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Fictional character
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Fictional character

A fictional character is any person who appears in a work of fiction. More accurately, a fictional character is the person or conscious entity we imagine to exist within the world of such a work. In addition to people, characters can be aliens, animals, gods or, occasionally, inanimate objects. Characters are almost always at the center of fictional texts, especially novels and plays. It is, in fact, hard to imagine a novel or play without characters, though such texts have been attempted (James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is one of the most famous examples). In poetry, there is almost always some sort of person present, but often only in the form of a narrator or an imagined listener.

Critics distinguish between "round characters" and "flat characters." The former are made up of many personality traits and tend to be complex and both more life-like and believable, while the latter consist of only a few personality traits and tend to be simple and less believable. The protagonist (main character, sometimes known as the "hero" or the "heroine") of a novel is certain to be a round character; a minor, supporting character in the same novel may be a flat character. Scarlett O'Hara, of "Gone With the Wind," is a good example of a round character, whereas her servant Prissy exemplifies the flat character. Likewise, many antagonists (characters in conflict with protagonists, sometimes known as "villains") are round characters. An example of an antagonist who is a round character is Rhett Butler.

A number of stereotypical characters have developed throughout the history of drama. Some of these characters include the country bumpkin, the con artist, and the city slicker.

In various forms of theater, performance arts and cinema (except for animation and CGI movies), fictional characters are performed by actors, dancers andsingers. In animations and puppetry, they are voiced by voice actors, though there have been several examples, particularly, in machinima, where characters are voiced by computer generated voices.

Table of contents
1 Names of Characters
2 Some ways of reading characters
3 Some unusual uses of characters
4 Famous fictional characters
5 Lists of fictional characters
6 See also:

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.

The 19th century movements of sentimentalism, realism and naturalism all encouraged readers to imagine characters as real people by giving them realistic names, names that were often the titles of books, such as Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens' David Copperfield. These conventions were followed by the majority of subsequent literature, including most contemporary literature.

However, there are few characters with names that are completely arbitrary. At the very least, names tend to indicate nationality and status. Often, the literal meaning or origin of a name is of some symbolic importance.

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.

Here are some typical ways of reading fictional characters in literary criticism:

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 us a way to act out psychological dramas of our 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 emblematizing every child's fantasy of murdering 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, having rejuvenated psychoanalytic criticism by giving it a political spin.

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. Some other famous characters have been read as symbolizing capitalist greed (See F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), democratic ideals (Luke Skywalker), or quixotic romanticism (El Quijote).

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. Dagny Targett and other characters from Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand are seen as representative of American's hard-nosed, hard-working class.

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 it by making that character the protagonist of the novel rather than an anonymous villain.

Often times, readings that focus on stereotypes demand that we focus our attention on seemingly unimportant characters, such as the ubiquitous sambo characters in early cinema. Minor characters, or stock characters, are often the focus of this kind of analysis since they tend to rely more heavily on stereotypes than more central characters.

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 reallife Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and currupted 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 lifes. 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.

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.

Some unusual uses of characters

Post-modern 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 called a cameo. For instance, Woody Allen's Annie Hall has Allen's character call in Marshall McLuhan to resolve a disagreement.

In some experimental fiction, the author acts as a character within his own text. One of the earliest novels to use this trick was Niebla (Fog) by Miguel de Unamuno (1907). Paul Auster does a similar thing 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 it is 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.

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 as all often portray characters that are very alike so audiences fuse the star persona with the characters they tend to play. Being John Malkovich is one movie that explores the strange situation of characters in film.

A number of television shows make constant reference to a character who is never seen. This often becomes a sort of joke with the audience. (See unseen character). 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.

Famous fictional characters

Some fictional characters are so famous that they are often mentioned outside the context of the fictional work they come from. These characters include:

Lists of fictional characters

General lists of fictional characters

Lists of stock characters

Lists of fictional animals

Lists of fictional characters in specific works or series

See also: