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A fictional character is any person, persona, identity, or entity which originates in a fictional work or performance. Some fictional characters are based on fact or non-fiction.


A character may be based on a particular archetype, which is a common characterological pattern like those listed below. Jungian archetypes are modeled after mythology, legend, and folk tales. For example, both Puck from the William Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night's Dream and Bugs Bunny are examples of the Jungian trickster archetype because they defy established standards of behavior. When defined by literary criticism, archetypes fulfill a particular role in a story.

Though Carl Jung, identifed the first archetypes based on story patterns in 1919,[1] authors like Joseph Campbell[2] and James Hillman continued the work he'd begun. Other 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[3] defines seven different archetypes defined by their "Action" and "Decision" characteristics:

  • Driver Characters:
    • Protagonist: "... the driver of the story: the one who forces the action." Defined by "Pursue" and "Consideration" characteristics.
      • Jungian equivalent: Hero
    • Antagonist: "... the character directly opposed to the Protagonist." "Prevent" & "Re-consideration".
    • Guardian: "... a teacher or helper who aids the Protagonist..." "Help" & "Conscience"
      • Jungian equivalent: Wise Old Man or Wise Old Woman, also sometimes referred to collectively as The Mentor
  • Passenger Characters
    • Reason: "... makes its decisions and takes action on the basis of logic..." "Control" & "Logic"
    • Emotion: "... responds with its feelings without thinking..." "Uncontrolled" & "Feeling"
    • Sidekick: "... unfailing in its loyalty and support." "Support" & "Faith".
    • Skeptic: "... doubts everything..." "Oppose" & "Disbelief"
      • Jung's Trickster archetype often overlaps here, since its purpose is to question and rebel against the established way of doing things

A single character may fulfill more than one archetypal role. A single character may also have many traits and feelings. A complex character may blend characteristics from different archetypes, just as real people embody aspects of each archetype. According to one writer/psychologist,

Though in stories the archetypes are...fragmented into individual characters, in real life each of us carries qualities of each archetype. If we didn't, we wouldn't be able to relate to characters who represent the archetypes we were missing.[4]

Names of characters[]

The names of fictional characters are often quite important. The conventions of naming have changed over time. In many Restoration comedies, for example, characters are given emblematic names that sound nothing like real life names: "Sir Fidget", "Mr. Pinchwife" and "Mrs. Squeamish" are some typical examples (all from The Country Wife by William Wycherley). 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 is 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***". It is still common to echo an adjective or idea, if slightly changed, to suggest qualities of a character; Mr. Murdstone of David Copperfield suggests "murder" and unpleasantness.

A character's name will sometimes reference a real-world, literary, or mythological precursor. This can be as simple as calling a character in love Romeo, or naming a character who seemingly comes back from the dead Phoenix.

Some ways of classifying characters[]

The following are some ways in which readers sometimes classify characters.

Round vs. flat[]

Round characters are characters who are complex and realistic; they represent a depth of personality which is imitative of life. They frequently possess both good and bad traits, and they may react unexpectedly or become entangled in their own interior conflicts. These characters have been fully developed by an author, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and are detailed enough to seem real. A round character is usually a main character, and is developed over the course of the story. A flat character is its opposite, having hardly any development whatsoever.

Protagonists are normally round characters, though notable exceptions (such as Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron[5]) exist. Antagonists are often round as well, though comedic villains may be almost farcically flat. Examples of round characters from various genres include Humbert Humbert of Nabokov's Lolita, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler of Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Vladimir Taltos of Brust's series of novels, Frodo Baggins of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Magneto of the X-Men comics and films, Syaoran of Clamp's Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, Arthur Dent of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, V of V for Vendetta, Professor Snape from Harry Potter and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

A flat character is distinguished by its lack of a realistic personality. Though the description of a flat character may be detailed and rich in defining characteristics, it falls short of the complexity associated with a round character. James Patrick Kelly describes round and flat characters in his article "You and Your Characters" (Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy) as "someone who is characterized by one or two traits. "Flat" and "round" were terms first proposed by E. M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel, and they are often misapplied by modern critics. Flat is especially corrupted when used as a synonym for cardboard; in Forster's usage, flat is not a derogatory term. Rather, it describes a character who can be summed up in a sentence. Gollum from Lord of the Rings is a wonderful character who is absolutely flat in that his character is determined by his obsession with the recovery of the ring...."

A number of stereotypical, or "stock" characters, have developed throughout the history of drama. Some of these characters include the country bumpkin, the con artist, and the city slicker. These characters are often the basis of flat characters, though elements of stock characters can be found in round characters as well. The commedia dell'arte, a form of improvisational theatre which originated in Italy, consists of performers acting as well-known stock characters in conventional situations.

Supporting characters are generally flat, as most minor roles do not require a great deal of complexity. In addition, experimental literature and postmodern fiction often intentionally make use of flat characters, even as protagonists.

In addition to people, characters may be aliens, animals,[6] gods, an artificial intelligence or, occasionally, inanimate objects.

Dynamic vs. static[]

A dynamic character is the one who changes significantly during the course of the story. Changes considered to qualify a character as dynamic include changes in sight or understanding, changes in commitment, and changes in values. Changes in circumstance, even physical circumstance, do not apply unless they result in some change within the character's self.[7]

By definition, the protagonist is nearly always a dynamic character. In coming-of-age stories in particular, the protagonist often undergoes dramatic change, transforming from innocence to experience. Examples of dynamic characters include John the Savage of Huxley's Brave New World, Jay Gatsby of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars Trilogy, Elizabeth Bennet of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Denver of Morrison’s Beloved, and Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.

Antagonists, such as Salieri of Shaffer's Amadeus, are frequently dynamic as well.

