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The ‘characterless’ character: Lessons from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground

March 3, 2011

…a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature.  That is my conviction of forty years.

Portrait of DostoevskyDostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a short, strange, violent novel: a piece of 19th Century Russian punk.

It’s well-known as a political and philosophical treatise and claimed as the earliest existentialist fiction.  An unnamed narrator, a retired civil servant living in isolation and inaction – an ‘underground’ life – in St Petersburg, begins thus: ‘I am a sick man…  I am a spiteful man.  I am an unattractive man.’  And it’s a ‘nasty, stinking, underground home’ that Dostoevsky describes with hot fury against the ‘literary’ world, the ‘decent’ world, and as he says, ‘whether you care to hear it or not’.  Feel the spittle on your cheek when he announces the mood of this novel:

I got to the point of feeling a sort of secret abnormal, despicable enjoyment in returning home to my corner on some disgusting Petersburg night, acutely conscious that that day I had committed a loathsome action again, that what was done could never be undone, and secretly, inwardly gnawing, gnawing at myself for it, tearing and consuming myself till at last the bitterness turned into a sort of shameful accursed sweetness, and at last – into positive real enjoyment!

But for me, it’s one of the great how-to books on creating character.

I believe Dostoevsky intended it that way, and Underground man is presented as his model.  (The character continuously talks about how ‘bookish’ he is, and not only how he’s read a lot of books.  ‘I could not speak except “like a book”,’ he says, and adds, ‘it’s hardly literature so much as a corrective punishment.’)

Dostoevsky’s motivation is clear in the Notes as he rails against conventional literature, described as dreams instead of reality, those ‘flights into the sublime and the beautiful’, ‘fantastic love … never applied to anything human in reality’.  He ponders what Underground man would look like if he were instead a conventional literary hero (‘passed satisfactorily by a lazy and fascinating transition into the sphere of art’).  He’d be ‘triumphant over everyone’ and they’d all be forced to recognize his superiority, although he’d also be humble.  He’d come in ‘for countless millions’ then immediately donate them ‘to humanity’.  While everyone adored him, he’d ‘go barefoot and hungry preaching new ideas and fighting a victorious Austerlitz [famous Napoleonic battle] against the obscurantists’.*  In other words, he’d be unrealistic and ridiculous… but also recognizable as the main character of much bad fiction.

What attributes does Dostoevsky give his ‘characterless’ character?

  • A contrary nature that can’t be pinned down to one set of motives

Underground man is a mass of contradictions:

You thirst for life and try to settle the problems of life by a logical tangle.  And how persistent, how insolent are your sallies, and at the same time what a scare you are in!  You talk nonsense and are pleased with it; you say impudent things and are in continual alarm and apologizing for them.  You declare that you are afraid of nothing and at the same time try to ingratiate yourself in our good opinion… You may, perhaps, have really suffered, but you have no respect for your own suffering.  You may have sincerity, but you have no modesty… You boast of consciousness, but you are not sure of your ground…

But what does this contrariness mean in practice?  Well, take, for example, revenge.  The ‘direct’ and ‘stupid’ person (conventional hero) ‘dashes straight for his object like an infuriated bull with its horns down’.  Underground man, however, who thinks of himself as a mouse, creates ‘so many other nastinesses in the form of doubts and questions, adds to the one question so many other unsettled questions that there inevitably works up around it a sort of fatal brew… Maybe it will begin to revenge itself, too, but, as it were, piecemeal, in trivial ways, from behind the stove, incognito, without believing either in its own right to vengeance, or in the success of its revenge, knowing that from all its efforts at revenge it will suffer a hundred times more than he on whom it revenges itself…’

So Underground man is definitely not happy, but lest you imagine that he is also evil, we’re reminded that – good or bad – everyone is full of guilty, fearful, secret thoughts.  In fact, ‘the more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.’

  • Choice – reaching beyond the rational

It goes deeper than giving a character a range of qualities.  A person is ‘not a piano-key!’  Underground man doesn’t always act to his own advantage.  More important than reason is choice:

And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one positively ought (that is my idea).  One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy… And choice, of course, the devil only know what choice.

