Scholars: do you use 'who' or 'that'/'which' when referring to literary characters? 'Who' seems humanist and 'that' sounds structuralist.—
Plashing Vole (@PlashingVole) September 24, 2013
You should read Plashing Vole’s post on using ‘that’ and ‘who’ when talking and writing about literature. Does a literary character get lumbered with being a ‘that’ or can they break through to new depths and become a ‘who’?
Plashing Vole explains:
“A Whovian treats characters as real people, a Thaterite analyses them linguistically and celebrates the separation of art and what some people still refer to as ‘real life’.”
Do you have a preference? Plashing Vole prefers ‘who’ and–after brief consideration–I agree it sounds better. I also agree that it’s easier to call a wild animal ‘it’, although I do it for sake of ease and not because it’s a ‘dumb beast’. Unless I went around sexing each creature I wanted to refer to, I’d feel unhappy about giving a 50/50 chance to getting a guess of ‘he’ or ‘she’ correct.
In general English usage, here is what is printed in the Oxford A-Z of English Usage:
“It is sometimes argued that, in defining relative clauses, that should be used for non-human references, while who should be used for human references: a house that overlooks the park but the woman who lives next door. In practice, while it is true to say that who is restricted to human references, the function of that is flexible. It has been used for human and non-human references since at least the 11th century. In standard English it is interchangeable with who in this context.” – p.154 (1st ed.)
Animals are non-human, so ‘it’ seems the way to go. But for literary use? A fictitious character is not human, but does masquerade as one in the mind of the author and reader. At least, that’s the hope.
Perhaps ‘that’ is the easy way out. But when enough people are frustrated by its use, it’s not an easy way out at all. Interchangeable or not, a character that/who is real in terms of what you’re studying is operating in a complicated place.
Given all the potential trouble here, surely we could grace them as a ‘who’…