English, Department of


First Advisor

Stephen Ramsay

Second Advisor

Peter J Capuano

Third Advisor

Laura White

Date of this Version

Summer 6-19-2020

Document Type



Cheng, Jonathan Y. Aspects of Character: Quantitative Evidence and Fictional People. University of Nebraska, 2020.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: English (Nineteenth-Century Studies), Under the Supervision of Professors Stephen Ramsay and Peter J. Capuano. Lincoln, Nebraska, May, 2020


“Aspects of Character” uses quantitative evidence to trace new timelines in the literary history of characterization. The guiding premise of this work is that digital libraries and mathematical perspectives can shed new light on the practices used to configure fictional people. Using texts from the nineteenth to twenty-first century, this dissertation analyzes how different aspects of characters have transformed throughout history, coordinating quantitative experiments with the critical perspectives of literary scholars. This project begins by analyzing the characterization used in works of fiction that were reviewed by prestigious publications. This first experiment pushes back on a historical truism about “well-crafted” characters, investigating the degree that characters in prestigious works are distinguishable for their complex inner stories. The dissertation then turns its attention to the more social aspects of characters, analyzing the gendering of physical characterization. This experiment explores the gendered distributions of body language, providing new historical insight into debates about gender, sexuality, and body studies. The third experiment addresses a concern about quantitative methods. This last bit of research more closely attends to a subset of the analysis produced in the second experiment, examining the gendering of characters hand gestures. Literary critics have often discussed the gendered representation of characters moving through space, and this chapter shows how quantitative methods can aid these more precise observations. Throughout, I coordinate literary theories about the past with quantitative evidence, unpacking their reciprocal implications.

Advisors: Stephen Ramsay and Peter J Capuano