  • A surface but also an underground

This character is a thinker, and we are privy to his inner, ‘underground’ world.  But his thoughts are not always reliable and honest.  In fact, he’s a liar and even lies to himself – even when he’s telling us so.

I swear to you, gentlemen, there is not one thing, not one word of what I have written that I really believe.  That is, I believe it, perhaps, but at the same time I feel and suspect that I am lying like a cobbler.

  • Above all, an individual human nature

Underground man is ‘a real individual body and blood’, as opposed to ‘some sort of generalized man.’  His life, according to his own view, is ‘paltry, unliterary, commonplace.’  (Unliterary = unromantic)

Okay, he’s not very nice.  So why should you try to create such a creature?

Because no one is more interesting or real.  We’re fascinated by Underground man – and woman!  We don’t like to read about nice people, we don’t believe them, unless we at least glimpse a bit of nasty underneath.  Look at the examples below.  These characters are so different, but we recognise ourselves in them – villains and heroes all.  That’s their power.  Underground man dismisses the retort, ‘Speak for yourself.’  If we’re tempted to write him off as an oddball, he warns: ‘I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what’s more, you have taken your cowardice for good sense, and have found comfort in deceiving yourselves.’  This is not a creature without character but without a definable character because it is as vast as any real human one.

Examples of ‘characterless’ characters


Raskolnikov Dostoevsky used his own instructions some years later to create the main character of Crime and Punishment, arguably one of the greatest anti-heroes in all literature.  Raskolnikov commits murder and spends most of the novel trying to work out why.

Statue of Hamlet


Hamlet Of course, Dostoevsky’s example of the revenge motive immediately calls to mind Shakespeare’s deepest role.  Underground man does not have to be ignoble.


Catherine Earnshaw The tragic centre of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  Wild and wayward, yet loyal in love even beyond the grave.


Anna Karenina Another tragic heroine.  Adores her only son then abandons him for a love affair that ends in suicide.


Victor Maskell A modern one, the subject of John Banville’s 1997 novel, The Untouchable.  He’s the classic unreliable narrator, a double agent based on the real-life spy Anthony Blunt, a cad, mean to his children, charming, a hopeless romantic.


Chip Lambert Another modern one, from Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections.  On the surface, an ordinary middle class academic failure.  Underneath/underground, a depressive, outrageously irresponsible, unjust to his parents.  Also, like the rest of the Lamberts, sad, lovable and funny, and we’re glad he has a happy ending.

How do you create this character?

Clearly not by writing a list of traits or answering a set of stock questions: What’s their favourite food?  Who do they vote for?  What was their most loved pet?  As if you’re crafting a profile on a dating site.  You simply can’t capture this character in any plan.  Well then, how?  Here’s an idea.

Write an incident – a small one – in your Underground wo/man’s life.  Start with one of the following:

  • Their voice
  • Their mood
  • An image – of something specific, tiny or off to the side.

Be very honest with yourself about what is going on.  Don’t worry if Underground wo/man isn’t.  Just let them do what they do.

* By the way, Dostoevsky was an avowed ‘obscurantist’.  He saw human doubt and confusion as immensely valuable, and this was in fact the basis of his strong religious faith.  The theme is borne out in The Brothers Karamazov.  I’m grateful to In Umbris Sancti Petri, a blog on Catholicism and philosophy, for alerting me to the following from Dostoevsky’s diary: “The dolts have ridiculed my obscurantism,’ writes Dostoevsky concerning The Brothers Karamazov, ‘and the reactionary character of my faith. These fools could not even conceive so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression…The whole book is an answer to that. You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.’


Dostoevsky, Douglas Brown

Axe murder (Raskolnikov), Jacob Enos

Hamlet, Stephen Boisvert

Catherine in Wuthering Heights, Jason Paul Smith

Anna Karenina, Cod Gabriel

The spy, Marcus S.

Jonathan Franzen, David Shankbone


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