A character (or fictional character) is a person in a narrative work of arts (such as a novel, play, television series or film). Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr, the English word dates from the Restoration, although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones in 1749. From this, the sense of "a part played by an actor" developed. Character, particularly when enacted by an actor in the theatre or cinema, involves "the illusion of being a human person." In literature, characters guide readers through their stories, helping them to understand plots and ponder themes. Since the end of the 18th century, the phrase "in character" has been used to describe an effective impersonation by an actor. Since the 19th century, the art of creating characters, as practised by actors or writers, has been called characterisation.
A character who stands as a representative of a particular class or group of people is known as a type. Types include both stock characters and those that are more fully individualised. 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.
The study of a character requires an analysis of its relations with all of the other characters in the work. The individual status of a character is defined through the network of oppositions (proairetic, pragmatic, linguistic, proxemic) that it forms with the other characters. 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.
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). 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). He defines character as "that which reveals decision, of whatever sort" (1450b8). It is possible, therefore, to have tragedies that do not contain "characters" in Aristotle's sense of the word, since character makes the ethical dispositions of those performing the action of the story clear. Aristotle argues for the primacy of plot (mythos) over character (ethos). He writes:
|“||But the most important of these is the structure of the incidents. For (i) tragedy is a representation not of human beings but of action and life. Happiness and unhappiness lie in action, and the end [of life] is a sort of action, not a quality; people are of a certain sort according to their characters, but happy or the opposite according to their actions. So [the actors] do not act in order to represent the characters, but they include the characters for the sake of their actions" (1450a15-23).||”|
In the Poetics, Aristotle also introduced the influential tripartite division of characters in superior to the audience, inferior, or at the same level. 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). All three are central to Aristophanes' "Old comedy."
By the time the Roman playwright Plautus wrote his plays, the use of characters to define dramatic genres was well established. His Amphitryon begins with a prologue in which the speaker Mercury claims that since the play contains kings and gods, it cannot be a comedy and must be a tragicomedy. Like a lot of 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.
Types of 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. Flat characters are two-dimensional, in that they are relatively uncomplicated. By contrast, round characters are complex figures with many different characteristics and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.
Dynamic vs. static
Dynamic characters are the ones who change over the course of the story, while static characters remain the same throughout.
Creation of characters
In fiction writing, authors create dynamic characters by many methods, almost always by using their imagination. Jenna Blum in The Author at Work described three ways of creating vivid characters:
- a magic character comes into the author's head and "lives there", sometimes "dictates their story" to the author.
- a borrowed character is created by taking an emblematic quality or character trait from a real person, plugging that trait into a fictional situation, and then the author uses imagination to transform the character into a unique construct.
- a made-up character is created from the "ground up", often starting from expediency as a two-dimensional creation which the author then tries to get to know better, sometimes by adding trouble and conflict.
- Advertising character
- Breaking character
- Character actor
- Character animation
- Character arc
- Character blogging
- Character comedy
- Character dance
- Character flaw
- Character piece
- Character sketch
- Composite character
- Costumed character
- Focal character
- Gag character
- Generic character (fiction)
- Ghost character
- Non-player character
- Out of character
- Player character
- Recurring character
- Recycled character
- Secret character (video games)
- Stock character
- Supporting character
- Sympathetic character
- Unseen character
- 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".
- 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..."
- Aston and Savona (1991, 34), quotation:
[...] is first used in English to denote 'a personality in a novel or a play' in 1749 (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.).
- Harrison (1998, 51-2) quotation:
Its use as 'the sum of the qualities which constitute an individual' is a mC17 development. The modern literary and theatrical sense of 'an individual created in a fictitious work' is not attested in OED until mC18: 'Whatever characters any... have for the jestsake personated... are now thrown off' (1749, Fielding, Tom Jones).
- Pavis (1998, 47).
- Roser, Nancy; Miriam Martinez; Charles Fuhrken; Kathleen McDonnold. "Characters as Guides to Meaning". The Reading Teacher 6 (6): 548–559.
- Baldick (2001, 265).
- Aston and Savona (1991, 35).
- Aston and Savona (1991, 41).
- Elam (2002, 133).
- Childs and Fowler (2006, 23).
- Janko (1987, 8). Aristotle defines the six qualitative elements of tragedy as "plot, character, diction, reasoning, spectacle and song" (1450a10); the three objects are plot (mythos), character (ethos), and reasoning (dianoia).
- Janko (1987, 9, 84).
- Aristotle writes: "Again, without action a tragedy cannot exist, but without characters it may. For the tragedies of most recent [poets] lack character, and in general there are many such poets" (1450a24-25). See Janko (1987, 9, 86).
- Aston and Savona (1991, 34) and Janko (1987, 8).
- Janko (1987, 8).
- Gregory Michael Sifakis (2001) Aristotle on the function of tragic poetry p.50
- Aristotle, Poetics 1448a
- Carlson (1993, 23) and Janko (1987, 45, 170).
- Janko (1987, 170).
- Carlson (1993, 22).
- Amphritruo, line 59.
- 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.
- Hoffman, Michael J; Patrick D. Murphy. Essentials of the theory of fiction (2 ed.). Duke University Press, 1996. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8223-1823-1.
- Forster, E.M. (1927). Aspects of the Novel.
- Jenna Blum, 2013, The Modern Scholar published by Recorded Books, The Author at Work: The Art of Writing Fiction, Disk 1, Tracks 4-10, ISBN 978-1-4703-8437-1, "...There are three kinds of characters ... There is the magic character who just comes to you; the borrowed character who you borrow from real life; and the made-up character ..."
- Aston, Elaine, and George Savona. 1991. Theatre as Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04932-6.
- Baldick, Chris. 2001. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP. ISBN 0-19-280118-X.
- Burke, Kenneth. 1945. A Grammar of Motives. California edition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. ISBN 0-520-01544-4.
- 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 978-0-8014-8154-3.
- Childs, Peter, and Roger Fowler. 2006. The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-34017-9.
- Elam, Keir. 2002. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. 2nd edition. New Accents Ser. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-28018-4. Originally published in 1980.
- Goring, Rosemary, ed. 1994. Larousse Dictionary of Literary Characters. Edinburgh and New York: Larousse. ISBN 0-7523-0001-6.
- Harrison, Martin. 1998. The Language of Theatre. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-87830-087-2.
- Hodgson, Terry. 1988. The Batsford Dictionary of Drama. London: Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-4694-3.
- Janko, Richard, trans. 1987. Poetics with Tractatus Coislinianus, Reconstruction of Poetics II and the Fragments of the On Poets. By Aristotle. Cambridge: Hackett. ISBN 0-87220-033-7.
- McGovern, Una, ed. 2004. Dictionary of Literary Characters. Edinburgh: Chambers. ISBN 0-550-10127-6.
- Pavis, Patrice. 1998. Dictionary of the Theatre: Terms, Concepts, and Analysis. Trans. Christine Shantz. Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto P. ISBN 0-8020-8163-0.
- Pringle, David. 1987. Imaginary People: A Who's Who of Modern Fictional Characters. London: Grafton. ISBN 0-246-12968-9.
- Rayner, Alice. 1994. To Act, To Do, To Perform: Drama and the Phenomenology of Action. Theater: Theory/Text/Performance Ser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-10537-X.
- Trumble, William R, and Angus Stevenson, ed. 2002. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP. ISBN 0-19-860575-7..
-  Paisley Livingston & Andrea Sauchelli, 'Philosophical Perspectives on Fictional Characters', New Literary History, 42, 2 (2011), pp. 337–60.