Contemporary classifications of fictional characters

History of the concept and its study. Static and developing characters. Distinguishing the flat and round characters. Protagonist and Antagonist. Types of hero bad and good points. Other classifications of characters. Ervin and his classification.

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Contemporary classifications of fictional characters




Chapter I .Character as the fundamental element of the fiction

The notion of character

History of the concept and its study

People or words

Character and action

Referring to Characters


Character and Meaning

Character Traits

Agent and Character

Chapter II .Different approaches to classify the characters

Characterization and Genre

Static and developing characters

Distinguishing the flat and round characters

Stock characters

Superficial characters

Tellable characters

Protagonist and Antagonist

The Hero

Types of hero -bad and good points

Character, action and plot

Other classifications of characters

Terry W. Ervin and his classification


character protagonist hero


What is wonderful about the great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote.

(E. M. Forster,Two Cheers for Democracy,1951)

The study of different aspect of fiction is very actual nowadays. Different approaches to the investigation of elements of literature show us the resplendence and magnitude of men' s mind. Literature is very important component which form the human culture. And the many authors share with the Reader his idea, the many approaches to study his works appear in the science of literary criticism.

All of the aspects deserve further investigation, but three problems are of particular interest in the current state of research. (a) Recent decades have seen a growing interest in the social construction of identities--national identities, gender identities, etc. Analysis of character presentation and formation plays an important part in any interpretation interested in identity construction in literature, but up to now those engaged in identity analysis have neglected narratological research on character; at the same time, narrative analysis has mostly ignored the historical case studies carried out on identity construction by specialists of cultural studies. (b) Evaluation in literary texts has been and is still a neglected field of research. There are many ways a text can influence or predetermine the evaluative stance of the reader, and much systematic and historical work in this area remains to be done. (c) The question of how a reader relates to a character can only be answered by an interdisciplinary research bringing together textual analysis and the cognitive sciences.

We put different questions and tasks in this project work to prove the importance of the further investigation of the character and its function in the fiction.

The points will be discussed in this work:

-character as the important concept in the literature;

-history of development of different points of view in literary criticism;

-the consideration over the classifications of character;

-investigation of the interconnection between character and other basis elements of fiction;

-classify by different signs.

Chapter I.Character as the fundamental element of the fiction

The notion of character

Fotis Jannidis gives such definition to the notion character:

Character is a text- or media-based figure in a storyworld, usually human or human-like.

The term character is used to refer to participants in storyworlds created by various media in contrast to persons as individuals in the real world. The status of characters is a matter of long-standing debate: can characters be treated solely as an effect created by recurrent elements in the discourse (Weinsheimer, 1979), or are they to be seen as entities created by words but distinguishable from them and calling for knowledge about human beings? Answering the latter question involves determining what kinds of knowledge are required, but also to what extent such knowledge is employed in understanding characters. Three forms of knowledge in particular are relevant for the narratological analysis of character:

the basic type, which provides a very fundamental structure for those entities which are seen as sentient beings;

character models or types such as the femme fatale or the hard-boiled detective;

encyclopedic knowledge of human beings underlying inferences which contribute to the process of characterization, i.e. a store of information ranging from everyday knowledge to genre-specific competence.

Most theoretical approaches to character seek to circumscribe reliance on real-world knowledge in some way and treat characters as entities in a storyworld subject to specific rules. One important line of thought in the anti-realistic treatment of character is the functional view. In this perspective, first established by Aristotle, characters are subordinate to or determined by the narrative action; in the 20th century, there have been attempts to describe characters in terms of a deep structure based on their roles in the plot common to all narratives.

At the discourse level, the presentation of characters shares many features with the presentation of other kinds of fictional entities. However, because of the importance of character in telling stories, these features have been discussed mainly in terms of character presentation. Among these features are the naming of characters, studied from the perspective of the function and meaning of names, and other ways of referring to characters, which contribute to the overall structural coherence of the text. Equally if not more important, however, is the process of ascribing properties to names which results in agents having these properties in the storyworld, a process known as characterization. Characterization may be direct, as when a trait is ascribed explicitly to a character, or indirect, when it is the result of inferences drawn from the text based partly on world knowledge and especially the different forms of character knowledge mentioned above. The term characterization can be used to refer to the ascription of a property to a character, but also for the overall process and result of attributing traits to a given character. The process of characterization can have different forms: e.g. a character is attributed specific traits at the beginning of a narrative, but other traits are subsequently added that may not conform to the original characterization, such subverting the first conception of this character .

Viewing characters as entities of a storyworld does not imply that they are self-contained. On the contrary, the storyworld is constructed during the process of narrative communication, and characters thus form a part of the signifying structures which motivate and determine the narrative communication. Characters also play a role in thematic, symbolic or other constellations of the text and of the storyworld.

For most readers, characters are one of the most important aspects of a narrative. How readers relate to a character is a matter of empirical analysis, but it is important to bear in mind that the way the text presents a character is highly influential on the relation between character and reader. Three factors in particular are relevant in this regard:

the transfer of perspective;

the reader's affective predisposition toward the characteritself influenced by:

the character's emotions, whether explicitly described or implicitly conveyed;

the reader's reaction to her mental simulation of the character's position;

the expression of emotions in the presentation.

3. evaluation of characters in the text.

There has always been a need to categorize characters in order to facilitate description and analysis. However, most proposals seem to be either too complex or theoretically unsatisfying, so that Forster's classification into flat vs. round characters continues to be widely used. No one has succeeded in constructing a complete and coherent theory of character. This difficulty, one suspects, is largely due to the human aspect of characterisation. By definition, the word character designates a human or human-like individual, and as such, the concept is less amenable to a formulaic or mechanical approach.

The difficulty in arriving at a complete and coherent theory of character or characterization is thus connected to the equivocation of the term character with regard to

its relationship to human beings;

the question of whether it exists only within the text ,or have a relationship with entities outside the text.

These considerations can be described as ontological, as they touch on the origins of characters. The uncertainty in the ontology of characters may affect one's methodology in character analysis: should characters, for example, be compared with actual human beings, or should we restrict ourselves to the text, and not bother about the comparison? In this regard, we have an author like William H. Gass, who is of the view that stories and the people in them are made of words (Leitch,1986).On the other hand, a prominent tendency in pre-20th century research on character attempts to look for prior reasons for a character's behaviour, even if these reasons are not found in the story itself.

Conceptions of character may also change through history. Notions of characterization may not even exist in certain periods in the development of literary criticism. The conception of character as we know it today, for example, did not exist in Aristotle. However, whether character or characterisation exist at all in Aristotle is a moot point, with some scholars arguing that the conception of character exist in his Poetics, but it is not as important as plot. In more recent years, the `death of character' has been proclaimed by, for example, Jonathan Cullerin his Structuralist Poetics (1975: 230): to Culler, the notion of character is a myth.

But in spite of the problems or negative tendencies noted above, the concept of character cannot be neglected in narrative analysis.

Characterization continues to be important in certain genres of narrative, especially with regard to certain types of fiction, such as realistic fiction, and in relation to the evaluation of narrative . With reference to the second point above, W.J. Harvey (1986), for example, has noted that `most great novels exist to reveal and explore character' (1965).

History of the concept and its study

Until recently, there was nothing like a coherent field of research for the concept of character, but only a loose set of notions related to it touching on such issues as the ontological status of characters, the kind of knowledge necessary to understand characters, the relation between character and action, the naming of characters, characterization as process and result, the relation of the reader to a character centering around the notions of identification and empathy, etc. The situation has changed over the past ten or fifteen years thanks to a series of monographs on character by Culpeper (2001), Eder (2008), Jannidis (2004), Koch (1992), Palmer (2004), and Schneider (2001), all of which are indebted to the ground-breaking work done by Margolin in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of these studies draw on the cognitive sciences and their models of text processing and perception of persons (Cognitive Narratology). However, even though there is now a consensus on some aspects of character in narrative, many other aspects continue to be treated disparately.

People or words

Characters have long been regarded as fictive people. To understand characters, readers tend to resort to their knowledge about real people. In this framework, an anthropological, biological or psychological theory of persons can also be used in character analysis, as in Freud's analysis of Hamlet where he claims I have here translated into consciousness what had to remain unconscious in the mind of the hero (Freud, 1950).

Another school of thought pictured character as mere words or a paradigm of traits described by words. A well-known example of this approach is Barthes's (1970) in which one of the codes, voices, substitutes for person, understood as the web of semes attached to a proper name. In this view, a character is not to be taken for anything like a person, yet on closer examination these semes correspond to traditional character traits. Although he differs from Barthes in many regards, Lotman (1970), in a similar vein, describes character as a sum of all binary oppositions to the other characters in a text which, together, constitute a paradigm. A character thus forms part of a constellation of characters who either share a set of common traits (parallels) or represent opposing traits (contrasts).

This was not the first attack against a mimetic understanding of character during the last century, a comparable approach to character having already been advocated by the New Criticism. Wellek & Warren (1949) claimed that a character consists only of the words by which it is described or into whose mouth they are put by the author. Knights (1933) had earlier ridiculed the tendency in British criticism to treat character presentations like the representations of people with the question How many Children had Lady Macbeth? Despite this criticism, the reduction of characters to words was not convincing, for it posed many practical problems in literary criticism and also seemed to some critics unsatisfactory for theoretical reasons. Hochman (1985), for example, defended the idea of character as human-like against structuralist and post-structuralist conceptions with moral and aesthetic arguments.

Given this situation, the series of essays by Margolin, by combining elements of structuralism, reception theory and the theory of fictional worlds, proved to be a breakthrough. For Margolin (1983), characters are first and foremost elements of the constructed narrative world: character, he claims, is a general semiotic element, independent of any particular verbal expression and ontologically different from it (7). He further points out that characters can have various modes of existence in storyworlds: they can be factual, counterfactual, hypothetical, conditional, or purely subjective (1995). Also taken up are questions such as how characters come into existence and what constitutes their identity (Identity and Narration), especially in storyworlds as a transtextual concept.

Philosophers, especially those with roots in analytical philosophy, have discussed the special ontological status of character under the label of incompleteness of characters. Unlike persons who exist in the real world and are complete, we can speak meaningfully only about those aspects of characters which have been described in the text or which are implied by it. Consequently, descriptions of characters have gaps, and often the missing information cannot be inferred from the given information. In contrast to the description of real persons in which a gap may appear even though it is assumed that the person is complete, characters have gaps if the description does not supply the necessary information (Eaton 1976; Crittenden 1982; Lamarque 2003).

Even though there is currently a broad consensus that character can best be described as an entity forming part of the storyworld, the ontological status of this world and its entities remains unclear. Narratological theory presently offers three approaches to addressing this problem: drawing on the theory of possible worlds, the storyworld is seen as an independent realm created by the text (Margolin,1990); from the perspective of cognitive theories of the reading process, character is seen as a mental model created by an empirical reader (Schneider, 2001); from the perspective of the neo-hermeneutical theory of literary communication, the text is an intentional object and character is a mental model created by an hypothetical historical model reader. This approach incorporates a number of insights into text processing, but focuses on the text (Jannidis, 2004). The main differences between these approaches lie in how the presentation of character is described and in the use of principles borrowed from the cognitive sciences.

Character and action

One of the oldest theoretical statements on character reflects on the relation of character and action: for tragedy is not a representation of men but of a piece of action[]. Moreover, you could not have a tragedy without action, but you can have one without character-study (Aristotle, 1932). What Aristotle said in relation to tragedy became the origin of a school of thought which claims that in order to understand a character in a fictional text, one need only to analyze its role in the action. This approach was put on a new foundation by Propp (1928) in a ground-breaking corpus study of the Russian folktale. In analyzing a hundred Russian fairy tales, he constructed a sequence of 31 functions which he attributed to seven areas of action or types of character: opponent; donor; helper; princess and her father; dispatcher; hero; false hero. Greimas (1966) generalized this approach with his actant model in which all narrative characters are regarded as expressions of an underlying narrative grammar composed of six actants ordered into pairs: the hero (also sujet) and his search for an object; the sender and the receiver; the hero's helper and the opponent. Each actant is not necessarily realized in one single character, since one character may perform more than one role, and one role may be distributed among several characters. Schank's concept of story skeletons also starts from the idea that stories have an underlying structure, but in his model there are many such structures and therefore many different roles for actors, e.g. the story of a divorce using the story skeleton betrayal with the two actors: the betrayer and the betrayed (Schank, 1995).

