is the representation
of a person
in a narrative
dramatic work of art
(such as a novel
, or film
from the ancient Greek
(χαρακτήρ) through its Latin transcription
, the earliest use in English, in this sense,
dates from the Restoration
although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones
1749. From this, the sense of "a part played by an actor
" developed. Character, particularly when enacted
by an actor in the theatre
, involves "the illusion of being a human
person." Since the end of the 18th century, the phrase "in character
" has been used to describe an
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
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
that it forms with the other characters. The relation between
characters and the action of the story shifts historically, often
shifts in society and its ideas about
, and the social order
Classical analysis of character
In the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory
(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
defines the six qualitative elements of tragedy as "" (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); ethos
or, equivalently, its plural ethe
- is not a matter of
individuality or of intention, but of "generic qualities." He
defines character as "Character is that which reveals choice
], 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. Aristotle argues for the primacy of plot
) over character (ethos
). He writes:
In the Tractatus
(which may or may not be by Aristotle),
is defined as involving three
types of characters: the buffoon
), the ironist
or boaster (alazôn
). All three are central to Aristophanes
' "Old comedy
Character was used to define dramatic genre
this is attested in the works of the Roman playwright Plautus, 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
. Like much
, it is probably translated
from an earlier Greek original, most commonly held to be Philemon
's Long Night
, or Rhinthon
, both now
- 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
- Aston and Savona (1991, 34) and Harrison (1998, 51); see also:
OED "character" sense 17.a citing, inter alia,
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..."
- Harrison (1998, 51).
- Pavis (1998, 47).
- 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)
- All quotations from Aristotle translated W. H. Fyfe,
Loeb Classical Library, 1923, as
reproduced by Project Perseus.
- Janko (1987, 9, 84)
- Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle's Poetics, p. 151.
- 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).
- Aston and Savona (1991, 34) and Janko (1987, 8).
- 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
- Goring, Rosemary, ed. 1994. Larousse Dictionary of Literary
Characters. Edinburgh and New York: Larousse. ISBN
- 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.