Fictional characters: Wikis


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A fictional character is any person, persona, identity, or entity that originated in a work of art. Along with plot, setting, theme, and style, character is considered one of the fundamental components of fiction.[1] Characters may be entirely fictional, or they may be based upon real entities, contemporary or historical. They may be human, supernatural, mythical, divine, animal, or personifications of an abstraction. Characterization Italic textis the process of creating an image of a person in fiction, complete with that person's traits, features, and motivation.[2]


Definitions and origins

A character is the representation of a person, persona, identity, or entity in a narrative or dramatic work of art (such as a novel, play, or film).[3] Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr (χαρακτήρ) through its Latin transcription character, the earliest use in English, in this sense, dates from the Restoration, although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones in 1749.[4] From this, the sense of "a part played by an actor" developed.[5] Character, particularly when enacted by an actor in the theatre or cinema, involves "the illusion of being a human person."[6] Since the end of the 18th century, the phrase "in character" has been used to describe an effective impersonation by an actor.[5] Since the 19th century, the art of creating characters, as practiced by actors or writers, has been called characterisation.[7]

A character who stands as a representative of a particular class or group of people is known as a type.[8] Types include both stock characters and those that are more fully individualised.[8] The characters in Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1891) and August Strindberg's Miss Julie (1888), for example, are representative of specific positions in the social relations of class and gender, such that the conflicts between the characters reveal ideological conflicts.[9]

The study of a character requires an analysis of its relations with all of the other characters in the work.[10] The individual status of a character is defined through the network of oppositions (proairetic, pragmatic, linguistic, proxemic ) that it forms with the other characters.[11] The relation between characters and the action of the story shifts historically, often miming shifts in society and its ideas about human individuality, self-determination, and the social order.[12]

Classical analysis of character

In the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Poetics (c. 335 BCE), the Greek philosopher Aristotle deduces that character (ethos) is one of six qualitative parts of Athenian tragedy and one of the three objects that it represents (1450a12).[13]. Aristotle defines the six qualitative elements of tragedy as ""[14] (1450a10); the three objects are plot (mythos), character (ethos), and reasoning (dianoia). He understands character not to denote a fictional person, but the quality of the person acting in the story and reacting to its situations (1450a5);[15] ethos - or, equivalently, its plural ethe - is not a matter of individuality or of intention, but of "generic qualities."[16] He defines character as "Character is that which reveals choice [prohairesis], shows what sort of thing a man chooses or avoids in circumstances where the choice is not obvious, so those speeches convey no character in which there is nothing whatever which the speaker chooses or avoids" (1450b8)/ It is possible, therefore, to have tragedies that do not contain "character" in Aristotle's sense of the word, since character makes the ethical dispositions of those performing the action of the story clear.[17] Aristotle argues for the primacy of plot (mythos) over character (ethos).[18] He writes:

The most important of these is the arrangement of the incidents, for tragedy is not a representation of men but of a piece of action, of life, of happiness and unhappiness, which come under the head of action, and the end aimed at is the representation not of qualities of character but of some action; and while character makes men what they are, it's their actions and experiences that make them happy or the opposite. They do not therefore act to represent character, but character-study is included for the sake of the action." [19]

In the Tractatus coislinianus (which may or may not be by Aristotle), comedy is defined as involving three types of characters: the buffoon (bômolochus), the ironist (eirôn) and the imposter or boaster (alazôn).[20] All three are central to Aristophanes' "Old comedy."[21]

Character was used to define dramatic genre; this is attested in the works of the Roman playwright Plautus,[22] who was almost certainly working from Greek sources. His Amphitryon begins with a prologue that discusses the play's genre—since the play contains kings and gods, the speaker Mercury claims, it can't be a comedy and must be a tragicomedy.[23] Like much Roman comedy, it is probably translated from an earlier Greek original, most commonly held to be Philemon's Long Night, or Rhinthon's Amphitryon, both now lost.[24]

Types of characters

Characters may be classified by various criteria:


Point of view

A point-of-view character is a character from whom the story is viewed and sensed. The point-of-view character may or may not also be the main character in the story. A story may have more than one point-of-view character and any number of other characters.

Round vs. flat

In his book Aspects of the novel, E. M. Forster defined two basic types of characters, their qualities, functions, and importance for the development of the novel: flat characters and round characters.[25] Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.[citation needed]

Dynamic vs. static

A dynamic character is one who, during the course of the story, changes significantly. Significant changes might include changes in insight or understanding, changes in commitment, or changes in values. Changes in circumstance, even physical circumstance, would not qualify unless they result in some change within the character's self. An example of a dynamic character is Guy Montag, the main character in the novel Fahrenheit 451.[26] In contrast, a static character does not undergo significant change, remaining basically unchanged (in understanding, commitment, values) throughout a work.[citation needed]


A character may be based upon a characterological pattern, also known as an archetype or stock character. Archetypes are sometimes modeled after mythology, legend, or folk tales and may be designed to fulfill a particular role in a story. In 1919 Carl Jung identified the first archetypes.[27] Other writers, including Joseph Campbell[28] and James Hillman, have continued the work. Some authors have reorganized the information, often blending Jungian archetypes or recognizing sub-archetypes within Jung's structure. These authors include Christopher Vogler, best known for his book The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, and Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, whose Dramatica[29] defines seven different archetypes based upon their "Action" and "Decision" characteristics.