In contrast, a static character does not undergo significant change. A static character is a literary character that remains basically unchanged throughout a work. Whether round or flat, their personalities remain essentially stable throughout the course of the story. This is commonly done with secondary characters in order to let them serve as thematic or plot elements.

Supporting characters and major characters other than the protagonist are generally static, though exceptions do occur.

A non-fictional character is a character that actually exists or existed in history, though their exploits in the story may differ from their historical activities.

Some works of fiction have attempted to portray a story without the use of characters (James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is one of the most famous examples). In animations and puppetry, different aspects of a given character are rendered separately using different modalities. In animation, for example, mannerisms and behavior are rendered by animators, while voices are rendered by voice actors. In machinima, voices are sometimes rendered using speech synthesis.

Some ways of reading characters[]

Readers vary greatly in how they understand fictional characters. The most extreme ways of reading fictional characters would be to think of them exactly as real people or to think of them as purely artistic creations that have everything to do with craft and nothing to do with real life. Most styles of reading fall somewhere in between.

Character as symbol[]

In some readings, certain characters are understood to represent a given quality or abstraction. Rather than simply being people, these characters stand for something larger. Many characters in Western literature have been read as Christ symbols, for example. Other characters have been read as symbolism of capitalist greed (as in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), the futility of fulfilling the American Dream, or quixotic romanticism (Don Quixote), or even feminism (Lara Croft)[citation needed]. Four of the principal characters in Lord of the Flies can be said to symbolize elements of civilization: Ralph represents the civilizing instinct; Jack represents the savage instinct; Piggy represents the rational side of human nature; while Simon represents spiritual.

Character as representative[]

Another way of reading characters symbolically is to understand each character as a representative of a certain group of people. For example, Bigger Thomas of Native Son by Richard Wright is often seen as representative of young black men in the 1930s, doomed to a life of poverty and exploitation.[citation needed]

Many practitioners of cultural criticism and feminist criticism focus their analysis of characters on cultural stereotypes. In particular, they consider the ways in which authors rely on and/or work against stereotypes when they create their characters. Such critics, for example, would read Native Son in relation to racist stereotypes of African American men as sexually violent (especially against white women). In reading Bigger Thomas' character, one could ask in what ways Richard Wright relied on these stereotypes to create a violent African-American male character and in what ways he fought against them by making that character the protagonist of the novel rather than an anonymous villain.[citation needed]

Often, readings that focus on stereotypes focus on minor characters or stock characters, such as the ubiquitous sambo characters in early cinema, since those are the characters that tend to rely most heavily on stereotypes.[citation needed]

Characters as historical or biographical references[]

Sometimes characters obviously represent important historical figures. For example, Nazi-hunter Yakov Liebermann in The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin is often compared to real life Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and corrupted populist politician Willie Stark from All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren is often compared to Louisiana governor Huey P. Long.

Other times, authors base characters on people from their own personal lives. Glenarvon by Lady Caroline Lamb chronicles her love affair with Lord Byron, who is thinly disguised as the title character. Nicole, a destructive, mentally ill woman in Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is often seen as a fictionalized version of Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda.

Perhaps because so many people enjoy imagining characters as real people, many critics devote their time to seeking out real people on whom literary figures were likely based. Frequently authors base stories on themselves or their loved ones. Sometimes writers create composite characters based on two or more individuals.

Character as words[]

Some language- or text-oriented critics emphasize that characters are nothing more than certain conventional uses of words on a page[citation needed]: names or even just pronouns repeated throughout a text. They refer to characters as functions of the text[citation needed]. Some critics go so far as to suggest that even authors do not exist outside the texts that construct them[citation needed].

Character as patient: psychoanalytic readings[]

Psychoanalytic criticism usually treats characters as real people possessing complex psyches. Psychoanalytic critics approach literary characters as an analyst would treat a patient, searching their dreams, past, and behavior for explanations of their fictional situations.

Alternatively, some psychoanalytic critics read characters as mirrors for the audience's psychological fears and desires. Rather than representing realistic psyches then, fictional characters offer readers a way to act out psychological dramas of their own in symbolic and often hyperbolic form. The classic example of this would be Freud's reading of Oedipus (and Hamlet, for that matter) as emblematic of the Oedipus complex (a child's fantasy of killing his father to possess his mother).

This form of reading persists today in much film criticism. The feminist critic Laura Mulvey is considered a pioneer in the field. Her groundbreaking 1975 article, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema",[8] analyzed the role of the male viewer of conventional narrative cinema as fetishist, using psychoanalysis "as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form."

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, and Stephen King in his Dark Tower series.

With the rise of the "star" system in Hollywood, many famous actors are so familiar that it can be hard to limit our reading of their character to a single film. In some sense, Bruce Lee is always Bruce Lee, Woody Allen is always Woody Allen, Tom Cruise is always Tom Cruise, John Cusack is always John Cusack and Harrison Ford is always Harrison Ford; all often portray characters that are very alike, so audiences fuse the star persona with the characters they tend to play, a principle explored in the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle 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 and original plays of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in which Godot of the title never arrives.

See also[]

  • 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,
  • Joseph Campbell Biography
  • Dramatica: A New Theory of Story by Fourth Edition, Screenplay Systems Incorporated, 2001, online @ dramatica.com; Tenth Anniversary Edition, Write Brothers, Inc., 2004, ISBN 091897304X
  • A Primer on Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. by Carolyn Kaufman online at Archetype Writing: The Fiction Writers' Guide to Psychology.
  • Critical Concepts: Flat and Round Characterization
  • (see anthropomorphism)
  • Critical Concepts: "Static" and "Dynamic" Characterization
  • Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) - Laura Mulvey
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