“A man’s character is his fate.” Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC), On the Universe

“If the final purpose of aging is character, then character finishes life, polishes it into a more lasting image.” James Hillman

Anna Rebecca Smith

If I have felt compelled towards living life closer to the margins, seeking out what is obscure, liminal, or for more deeply understanding the nature of life – I might trace these loose threads back to childhood and the memory of my dear Great, Great Aunt Bunny. The family myth taking root early in my life, often compared my oddness to hers. Maybe another child would not have taken the myth to heart, and some may say a child should be left without a myth or vision handed down by an ancestor, but I remain grateful.

Although long since passed on, her presence fosters in me a love of life’s oddness. Through the legacy of family stories that tell of her adventurous nature, and a sustained presence through reading her letters, postcards and books, I find solace and appreciation for the courage and daring this passionate woman had. She lived a non-ordinary life, and if in some ways her image remains idealized, it has also been a healing fiction.

Aunt Bunny’s distinguishable traits are what James Hillman calls character. Her styling, from the occasional wearing of men’s clothes, living with a female companion, to her exotic collections, stand out with bold acuity in my memories. When I felt misunderstood and misfitted, it was this ancestral connection to Bunny’s oddity that kept me going, encouraging in me a lifelong curiosity to my troubled, youthful attraction to oddness.

So, what is character? How do we account for that which gives us our unique character?

medium[1]James Hillman, in his book titled, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, suggests that character is a shaping form that is part of our being, not just the psyche but the whole of who we are. Of the word character he says:

“The very word derives from kharassein, Greek for “engrave,”“sketch,” or “inscribe”; kharakter, which is both one who makes sharp incisive marks and the marks made, such as letters in a writing system.”

Hillman refers us back to a time when character was understood less as desirable traits and more as the force that forms, shapes and marks us throughout life and become more striking as we age – as evidenced in the lines of our face and in our personality. As we age we are actualising a unique image we’re born with, marked as much by the cosmology of the world at the time of our birth, as it is by inherited traits and afflictions of family and culture.

We can understand then how it is that astrologers envision the influence of the cosmos upon our nature. Our birth itself is an event compelled by all the prior events of the cosmos. Each birth an expression of the circumstances of both family and tribe and the far-reaching motion of the planets and stars. Modern science, psychology and theology narrows the understanding of birth influence to that of genetics, childhood or original sin, but those explanations can’t account for the full range, motion and depths of character, and our unique drive and expression.

Robert Fludd’s An Astrologer Casting a Horoscope 1617

Character is qualitative and keeps us a little off, never quite normal – just a type or statistic. Just as the earth wobbles, imperfectly round, eccentrically circling the sun in a not quite 360 degree revolution, the force of character compels each of us, as perfectly imperfect.

Character’s inescapable force guarantees no particular moral outcome and is both a blessing and a curse. Hillman stresses the importance of seeing aesthetics before morality; not because morality does not matter, but because it’s not enough. To look only at morality launches us into the duality of assigning values of right and wrong, tempting us to summarily dismiss the ungraspable or misunderstood nature of ourselves. An ethical evaluation of character leaves out the important truth; that all of us have faulty, frail, vulnerable, flawed, shadowy aspects to our character. The compassion that leads to love comes to us primarily through our own inescapable vulnerabilities.

“Character forces me to encounter each event in my peculiar style. It forces me to differ. I walk through life oddly. No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin.”

Failings, sufferings, afflictions can then be seen as breakdowns that lead to a loosening of the armor of idealism and perfectionist tendencies we accumulate in youth. It is through aging that character begins to gather in us a lasting expression of our place and time. What lasts and finally moves us into the realm of ancestors is an amalgamated, complex image, layered with a lifetime of becoming, that places us too in the realm of myth for all who would know us and for those who come after.

“The plots that entangle our souls and draw forth our characters are the great myths. That is why we need a sense of myth and knowledge of different myths to gain insight into our epic struggles, our misalliances, and our tragedies. Myths show the imaginative structures inside our messes, and our human characters can locate themselves against the background of the characters of myth.”

