A character 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." 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
- Further information: Poetics (Aristotle)
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 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 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..
Types of characters
Characters may be classified by various criteria:
- Main character
- Antagonist or villain
- Minor character
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 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.
- 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 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). 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).
- 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. pp. 36. ISBN 0822318237, 9780822318231.
- Aston, Elaine, and 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 UP. ISBN 019280118X.
- Burke, Kenneth. 1945. A Grammar of Motives. California edition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. 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, and 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 edition. New Accents Ser. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415280184. Originally published in 1980.
- 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. 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 047210537X.
- Trumble, William R, and Angus Stevenson, ed. 2002. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP. ISBN 0198605757.
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