Campbell (1949) described in an influential work what he called, using a term coined by James Joyce, the monomyth, which is an abstraction of numerous mythological and religious stories marking the stages of the hero's way: separation/departure; the trials and victories of initiation; return and reintegration into society (Campbell, 1949). According to Campbell, who bases his argument on Freud's and especially on Jung's form of psychoanalysis, the monomyth is universal and can be found in stories, myths, and legends all over the world. In contrast to these generalized model-oriented approaches, traditional approaches tend to employ a genre- and period-specific vocabulary for action roles such as confidant and intriguer in traditional drama, or villain, sidekick, and henchman in the popular media of the 20th century.

Most of the common labels for character in use refer to the role a character has in action. Protagonist, in use since Greek antiquity, refers to the main character of a narrative or a play, and antagonist to its main opponent. In contrast to these neutral labels, the term hero refers to a positive figure, usually in some kind of representative story. In modern high-culture narratives, there is more often an anti-hero or no single protagonist at all, but a constellation of characters (Trhler, 2007).

Referring to Characters

Referring to characters in texts occurs with the use of proper names, definite descriptions and personal pronouns (Margolin, 1995). In addition to these direct references, indirect evocations can be found: the untagged rendering of direct speech, the description of actions (e.g. a hand grabbed) or use of the passive voice (the window was opened). The role of names in interpreting characters has been treated repeatedly, resulting in different ways of classifying name usage (e.g. Lamping, 1983; Birus,1987).

Narratives can be viewed as a succession of scenes or situative frames, only one of which is active at any given moment. An active situative frame may contain numerous characters, but only some of them will be focused on by being explicitly referred to in the corresponding stretch of text. The first active frame in which a character occurs and is explicitly referred to constitutes its introduction. After being introduced, a character may drop out of sight, not be referred to for several succeeding active frames, and then reappear. In general, whenever a character is encountered in an active frame, it is to be determined whether this is its first occurrence or whether it has already been introduced in an earlier active frame and is reappearing at a particular point. Determining that a character in the current active scene has already appeared in an earlier one is termed identification. A distinction is to be made between normal, false, impeded, and deferred identifications. A false identification occurs when a previously mentioned character is identified but it then becomes clear later that some other character was in fact being referred to. An impeded identification does not refer unequivocally to any specific character, and a clear reference to the character or characters is never given in the text, while in the case of deferred identification the reader is ultimately able to establish the identity of an equivocally presented character. Deferred identification can further be broken down into an overt form in which the reader knows that he is kept in the dark and a covert form (Jannidis, 2004: chap. 4 & 6, based on Emmott, 1997).


Characterization can be described as ascribing information to an agent in the text so as to provide a character in the storyworld with a certain property or properties, a process often referred to as ascribing a property to a character. In the 19th century, critics spoke of the difference between direct and indirect characterization and of the preference of contemporary writers and readers for the latter (Scherer, 1977). Until recently, characterization was understood as the text ascribing psychological or social traits to a character (e.g. Chatman, 1978), but in fact texts ascribe all manner of properties to characters, including physiological and locative (space-time location) properties. Yet some textually explicit ascriptions of properties to a character may turn out to be invalid, as when this information is attributable to an unreliable narrator or to a fellow-character (Narrator). Moreover, a textual ascription may turn out to be hypothetical or purely subjective. There are also texts and styles of writing (e.g. the psychological novel) which tend to avoid any explicit statements of characterization. The crucial issue in the process of characterization is thus what information, especially of a psychological nature, a reader is able to associate with any character as a member of the storyworld and where this information comes from. There are at least three sources of such information: (a) textually explicit ascription of properties to a character; (b) inferences that can be drawn from textual cues (e.g. she smiled nervously); (c) inferences based on information which is not associated with the character by the text itself but through reference to historically and culturally variable real-world conventions (e.g. the appearance of a room reveals something about the person living there or the weather expresses the feelings of the protagonist). A systematic description of such inferences employed in characterization is given by Margolin (1983). Inferences can be understood in terms of abductions (Keller, 1998: chap. 9, based on Peirce), so that the fundamental role of character models and of the character encyclopedia becomes obvious: the information derived from them is not included in the text, but is presupposed to a greater or lesser degree by it.