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller

All quotes except where noted, Hillman, James (2012-11-07). The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

43 thoughts on “Character

  1. I came here via Morgan Mussell. Your essay is indeed a fascinating exposition, and something I have thought about but not quite in this way – my background is in anthropology, and the life stages by which individuals in traditional societies become themselves, while at the same time meeting expectations of social responsibility within their community. These forces would appear to conflict, but actually seem to build character. Now I look back to the time when I lived in Africa, it seems to me that the people I met – from Maasai herders to scientists – were more present than we tend to be in Western Society. They were filling all the parts of themselves even if their material lives had been limited by factors such as poverty or lack of education.

    I have also experienced (a little) a close relative with dementia. In fact I made reference to her today in my post. My feeling about her disconnection from our reality was that she was inhabiting another very coherent (to her) reality that we could not reach. All captivating stuff. Thank you. I must now get a copy of James Hillman.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Tish,

      Thanks so much for visiting here and especially for leaving a note.

      I especially appreciate hearing about your experience in other cultures. I have often wondered if we in the west tend to suffer from deficiencies brought on by so much distraction and excessive use of technology.

      I also sense that we are losing our language and in turn, access to ideas.

      I agree too that we can’t be sure what’s going on with people who have dementia or other afflictions that hamper the ability to respond as we expect them to.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and hope you enjoy Hillman’s book. There’s so much more to the book than this post even begins to cover.

      Warm regards,


      1. Your comment about us losing our language is very pertinent, Debra. One of the things western cultures often misunderstand about traditional cultures is their use of metaphor. Much is written off as superstition because we think people are being literal when in fact they are providing keys to a broader apprehension of the universe and how to live as part of it. Our quick-fire language, spread by the mass media, blunts our poetry as well as an ability to think more subtly. And yes, ‘the distraction and excessive use of technology’ all make us less present.


      2. Hi Tish.
        Excellent point about understanding language as metaphor. Literalism is taught in western cultures perhaps because the culture itself has fallen into a belief in something called “reality,” which I think refers to an objective world in which there is a single truth to everything. That belief is extended into the expectation that language can and does convey truth. I’ve written a number of posts about language and metaphor in western culture. Coming to understand the limits of language and the joyful expansiveness of metaphor has been perhaps the biggest contributor to healing for me.

        I’m happy to hear that there are still other cultures that have not been gripped by our misunderstanding of language.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful post Debra and thank you for not only sharing your Great Aunt Bunny with us but your humour and your own sense of Character.. 🙂 We are all unique.. And so pleased I met you .. And you introduced me to another character whom I was not familiar with, and that was James Hillman 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this enchanting and informative article Debra. The idea of ‘character’ is one that interests me, not least of all as it is perhaps difficult to pin down precisely what it is. One knows that an individual possesses a greater or lesser degree of it, along with perhaps a measure of that equally elusive trait which we call ‘charisma’ – some loosely defined, outwardly projected personal charm – and yet what precisely ‘character’ is as something innate and indwelling remains hard to define.

    You say James Hillman suggests that distinguishable traits form character, and that it is a ‘shaping form that is part of our being, not just the psyche but the whole of who we are.’ And yet I can’t really grapple meaningfully with these words in isolation, and I am left looking for something that may be successfully instantiated within other concepts. Is character really any more than an interpretive overlay that we make upon apprehending the well-honed conditioned idiosyncrasies of others, all of which perhaps, as you say, ‘become more striking’ as we age?

    A little thought experiment: If I know of someone who supposedly possesses character in abundance, and if they then undergo some misfortune in which their face is disfigured, they lose sight and their speech becomes heavily impaired, is their former character still apprehended by me in equal measure? One might say that it does if I am already familiar with the person, though I suspect my actual apprehending suggests to me that something has been lost. Also, I wonder if any new acquaintances of this unfortunate soul will detect with such ease what they may formerly have done? Can any putative innate and indwelling ‘character’ now find extrinsic expression?

    I am afraid I am being something of a pedant and devil’s advocate here Debra, and I appreciate that one can’t always take the explanatory templates of experience and subject them to any dry, objective analysis. It is quite fair enough to speak in terms of our ‘self’, our ‘soul’ and our ‘personality’, and yet whilst such word symbols can of course deepen understanding, they may not in actuality have any referents. I do not mean to suggest that ‘character’ falls into this category necessarily, though I remain open to the possibility that it may do.

    With all best wishes and thanks to you dear Debra.

    Hariod. ❤


    1. Dear Hariod,

      You ask some inspiring questions. I hope I can offer up some further thoughts here on the idea of character that are satisfying to you.

      “Is character really any more than an interpretive overlay that we make upon apprehending the well-honed conditioned idiosyncrasies of others, all of which perhaps, as you say, ‘become more striking’ as we age?”

      To this I would say that how each of us understand and define character is, as you suggest, limited by our subjective insights into the idea of character. But, therein lies the heart of Hillman’s approach. The book is his attempt to deepen and expand the notion of character by drawing from many sources, both cultural and literary, to see character more deeply particularly in light of aging. So the notion, first of all, is not static. We don’t have character, but show character more and more deeply and clearly as we move through life.

      As to the question of will wounds and afflictions keep character from revealing a truer nature that disfiguring of the physical might conceal, I can only say again, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I recently had the opportunity to listen to R.J. Mitte, the actor, give the key note address at a non-profit conference that I attended. R.J., afflicted with cerebral palsy, clearly has a speech impediment and some restricted mobility on the left side of his body. He had the audience in tears after hearing his story of struggle with his disease and the help he received from the Shriners Foundation from the age of 3 on. He speaks for this charity regularly and is a very good spokesman for them. His character clearly comes through his affliction. There is no stopping character.

      Again, what Hillman is asking us to do is to revision the idea of character not as something that only some people are fortunate to have, and not as something that is necessarily a moral attribute, but the image of how we are marked, how life has written our story, wounds and all, psychologically and physically and ultimately expresses our essence through the course of our life, into our heart, soul and body.

      Hillman’s final words in the book(emphasis added):

      “Can we entertain the idea that all along our earthly life has been phenomenal, a showing, a presentation? Can we imagine that at the essence of human being is an insistence upon being witnessed—by others, by gods, by the cosmos itself— and that the inner force of character cannot be concealed from this display. The image will out, and the last years put the final finish to the image.”

      Hillman, James (2012-11-07). The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life (Kindle Locations 3294-3297). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

      Warm regards,


      1. Many thanks for your thoughtful and illuminating response Debra; I appreciate receiving these further insights, which prove to me, yet again, that playing the Devil’s Advocate generally results in a deepening of understanding. I only hope that you don’t perceive my pursuance of such diabolical dialectic(!) as being too tedious a trait a mine.

        You say that ‘we don’t have character, but show character’, and so it is that it’s a kind of signalling which necessarily requires decoding; it’s effectively a mode of communication that runs in co-nascence with the subjects immediate presence, whilst not presenting within their conscious awareness. I think this therefore still leaves open my original question as to whether it is innate and indwelling, something instantiated internally and independently in its own right; it sounds more rather that it is a propensity to induce a certain reaction, which gathers in power alongside experience and age – though I’ve known a few 2 year-olds who seem to posses this power!

        So, if it is indeed a signalling, then visual and audible clues must feature prominently, if not exclusively, in the reading and interpretation of that signal. Whilst I entirely accept your statement that character still transmits through affliction – it would be preposterous to suggest otherwise – I still think, therefore, that my thought experiment holds up the idea that some efficacy of the transmission may be lost, or altered, with the introduction of the affliction. Your example takes a different situation Debra, in which there is no ‘before and after’ comparison; there is no yardstick with which to measure any loss of definition in the transmission and reception of character.

        I must apologise for not being able to exchange here with the benefit of any of your understanding of Hillman’s works, and can only ask that you make allowances for what is hence my rather limited vision of the subject Debra. It feels to me as if without the rich knowledge you possess on the matter, I am left throwing ideas into the air to see which, if any, will fly.

        Many thanks once again for your time and your erudition Debra; you are a delight and a rare treasure.

        Hariod. ❤


      2. Dear Hariod,

        Thanks for your note. I thank you also for engaging with me here to a articulate a more precise understanding of what I take Hillman to mean by the force of character.

        I guess I could add more examples, Glen Campbell comes to mind along with a few personal connections that perhaps may not mean as much to you. But, I do concede that character does not always come through with a precision that guarantees that we are perceived accurately or satisfactorily. I’m not sure an absolute truth is ever possible when it comes to perceiving ourselves, let alone others. But this is not really the point is it? I take Hillman to be offering us ways in which to consider and reconsider what the idea of character means and to understand something about aging (more to the point of his book which I did not make clear in my post).

        I think that if someone is going to refuse to see the deeper layers of life by making a habit of failing to ever look closely and deeply at what others present to us, they wouldn’t see character if it slapped them in the face :), both before an affliction that hides their essence and after. Is this unfair? Yes, it is. Do people misjudge each other? Everyday.

        Character can been misperceived because of an affliction that keeps essence hidden, no doubt. But are you then suggesting that because of that possibility that deepening one’s idea of what character is is never useful? I do think there is merit to the idea that the whole of our being, inside and out does offer a deepened and more cumulative image as we age. Not only through our senses, but through intuition and attention to other ways of knowing. We could make a moral judgment about character, but there’s much more to each of us than moral observations will reveal. Hillman’s book goes to great pains to make this distinction clear. I don’t take him to suggest that we “judge a book by its cover,” as the saying goes. Quite the opposite.

        I’m inclined to think that even after someone is afflicted in a way that character cannot be articulated, that those who engage the afflicted person either understand that essence is hidden or continually misjudge. I have a friend who has worked many years as a hospice nurse. She never sees the dying in their healthy state, but would be the first one to insist that essence comes through to those who are paying attention and are receptive. Is she getting it wrong? That presupposes we have an objective idea of what is right. Here is where love lives, or when it lives in us, we see differently, we look for essence, feel compassion for the woundedness and for death near approaching.

        I have seen this myself. My mother, who suffers from dementia, is continually judged to be “completely not there,” in a way that I makes me very sad. She’s somewhere, and present to me, although in a much different way than 10 years ago. I find that what helps is to meet her where she’s at: 1950’s rock and roll music, old movies, friends and family memories. I love having conversations with her now. She is softer, less angry, and very much aware of her dependency on others. She has lots of character as I experience her, not so much though with some other people who know her.

        I’ll end with a note of wisdom from my mother in her very afflicted state:

        “The grass is always greener when you’re outside.”



      3. Thank you so much for your further response Debra, which I have read with great care.

        It wasn’t clear what the link with Glen Campbell was, so I searched and discovered that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 3 years ago. That is a disease that I have fairly extensive experience of, just as you do as a result of your mother’s same condition. If you were interested, I could recommend a wonderful book by Tom Kitwood called Dementia Reconsidered’ [subtitle ‘The Person Comes First, Rethinking Aging’] Kitwood’s work was influenced by Martin Buber, who you will have heard of. I think there are strong links with the content of Kitwood’s book, your personal situation with your mother, and what you are writing about here as regards character.

        You ask: ‘Character can been misperceived because of an affliction that keeps essence hidden, no doubt. But are you then suggesting that because of that possibility that deepening one’s idea of what character is, is never useful?’

        Not at all Debra, I am never against a deepening of understanding, and spent much of my life deepening my understanding of matters related to character – personal identity, the self-construct and so on. The thrust of my take on character here has been, as you will have noted, one of an interrelation between minds. So my position is largely as stated in my opening comment, in that its apprehending – the moment it becomes actual – is in an interpretive overlay that is made upon apprehending deeply conditioned traits and idiosyncrasies within others. It is all in the interchange and recursive feedback between two subjects, largely as Buber would have it. See the ‘philosophy’ section here:

        With all best wishes, to you Debra and for your dear mother.

        Hariod. ❤

        P.S. I loved your mother's quote. It reminded me of something my late father said when in the intermediate stages of Alzheimer's. I asked him how his memory was and he replied, without a trace of irony: ‘Actually, it’s quite good, I just can’t remember anything in the past’.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Another thought-provoking post, and very enjoyable too. And it’s not just another post on the false Nature-Nurture dichotomy, rather it underlines how we are what we are because of a mix of inherited characteristics and how we react to life experiences.

    So not as bald as Cassius’ statement in Julius Caesar, “”The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves…” The difficulty with astrology for many — well, me, perhaps — is that it smacks just a little too much of predestination (an over-simplification, I know); while the difficulty of the opposing notion of the self-made man or woman is that it assumes that we are as individuals more mutable than is usually the case.

    We are pattern-seeking organisms, we learn by analogy, our language functions through metaphors. My wife often compares one family member’s behaviour and responses to another’s (“You’re just like…” or “She’s acting just like…”) while I insist we are all (me especially!) individuals whose intentions and behaviours can’t be judged just because they might be similar to someone else’s. We are forever falling into the Nature-Nurture trap, as you can see!

    There are aspects of your Aunt Bunny’s life that chime with your character, and it’s natural that you feel affinity with her. But you are not her, and I hope you are never wholly judged by your family on the basis of any similarities.


    1. Dear Calmgrove,

      Thanks for visiting here and for the lovely note.

      Yes, you hit on something in my post that is very important to me too. There are many ways to understand ideas and situations in our human experience. I love reading Hillman because he had such a keen sense of that.

      Yes, although memories of my Aunt are dear to me, I am clearly not her. Exploring the ways in which I know myself to be different was very key for me to lessen the need to compare myself to anyone. The question doesn’t even interest me as much as it does to try to be open to each person as they present themselves, and each idea and situation as well.


      Liked by 1 person

  5. Don

    I think every family has an Aunt Bunny. Like yours Debra mine certainly was odd, but marvellous in his oddity. The stories around him, even though they’ve taken on a bit of mythological dimension, inspire me to this day.

    “…the force of character compels each of us, as perfectly imperfect.” I just love this phrase and I must say that I agree wholeheartedly with Hillman in his description of the relationship between morality and aesthetics. Thanks again for a wonderful post.


  6. Hi Debra,

    I really appreciated reading. Thanks! I love a striking personality, especially one with the depth of spirit. I’m impressed. Long live Great, Great Aunt Bunny!

    Thinking about etymology, I believe that a similar word root with ‘weird’ used to be ‘spiritual.’ In fact, I just looked it up now after writing my previous sentence.

    I discovered that the word ‘weird’ is based on the Old English word, ‘wyrd’ and meant, “the power to control destiny.” Shouldn’t everyone be given that opportunity? To be weird. Even the astrologers can’t overpower the divine order of self-determination, in my opinion.

    I love the photo of Aunt Bunny and image of the astrological consultation. I prefer the word consultation to horoscope. I shared that “fact” with my husband just now and he chimed in, “because that would be less horr-ific.” 🙂

    Love, Ka & Company


    1. Dear Ka,
      Thank you for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed this one. Interesting etymology of weird and funny how it has come to be used in a chiding manner. Perhaps weird is something like what the alchemists (which Jung was fond of quoting) meant by an Opus Contra Naturam?

      Yes, I suppose horoscope sounds a bit like “horror-scope,” yes? Ha ha!

      Much love,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Debra,

        Yes, Opus Contra Naturam, perhaps. “What nature left imperfect, the art perfects.” Also, to quote from Dennis Klocek on his blog which I briefly visited this morning in order to be sure I understood the context of this latin phrase. He calls his blog “New Alchemy” by the way.

        “In order to fertilize and bring the “I” to birth, the student must develop capacities which go against the natural or instinctual patterning in the body of flesh and in the psychological patterning of the personality. This is the work against nature.”

        To think I learned about about the “Great Work” from a repeating tarot card from my deck back in 1998; deck is called Tarot of the Spirit. I’m still completely open to understanding exactly what that means. 🙂 I defined it for myself intuitively, and by dancing through diverse esoteric literature—> which I admire your primary *focus* on Hillman. One must go deeply, indeed.

