A character (or role) is the representation of a person in a narrative or dramatic work of art (such as a novel, play, or film). Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr (χαρακτήρ), 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. 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 that 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.
In the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Poetics (c. 335 BCE), the Classical 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 stories that do not contain "characters" in Aristotle's sense of the word, since character necessarily involves making the ethical dispositions of those performing the action clear. If, in speeches, the speaker "decides or avoids nothing at all", then those speeches "do not have character" (1450b9—11). 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).
Aristotle suggests that works were distinguished in the first instance according to the nature of the person who created them: "the grander people represented fine actions, i.e. those of fine persons" by producing "hymns and praise-poems", while "ordinary people represented those of inferior ones" by "composing invectives" (1448b20—1449a5). On this basis, a distinction between the individuals represented in tragedy and in comedy arose: tragedy, along with epic poetry, is "a representation of serious people" (1449b9—10), while comedy is "a representation of people who are rather inferior" (1449a32—33).
In the Tractatus coislinianus (which may or may not be by Aristotle), Ancient Greek 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 comic playwright Plautus wrote his plays two centuries later, the use of characters to define dramatic genres was well established. His Amphitryon begins with a prologue in which Mercury claims that since the play contains kings and gods, it cannot be a comedy and must be a tragicomedy.
Round vs. flat
In his book Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster defined two basic types of characters, with regard to 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 that develop, sometimes to an extent sufficient to surprise the reader.
Regular, recurring and guest
In television, a regular, main or ongoing character is a character that appears in all or a majority of episodes, or in a significant chain of episodes of the series. Regular characters may be both core and secondary ones.
A guest character is one which acts only in a few episodes or scenes. Unlike regular characters, the guest ones do not need to be carefully incorporated into the storyline with all its ramifications: they create a piece of drama and then disappear without consequences to the narrative structure, unlike core characters, for which any significant conflict must be traced during a considerable time, which is often seen as an unjustified waste of resources. There may also be a continuing or recurring guest character. Sometimes a guest character may gain popularity and turn into a regular one.
Types by role
Characters can be classified by their role in the story. Some common roles are:
- Stock character - standard, predictable background characters
- Protagonist - the hero or central character
- Antagonist - the villain
- Antihero - a protagonist without heroic qualities
- Foil (literature) - exists for contrast with the main characters. See also comic relief and sidekick.
- 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
- Mary Sue
- Non-player character
- Out of character
- Player character
- Secret character (video games)
- 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".
- 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 Oedipus..." Aston and Savona say that the word "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 says that 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)."
- Harrison (1998, 51).
- Pavis (1998, 47).
- Roser, Martinez, Fuhrken, and McDonnold (2007).
- Harrison (1998, 51-52).
- 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).
- Janko (1987, 9).
- Aston and Savona (1991, 34) and Janko (1987, 8).
- Janko (1987, 8).
- Janko (1987, 5). This distinction, Aristotle argues, arises from two causes that are natural and common to all humans—the delight taken in experiencing representations and the way in which we learn through imitation (1448b4—19); see Janko (1987, 4—5).
- Janko (1987, 6—7). Aristotle specifies that comedy does not represent all kinds of ugliness and vice, but only that which is laughable (1449a32—1449a37).
- Carlson (1993, 23) and Janko (1987, 45, 170).
- Janko (1987, 170).
- Carlson (1993, 22).
- Amphritruo, line 59.
- Hoffman and Murphy (1996, 36).
- See Forster (1927, 54-84).
- Sandler (2008, 40).
- Epstein (2006, 27–28).
- Smith (2007, 147).
- Smith (2007, 151).
- Kukoff (2006, 62).
- 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.
- Epstein, Alex. 2006. Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box. New York: Holt. 0-8050-8028-7.
- Forster, E. M. 1927. Aspects of the Novel. Ed. Oliver Stallybrass. London: Penguin, 2005. ISBN 978-0-1414-4169-6.
- 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.
- Hoffman, Michael J. and Patrick D. Murphy. 1996. Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. 2nd ed. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1823-1.
- 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.
- Kukoff, David. 2006. Vault Guide to Television Writing Careers. New York: Vault. ISBN 1-58131-371-3.
- 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.
- Roser, Nancy, Miriam Martinez, Charles Fuhrken, and Kathleen McDonnold. 2007. "Characters as Guides to Meaning." The Reading Teacher 60.6 (March): 548–559.
- Sandler, Ellen. 2008. The TV Writer's Workbook: A Creative Approach To Television Scripts. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-385-34050-2.
- Smith, Greg M. 2007. Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-71643-8.
- 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.