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A character is the representation of a person in a narrative or dramatic work of art (such as a novel, play, or film).[1] Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr (χαρακτήρ) through its Latin transcription character, 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.[2] From this, the sense of "a part played by an actor" developed.[3] Character, particularly when enacted by an actor in the theatre or cinema, involves "the illusion of being a human person."[4] Since the end of the 18th century, the phrase "in character" has been used to describe an effective impersonation by an actor.[3] Since the 19th century, the art of creating characters, as practised by actors or writers, has been called characterisation.[5]

A character who stands as a representative of a particular class or group of people is known as a type.[6] Types include both stock characters and those that are more fully individualised.[6] 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.[7]

The study of a character requires an analysis of its relations with all of the other characters in the work.[8] The individual status of a character is defined through the network of oppositions (proairetic, pragmatic, linguistic, proxemic ) that it forms with the other characters.[9] 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.[10]

Classical analysis of character[]

Template:See Template:Off-topic 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).[11]. Aristotle defines the six qualitative elements of tragedy as ""[12] (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);[13] ethos - or, equivalently, its plural ethe - is not a matter of individuality or of intention, but of "generic qualities."[14] He defines character as "Character is that which reveals choice [prohairesis], 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.[15] Aristotle argues for the primacy of plot (mythos) over character (ethos).[16] He writes:

The most important of these is the arrangement of the incidents, for tragedy is not a representation of men but of a piece of action, of life, of happiness and unhappiness, which come under the head of action, and the end aimed at is the representation not of qualities of character but of some action; and while character makes men what they are, it's their actions and experiences that make them happy or the opposite. They do not therefore act to represent character, but character-study is included for the sake of the action." [17]

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).[18] All three are central to Aristophanes' "Old comedy."[19]

Character was used to define dramatic genre; this is attested in the works of the Roman playwright Plautus,[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]


  1. 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".
  2. 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..."
  3. 3.0 3.1 Harrison (1998, 51).
  4. Pavis (1998, 47).
  5. Harrison (1998, 51-52).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Baldick (2001, 265).
  7. Aston and Savona (1991, 35).
  8. Aston and Savona (1991, 41).
  9. Elam (2002, 133).
  10. Childs and Fowler (2006, 23).
  11. Janko (1987, 8)
  12. All quotations from Aristotle translated W. H. Fyfe, Loeb Classical Library, 1923, as reproduced by Project Perseus.
  13. Janko (1987, 9, 84)
  14. Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle's Poetics, p. 151.
  15. 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).
  16. Aston and Savona (1991, 34) and Janko (1987, 8).
  17. (1450a15-23), cited in a somewhat different translation in Janko (1987, 8).
  18. Carlson (1993, 23) and Janko (1987, 45, 170).
  19. Janko (1987, 170).
  20. Carlson (1993, 22).
  21. Amphritruo, line 59.
  22. 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.


  • Aston, Elaine; 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 University Press. ISBN 019280118X. 
  • Burke, Kenneth (1945). A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Ress. 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; 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 ed.). London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415280184. 
  • 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. To Act, To Do, To Perform: Drama and the Phenomenology of Action. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 047210537X. 
  • Trumble, William R; Angus Stevenson (2002). Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (5th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198605757. 

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