Non-fictional characters

A nonfictional character (sometimes called a historical character) is a character that was a real-life figure, whether played by an actor or used as an actual historical figure in a work of fiction.

Amalgamated characters

An amalgamated character is one that is based on other characters. Amalgamated characters may be characters whose appearance is entirely original to that author or artist, but whose personality shows aspects of several existing people or fictional characters. Such characters may appear to have a split personality, rapidly and inexplicably shifting between character roles. }

Characters as symbols

Some characters, rather than simply being people, may stand for something larger, a given quality or abstraction. For example, some characters in Western literature have been viewed as Christ symbols. Other characters have been viewed as symbols of capitalist greed (as in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), the futility of fulfilling the American Dream, or quixotic romanticism (Don Quixote). Four of the principal characters in Lord of the Flies may symbolize elements of civilization: Ralph representing the civilizing instinct; Jack representing the savage instinct; Piggy representing the rational side of human nature; and Simon representing the spiritual.[citation needed]

A character may also be representative of a certain group of people. For example, Bigger Thomas of Native Son by Richard Wright may be viewed as representative of young black men in the 1930s, doomed to a life of poverty and exploitation.[citation needed]

Names of characters

The names of characters may have significance. In some Restoration comedies, for example, characters were given emblematic names that sound nothing like real life names: "Sir Fidget", "Mr. Pinchwife" and "Mrs. Squeamish" are examples (all from The Country Wife by William Wycherley). Sometimes a name echoes an adjective or idea, if slightly changed, to suggest qualities of a charater; for example, Mr. Murdstone of David Copperfield suggests "murder" and unpleasantness. A character's name may reference a real-world, literary, or mythological precursor; for example, calling a character in love Romeo, or naming a character who seemingly comes back from the dead Phoenix.

Some 18th and 19th century literature such as Les Misérables represent characters' names by the use of a single letter and a long dash (this convention was also used for other proper nouns, such as place names). This has the effect of suggesting that the author had a real person in mind but omitted the full name for propriety's sake. A similar technique was employed by Ian Fleming in his 20th century James Bond novels, where the real name for M, if spoken in dialogue, was always written "Adm. Sir M***".

Unusual uses

Postmodern fiction frequently incorporates real characters into fictional and even realistic surroundings. In film, the appearance of a real person as himself inside of a fictional story is a type of cameo. For instance, Woody Allen's Annie Hall has Allen's character call in Marshall McLuhan to resolve a disagreement. A prominent example of this approach is Being John Malkovich, in which the actor John Malkovich plays the character John Malkovich (though the real actor and the character have different middle names).

In some experimental fiction, the author acts as a character within his own text. One early example is Niebla ("Fog") by Miguel de Unamuno (1907), in which the main character visits Unamuno in his office to discuss his fate in the novel. Paul Auster also employs this device in his novel City of Glass (1985), which opens with the main character getting a phone call for Paul Auster. At first, the main character explains that the caller has reached a wrong number, but eventually he decides to pretend to be Auster and see where it leads him. In Immortality by Milan Kundera, the author references himself in a storyline seemingly separate from that of his fictional characters, but at the end of the novel, Kundera meets his own characters. Other authors who have manifested themselves within the text include Kurt Vonnegut (notably in Breakfast of Champions), Dave Sim, in his comic book series Cerebus, Alasdair Gray in Lanark: A Life in Four Books, and Stephen King in his Dark Tower series.

Some Hollywood actors are so familiar that viewers may have trouble distinquishing the real-life person from the characters they portray. In some sense, Bruce Lee is always Bruce Lee, Woody Allen is always Woody Allen, and Harrison Ford is always Harrison Ford; each often portray characters that are very alike, so audiences fuse the star persona with the characters they play, a principle explored in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero.

Some fiction and drama make constant reference to a character who is never seen. This often becomes a sort of joke with the audience. This device is the centrepoint of one of the most unusual plays of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which Godot of the title never arrives. Also, in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, there are mentions of Snicket in the dialogue of the other characters, but he never physically appears.

