to hesitation, doubt and misrecognition in the process of ‘reading’ character. The emergence of creative writing degree programs and the popularity of guidebooks on the subject have had a modularising effect on approaches to novel writing: decomposing the process into constituent teachable parts. Within this discourse about novel writing, characterisation has become a chronically fixed element in which received models of the self, drawn from reductionist behavioural psychology, tend to dominate. The dissertation examines the grammar of this modular characterisation and the series of explicit and implicit rules of selection and transformation upon which it is based. It argues that it is necessary for the writer to disidentify with this discourse and re-examine their being-towards-others to achieve one of the primary critical or epistemological goals of the novel: exalting the wisdom of uncertainty with relation to the representation of self and other. Concepts drawn from structuralist and poststructuralist philosophy, social cognition, postmodern literary theory, cognitive science, analytical philosophy and psychology are examined for their usefulness to this creative problem o f eliciting reader reactions of hesitation, misrecognition, ontological confusion and doubt about the nature of the characters. The novel trilogies of Samuel Beckett and Paul Auster are offered as contemporary prototypes of the effect, with their non-referentiation and disorientation effects in characterisation. The “grammar of the uncanny” is then analysed with respect to two important aspects of characterisation: name and character behaviour. Commentary on the approach to characterisation in Monsters Worse to Come is also presented.

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