Another key problem concerns the limits and underlying rules of such inferences when they are applied to fictional beings. Ryan (1980), noting that readers tend to assume that a storyworld resembles the real world unless explicitly stated otherwise, adopts the philosopher David Lewis's principle of minimal departure. In a thorough criticism of this and similar hypotheses, Walton points out that this would make an infinite number of inferences possible, and he comes to the conclusion: There is no particular reason why anyone's beliefs about the real world should come into play. As far as implications are concerned, simple conventions to the effect that whenever such and such is fictional, so and so is as well, serve nicely [] (Walton,1990). This approach, in turn, increases the number of conventions without necessity and without providing any convincing argument as to how readers go about accessing these conventions, aside from drawing on their real-world knowledge, despite the fact that many conventions apply only to fictional worlds. Even so, this does not invalidate Walton's criticism, which can probably be refuted only by including another element: the fact that characters are part of storyworlds which are not self-contained, but communicated. Readers' assumptions about what is relevant in the process of communication determine the scope and validity of inferences (Sperber & Wilson, 1986).

The presentation of characters is a dynamic process, just as is the construction of characters in the reader's mind. A powerful model for describing the psychological or cognitive dynamics coming into play here, based on the top-down and bottom-up processes observed during empirical studies on reading comprehension, has been proposed by Schneider (2001) building on concepts developed by Gerrig & Allbritton (1990). A top-down process occurs in the application of a category to a character, integrating the information given by the text into this category, while a bottom-up process results from the text information integrating a character into a type or building up an individualized representation. At the beginning of a character presentation, textual cues may trigger various types of categorization: social types (the teacher, the widow); literary types (the hero in a Bildungsroman); text-specific types (characters that do not change throughout the story). In contrast to the top-down processing that takes place in these forms of categorization is bottom-up processing. This occurs when the reader is unable to integrate the given information into an existing category, resulting in personalization of the character (reader). Personalized characters can also be members of a category, but this is not the focus of their description. Reading a text involves building up either categorized or personalized characters, but information subsequently encountered in the text may change their status and possibly decategorize or depersonalize those characters.

Most characters are to a certain extent predictable. On the basis of some data, we can usually expect certain actions or behaviour from a character. In a sense, every character is more or less predictable, as we can predict how a character will act or behave on the basis of his or her profession, sex, external factors, the genre of the work, etc.; however, so-called `round' characters are less predictable than `flat' ones

Character and Meaning

Characters can be seen as entities in a storyworld. However, this should not be understood to mean that characters are self-contained. On the contrary: they are at the same time devices in the communication of meaning and serve purposes other than the communication of the facts of the storyworld as well. This matter was discussed above in the relation between character and action. In many forms of narrative, however, action is not the organizing principle, but a theme or an idea, and the characters in these texts are determined by that theme or idea. An extreme example is personification, i.e. the representation of an abstract principle such as freedom or justice as a character, as found in allegorical literature. Another example is certain dialogue novels, where the characters' role is to propound philosophical ideas. On the other hand, even the most life-like characters in a realistic novel can often also be described in light of their place in a thematic progression. Thus, Phelan (1987) has proposed to describe character as participation in a mimetic sphere (due to the character's traits), a thematic sphere (as a representative of an idea or of a class of people), and a synthetic sphere (the material out of which the character is made). In his heuristic of film characters, Eder (2007, 2008) adopts a similar breakdown, but adds a fourth dimension relating to communication between the film and the audience: (a) the character as an artifact (how is it made?); (b) the character as a fictional being (what features describe the character?); (c) the character as a symbol (what meaning is communicated through the character?); and (d) the character as a symptom (why is the character as it is and what is the effect?). The difference between characters as part of storyworlds and the meaning of character cannot be aligned with the difference between (narratological) description and interpretation because elements of a character or the description of a character are often motivated by their role in thematic, symbolic, aesthetic and other networks.

Character Traits

One prominent attempt to analyse character views them as a sum of traits. Chatman, for example, views a character in terms of a `paradigm of traits' (1978: 126): a character exists in a paradigmatic relationship with the plot, which is syntagmatic. Another scholar who holds this view is Rimmon-Kenan (1983), to whom a character is a construct of traits. These traits, according to her, are hierarchically arranged; she also views characterization in terms of how the network of character traits, in reference to a particular character, is created.

