Creative Writing Tutorials

A fictional character is any person, persona, identity, or entity whose existence originates from a fictional work or performance. Such existence is presumed by those participating in the performance as audience, readers, or through other indirect means. In addition to people, characters can be aliens, animals, gods, an artificial intelligence or, occasionally, inanimate objects.

Characters are widely considered an essential element of fictional works, especially novels and plays. Nevertheless, some works have attempted to portray a story without the use of characters (James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is one of the most famous examples). Even in works that do not expressly convey the existence of characters, such as in poetry, they are presumed in the form of a narrator or an imagined listener.

In various forms of theatre, performance arts and cinema, fictional characters are portrayed by actors, dancers and singers. 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.

The process of creating and developing characters in a work of fiction is called characterization.

The opposite of a fictional character is a nonfictional character.

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 texts, on the other hand, 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. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo uses this technique. 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***

Some ways of classifying characters[]

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

Round vs. flat[]

Round characters are those characters who are most 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.

Protagonists are normally round characters, though notable exceptions (such as Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron) 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, Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Magneto of the X-Men comics and films, and Syaoran of CLAMP’s Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle.

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.

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.

Dynamic vs. static[]

A dynamic character is one who changes significantly during the course of the story. Changes considered to qualify a character as dynamic include changes in insight 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.

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, Elizabeth Bennet of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Denver of Morrison’s Beloved.

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

In contrast, a static character does not undergo significant change. Whether round or flat, their personalities remain essentially stable throughout the course of the story.

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

Some ways of reading characters[]

Readers vary enormously 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 symbolizing capitalist greed (as in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), the futility of fulfilling the American Dream, or quixotic romanticism (Don Quixote). Three of the principle 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.

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.

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.

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 they tend to rely most heavily on stereotypes.

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 nipplet.

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.

Character as words[]

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

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", 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 actor 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 included 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) and Dave Sim, in his comic book series Cerebus.

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, 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.

Icons and archetypes[]

Some fictional characters are referenced outside of the work from which they came, because they concisely express some archetype or ideal. For example, both Puck from the Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night's Dream and Bugs Bunny are manifestations of the Trickster archetype, defying normal rules of behavior.