In Macroanalysis, Matt Jockers points out that computational stylistics has found it hard to grapple with “the aspects of writing that readers care most deeply about, namely plot, character, and theme” (118). He then proceeds to use topic modeling to pretty thoroughly anatomize theme in the nineteenth-century novel. One down, I guess, two to go!
But plot and character are probably harder than theme; it’s not yet clear how we would trace those patterns in thousands of volumes. So I think it may be worth flagging a very promising article by David Bamman, Brendan O’Connor, and Noah A. Smith. Computer scientists don’t often develop a new methodology that could seriously enrich criticism of literature and film. But this one deserves a look. (Hat tip to Lynn Cherny, by the way, for this lead.)
The central insight in the article is that character can be modeled grammatically. If you can use natural language processing to parse sentences, you should be able to identify what’s being said about a given character. The authors cleverly sort “what’s being said” into three questions: what does the character do, what do they suffer or undergo, and what qualities are attributed to them? The authors accordingly model character types (or “personas”) as a set of three distributions over these different domains. For instance, the ZOMBIE persona might do a lot of “eating” and “killing,” get “killed” in turn, and find himself described as “dead.”
The authors try to identify character types of this kind in a collection of 42,306 movie plot summaries extracted from Wikipedia. The model they use is a generative one, which entails assumptions that literary critics would call “structuralist.” Movies in a given genre have a tendency to rely on certain recurring character types. Those character types in turn “generate” the specific characters in a given story, which in turn generate the actions and attributes described in the plot summary.
Using this model, they reason inward from both ends of the process. On the one hand, we know the genres that particular movies belong to. On the other hand, we can see that certain actions and attributes tend to recur together in plot summaries. Can we infer the missing link in this process — the latent character types (“personas”) that mediate the connection from genre to action?
It’s a very thoughtful model, both mathematically and critically. Does it work? Different disciplines will judge success in different ways. Computer scientists tend to want to validate a model against some kind of ground truth; in this case they test it against character patterns described by fans on TV Tropes. Film critics may be less interested in validating the model than in seeing whether it tells them anything new about character. And I think the model may actually have some new things to reveal; among other things, it suggests that the vocabulary used to describe character is strongly coded by genre. In certain genres, characters “flirt,” in others, they “switch” or “are switched.” In some genres, characters merely “defeat” each other; in other genres, they “decapitate” or “are decapitated”!
Since an association with genre is built into the generative assumptions that define the article’s model of character, this might be a predetermined result. But it also raises a hugely interesting question, and there’s lots of room for experimentation here. If the authors’ model of character is too structuralist for your taste, you’re free to sketch a different one and give it a try! Or, if you’re skeptical about our ability to fully “model” character, you could refuse to frame a generative model at all, and just use clustering algorithms in an ad hoc exploratory way to find clues.
Critics will probably also cavil about the dataset (which the authors have generously made available). Do Wikipedia plot summaries tell us about recurring character patterns in film, or do they tell us about the character patterns that are most readily recognized by editors of Wikipedia?
But I think it would be a mistake to cavil. When computer scientists hand you a new tool, the question to ask is not, “Have they used it yet to write innovative criticism?” The question to ask is, “Could we use this?” And clearly, we could.
The approach embodied in this article could be enormously valuable: it could help distant reading move beyond broad stylistic questions and start to grapple with the explicit social content of fiction (and for that matter, nonfiction, which may also rely on implicit schemas of character, as the authors shrewdly point out). Ideally, we would not only map the assumptions about character that typify a given period, but describe how those patterns have changed across time.
Making that work will not be simple: as always, the real problem is the messiness of the data. Applying this technique to actual fictive texts will be a lot harder than applying it to a plot summary. Character names are often left implicit. Many different voices speak; they’re not all equally reliable. And so on.
But the Wordseer Project at Berkeley has begun to address some of these problems. Also, it’s possible that the solution is to scale up instead of sweating the details of coreference resolution: an error rate of 20 or 30% might not matter very much, if you’re looking at strongly marked patterns in a corpus of 40,000 novels.
In any case, this seems to me an exciting lead, worthy of further exploration.
Postscript: Just to illustrate some of the questions that come up: How gendered are character types? The article by Bamman et. al. explicitly models gender as a variable, but the types it ends up identifying are less gender-segregated than I might expect. The heroes and heroines of romantic comedy, for instance, seem to be described in similar ways. Would this also be true in nineteenth-century fiction?