To Chatman (1978) and Leitch (1986), characterization can be analysed through an analysis of routine behaviour, which can be defined, in my view, in terms of the repeated appearance of certain dynamic traits associated with a character. In this light, Chatman (1978), has noted that `tiredness' is not a trait unless persistent. A persistent trait may become a habit: we can further note that only habitual traits are significant in the analysis of characterisation, and not those which are temporary.

However, it has been noted that character traits `are not, after all, physical objects to be drawn like trees' (1978), and Leitch, while agreeing with Chatman, believes that some characters become memorable through the subtraction, and not the addition of traits: some minor characters, for example, are memorable because they lack certain common human traits.

The omission of traits is also noticeable in film characters; we do not know, for example, about the film characters' introspective traits, unless the character tells us about them through voice-over narration.

Characters and real-life people have unique attributes called traits. This table is devoted to the most popular traits of the fiction characters which can be noted in narratives.











































Agent and Character

A distinction is sometimes made between two notions- agent and character. An agent is a simplified character, whereas the term character is reserved for more complex personages in a narrative. However, it's worthy to question the extent of the validity of the distinction.

Chatman is one narratologist who believes that agent must be distinguished from character (1978). In making the distinction, he has undoubtedly been influenced by the French narratologists.

However, the term character is also used in relation to narrative agents, without a clear indication that the two should be distinguished. According to Margolin for instance, the `ascription of individual properties to [a narrative agent] may be called characterization' (1983; also Margolin, 1986). The danger in ascribing to the view of Chatman and others on this matter, is that too rigid a distinction between character and agent may be made, and there will thus be no characterisation as such in many contemporary works of fiction.

Chapter II.Different approaches to classify the characters

Characterization and Genre

With reference to genre, the presence of `real' characters my be limited to certain genres.

It's notable here that the term realistic fiction is actually a generic classification. It has also been argued by Mary McCarthy(1962) that real characters are seldom accomplished outside of comedy.

The division of characters into realistic and fantastic should also be regarded as generic. Another generic division is that between mimetic and didactic characters, although a mixture between the two may be involved. Phelan, for example, has noted that `authors may employ mimetic means to didactic ends' .

Generic division of characters







Another classification of characters which may have an effect on generic classification divides them into imitative, illustrative and independent (or `aesthetic').

Classification of characters that may affect generic classification

Character type



Characters exist in relation to actual human beings, of which they are supposed to resemble.


Characters are didactic, and are supposed to represent moral ideas.


Characters exist in their own right, and are not directly or closely related to mimetic or didactic considerations.

Static and developing characters

One classification of characters involves those who are static and those who are developing.

A developing character changes, and for change in such a character to be convincing, it must be, in traditional literary criticism:

possible in the character;

adequately impelled by circumstances;

sufficient time must be given for the change to be believable.

At the same time, change requires selection: an entire lifetime cannot be presented within the span of a narrative.

With reference to change, we may look again at Lawrence's `allotropic states'. In this conception, characters change all the time, and so, the criteria on how to make change convincing mentioned above, may not apply.

The possibilities of change and development in cinematic characters are usually more restricted than in characters of a novel. If a character in a film changes or develops, certain large and significant segments of the character's life are presented. If the character develops from childhood (or even babyhood) to adulthood, more than one actor is needed, and this may have an effect on our perception of the character's development: we may ask, for example, whether some of the changes we see are due more to the peculiarities of the actor and are not really necessary to the character's development.

Distinguishing the flat and round characters

Another categorization of characters involves their division into flat and round. This categorization has been attributed to E. M. Forster, who wrote about it in his Aspects of the Novel.

The characteristics of a flat character can be summed up in a sentence. Flat characters are simple: they have only one or two traits. They are also stable, stereotypical, and undeveloping. Flat characters are mainly found in fairy tales, detective fiction, pulp fiction, and such works; in this regard, flatness and roundness may thus be linked to the genre of the narrative.

Round characters are complex and have manifold characteristics. They are closer to actual persons than flat characters. They change in the course of the story; they develop and are capable of surprising the reader. According to Chatman, it is easier to identify with round characters, even though they may not `add up', and may not always be uniform or logically consistent. Round characters are open-ended: we can at best only speculate about their future actions; they are thus less determinate than flat characters.