        Grateful for the feeling of camaraderie I get from visiting your blog.

        Yes, the joke was “Horror-scope” hehehe 😀 By the way, my favorite part about the astrological image is that the two figures are pointing outside. The desire to understand “as above so below,” or is it farcical?

        Sorry for my lengthy response, I am simply putting off other studies that I should be tending to for this one I have been tending to for quite some time. Carl Jung’s natal chart is fairly similar to my own (at least according to one account for his birth data, accuracy is required but not always verifiable) and it creeps me out–in a good way! But still…

        I’ll maybe post about that sometime on my own blog if I feel brave enough. *IF* but that probably won’t happen. He’s such a cool dude; and, I don’t want to try to claim his “coolness” for my own. To this day, I haven’t come across anyone with a chart as similar to mine. *weird*

        Herein are my etchings; I allowed myself to ramble. I’m thinking of Leonard Cohen’s famous quote, “There is a crack in everything.That’s how the light gets in.”

        With gratitude,

        xoxo, Ka

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Debra, I loved this sentence: “The compassion that leads to love comes to us primarily through our own inescapable vulnerabilities.”

    The connection that James Hillman found between myths, archetypal figures of myth, and the drawing forth of our character through our epic struggles, is certainly something I find through astrology. It is amazing to me how this can be found not just in myths associated with planets such as Mercury, but also in all the myriad asteroids.

    with gratitude,


    1. Dear Gray,
      Thanks for reading here and leaving a note. I am still very much learning to think astrologically and find that I understand best through what little knowledge I have of mythology. Your posts are very enjoyable to me as I try to absorb the language and associations.

      Oh yeah, Hillman remains a primary influence for me, especially in contemplating language and the history of ideas.



  8. “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Helen Keller

    I think Helen Keller’s quote pulls it all together. Who I am at the core gets strengthened when I choose to be the bigger, kinder, gentler person. Always happy Deb to see the astro art and references as well.

    Regarding your aunt Bunny, it is such a gift that she came before you and served as a template for being authentically you.

    Your post struck me to pose this question: How many people, especially female, just pretend to be with society’s conventions regarding fashion, style and behavior deemed gender appropriate?

    I do not have anyone in my biological family that really links to me. That is partially why genealogy fascinates me so. Was there someone before me who really is kin?

    Thanks for making me think and think some more.

    xx Linda


    1. “How many people, especially female, just pretend to be with society’s conventions regarding fashion, style and behavior deemed gender appropriate?”

      Such a great question Linda!

      I have never had the grace to follow convention, lol. In my younger years it was horrible. One of the blessings of age, and maybe this is true for a lot of us, is not even blinking an eye at what people choose to do or not do with their dress and appearance. Women still to this day have severe expectations as to how they look. How many female news anchors do we see that are less than perfectly beautiful with full-on makeup and hairstyle?

      Helen Keller’s life just amazes me. How anyone could overcome such severe obstacles and go on to be such a wonderful writer is a perfect example of a well-ripened soulful character.

      I hope someday you find that link!

      Thank you for the note Linda


      Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on The First Gates and commented:
    Here is a wonderful meditation on character, both general and personal, from Debra, who shares with me a keen interest in the writings and world view of James Hillman. It makes a great companion piece to my previous post on Hillman. Thanks Debra!


  10. You know me and my amateur passion for etymology. I loved how Hillman explains the etymology of “character.” It is interesting to me that what you call “handwriting” in English is called “character of writing” (“charakter pisma”) in Polish. Thinking about this, I also reflected on the gradual phasing out of handwriting in our lives. Is there character in typing? I think it is still there – we continue etching our uniqueness on the world, impressing our unique seal of character on our surroundings.
    Thank you for inspiration, Debra. WordPress (WORD-PRESS) would be so much less IMPRESS-ive without you.


    1. You and me both Monika!

      I like the Polish reversal, it seems more accurate. Indeed, character seeps out of the cracks, there’s no stopping it, but I do miss the beauty of those cursive letters. Certainly not mine though 🙂

      Thank you for your warm words Monika. It means a lot to me.



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