See also


  1. ^ Obstfeld, 2002, p. 1, 65, 115, 171.
  2. ^ Polking, 1990, p. 68-9.
  3. ^ Baldick (2001, 37) and Childs and Fowler (2006, 23). See also "character, 10b" in Trumble and Stevenson (2003, 381): "A person portrayed in a novel, a drama, etc; a part played by an actor".
  4. ^ Aston and Savona (1991, 34) and Harrison (1998, 51); see also: OED "character" sense 17.a citing, inter alia, Dryden's 1679 preface to Troilus and Cressida: "The chief character or Hero in a Tragedy ... ought in prudence to be such a man, who has so much more in him of Virtue than of Vice... If Creon had been the chief character in Œdipus..."
  5. ^ a b Harrison (1998, 51).
  6. ^ Pavis (1998, 47).
  7. ^ Harrison (1998, 51-52).
  8. ^ a b Baldick (2001, 265).
  9. ^ Aston and Savona (1991, 35).
  10. ^ Aston and Savona (1991, 41).
  11. ^ Elam (2002, 133).
  12. ^ Childs and Fowler (2006, 23).
  13. ^ Janko (1987, 8)
  14. ^ All quotations from Aristotle translated W. H. Fyfe, Loeb Classical Library, 1923, as reproduced by Project Perseus.
  15. ^ Janko (1987, 9, 84)
  16. ^ Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle's Poetics, p. 151.
  17. ^ Aristotle writes: "Moreover, you could not have a tragedy without action, but you can have one with out character-study[ethe]. Indeed the tragedies of most modern poets are without this, and, speaking generally, there are many such writers" (1450a24-25). See Janko (1987, 9, 86).
  18. ^ Aston and Savona (1991, 34) and Janko (1987, 8).
  19. ^ (1450a15-23), cited in a somewhat different translation in Janko (1987, 8).
  20. ^ Carlson (1993, 23) and Janko (1987, 45, 170).
  21. ^ Janko (1987, 170).
  22. ^ Carlson (1993, 22).
  23. ^ Amphritruo, line 59.
  24. ^ Plautus, ed. and tr. Paul Nixon, Loeb Classical Library, Vol. I, p. 1, who dates by the battle scene describing a Hellenistic battle; Amphitryon, tr. Constance Carrier, intro. in Slavitt and Bovie, ed. Plautus Vol. I; Plautus, Amphitruo, ed. David M. Christenson, pp. 49, 52. The Long Night is also attributed to Plato, the comic poet.
  25. ^ Hoffman, Michael J; Patrick D. Murphy. Essentials of the theory of fiction (2 ed.). Duke University Press, 1996. pp. 36. ISBN 0822318237, 9780822318231. 
  26. ^ Critical Concepts: "Static" and "Dynamic" Characterization
  27. ^ The Emergence of Archetypes in Present-Day Science And Its Significance for a Contemporary Philosophy of Nature by Charles Card on the Compiler Press Complete World Copyright Website,
  28. ^ Joseph Campbell Biography
  29. ^ Dramatica: A New Theory of Story by Fourth Edition, Screenplay Systems Incorporated, 2001, online @; Tenth Anniversary Edition, Write Brothers, Inc., 2004, ISBN 091897304X

Further reading

  • Aston, Elaine; George Savona (1991). Theatre as Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415049326. 
  • Baldick, Chris (2001). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019280118X. 
  • Burke, Kenneth (1945). A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Ress. ISBN 0520015444. 
  • Carlson, Marvin (1993). Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present (Expanded ed.). Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801481546. 
  • Childs, Peter; Roger Fowler (2006). The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415340179. 
  • Elam, Keir (2002). The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415280184. 
  • Goring, Rosemary, ed. 1994. Larousse Dictionary of Literary Characters. Edinburgh and New York: Larousse. ISBN 0752300016.
  • Harrison, Martin. 1998. The Language of Theatre. London: Routledge. ISBN 0878300872.
  • Hodgson, Terry. 1988. The Batsford Dictionary of Drama. London: Batsford. ISBN 0713446943.
  • Janko, Richard, trans. 1987. Poetics with Tractatus Coislinianus, Reconstruction of Poetics II and the Fragments of the On Poets. By Aristotle. Cambridge: Hackett. ISBN 0872200337.
  • McGovern, Una, ed. 2004. Dictionary of Literary Characters. Edinburgh: Chambers. ISBN 0550101276.
  • Pavis, Patrice. 1998. Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Trans. Christine Shantz. Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto P. ISBN 0802081630.
  • Pringle, David (1987). Imaginary People: A Who's Who of Modern Fictional Characters. London: Grafton. ISBN 0246129689. 
  • Rayner, Alice. To Act, To Do, To Perform: Drama and the Phenomenology of Action. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 047210537X. 
  • Trumble, William R; Angus Stevenson (2002). Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (5th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198605757. 
  • Obstfeld, Raymond (2002). Fiction First Aid: Instant Remedies for Novels, Stories and Scripts. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 158297117x. 
  • Polking, K (1990). Writing A to Z. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 0898794358. 


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