Ladies and Gentlemen: visualising character mentions by gender in the novels

In early 2015, Adam Calhoun created a (now quite famous) series of images that visualise the punctuation from famous novels.  These rather lovely images demonstrate clearly how differently writing can be structured, particularly in regard to features like punctuation: hiding in plain sight, punctuation renders writing intelligible, but goes practically unnoticed by the reader.  (Until it goes wrong, at which point it becomes horribly visible again…)

Inspired by this post, my colleague, project investigator Derek Greene of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, decided to create something similar for a selection of our novels, making use of the character attribute data we’ve gathered for our social networks.  As “gender” is the attribute for which we have the best coverage (i.e. it’s possible in most cases to determine what sex a character is), this is the attribute we decided to map.

The images below depict of all of the mentions of characters in four of our novels; character mentions are coded red for females, blue for males, and green for characters of whose sex is not specified in the novel (for example, “the servant”).

Image by Derek Greene (http://derekgreene.com/)

phineas-finn-mention_map

oliver_twist-mention_map

portrait-mention_map

Four novels is a very small sample size to draw inferences from, but in at least three of these novels, male characters are mentioned considerably more often than female ones.  Further work needs to be conducted in order to determine whether this is a general trend among 19th century authors, or whether authors are more inclined to mention characters who correspond to their own sex.

One factor that may affect the visualisations is that the gender of the protagonist – who is almost certainly going to be mentioned most often throughout the book – is probably going to dominate the chart. While there are quite a number of important female characters in Pride and Prejudice, for example, it seems likely that a majority of the female character mentions in the top chart are associated with Elizabeth Bennet.

In addition to examining character mentions across a larger body of novels, some interesting future work might involve focusing on those novels that don’t have an obvious protagonist – for example, Sheridan Le Fanu’s The House by the Church-Yard, one of the project’s other titles – or adjusting for the sex of the protagonist by creating heatmaps of the books in which the main character has been removed.  Is it the case, for example, that romantic Mr. Phineas Finn does an unusual amount of interacting with ladies, in Trollope’s novel?  My money’s on yes…

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