Distinction between round and flat characters

Flat characters

Round characters

Simple and uniform:

Complex and manifold:

Only one or two traits

numerous traits

Characteristics can be summed up in a sentence

characteristics need elaborate description







More distant from actual human beings:

Closer to actual human beings:


not easily analysable according to rigid formulation or preconceived notions

harder to sympathize with

easier to sympathise with

Their actions are:

Their actions are:


difficult to determine in advance

logically consistent with what was given earlier

not always logically consistent with what was given earlier

not surprising to readers most of the time

surprising to readers some of the time

The distinction between flat and round characters may also apply to the analysis of cinematic narratives. A director may want to have flat characters in his film, and chooses non-actors to play their parts, so that there will be less concentration on the actor's acting skills, and more scope will be given to other aspects of the film.

Rimmon-Kenan has criticised the division into `flat' and `round' characters in written narratives. According to her, the belief that round characters are developing and complex may not always be correct. She gives the example of James Joyce's Bloom here, who according to her, is complex but undeveloping. To Rimmon-Kenan, instead of the division of characters into `flat' and `round', we should have 3 continua (1983; based on Ewen):

1) the extent to which there is a penetration into the inner life of the character,

2) the degree of the character's complexity, and

3) the extent of the character's development.

Stock characters

Stock characters are different from flat characters, a character who is closely associated although they may share some characteristics: indeed, with a given narrative genre many of the characteristics associated with flat characters, are also found in stock characters. Stock characters are those who are likely to appear in relation to a given narrative genre: e.g. cowboys and Indians or the murderer and detective fiction.

Superficial characters

Superficial characters do not form themselves into a category like flat or stock, but are dependent on the reader's evaluative judgment of a character as such. However, it is highly probable that stock characters have a tendency to be superficial when compared to those who cannot be described as such, and flat characters are likely to be more superficial than those who are round. The evaluation of a character as superficial is usually based, amongst other considerations, on whether there is too much concentration on external details in the depiction of the character.

Tellable characters

Tellable characters are characters who can be easily or conveniently told in a story, and rare usually:

readily understood by the listener

Simple, not complex

Inadequate (as full -fledged human beings)

Undergoes consistent changes

However, consistency may not always be a feature of literary characters, as noted earlier, thus making many literary characters less `tellable'.

We can relate tellable characters to readable characters (Roland Barthes' distinction).It's noteworthy to say that in complex works of literature, which are usually writerly texts, the characters are usually less tellable or readerly, thus making them, in a sense, `difficult' (which of course, does not mean that they are not `interesting').

Protagonist and Antagonist

The protagonist is chief character in a narrative. In popular narratives, it is traditionally believed that the protagonist is usually attractive, honest and good-hearted (although there are variations on this in recent years). In serious fiction however, the protagonist may sometimes be portrayed unsympathetically.

The antagonist may be the villain, or ( more neutrally), a counter - character to the protagonist.

The Hero

Related to, but not necessarily identical to the protagonist, is the hero. The hero is less easy to define than the protagonist. Attempts to define the conception of the hero have not resulted in anything definite, as the criteria for what the hero should be are different from reader to reader. There is also a difference between nineteenth and twentieth century conceptions of the hero. However, there is some agreement that the hero should embody positive qualities, although what these positive qualities exactly are, and how they could be measured or balanced against less positive qualities, are not definite.

One definition which we can easily reject, is that given by Coste for written fiction: that the `hero' is the anthropomorphic bearer of the largest number of words (1979).It is not easy to resort to mechanical means to define the hero, as features of heroes and heroines are of human relevance, and may not be dependent on external details such as the number of words in a work referring to them.

Types of hero -bad and good points

There are few types of hero:

The active, successful hero;

The hero-victim;

The passive anti- hero;

The hero- villain.

From the above, it can be seen that the hero is not always good. Only the active, successful hero can be described as clearly `good'. The hero-victim may be `good', but he is someone who suffers, and his suffering certainly cannot be described as `good' to him. A hero-villain, like Richard III in Shakespeare's play, is only a `hero' because he is the protagonist of the play, but is, in almost every other respect, a villain.

The opponent of the hero is the villain, but as we have seen, features of the two may coalesce in the hero-villain. Although badness seems to be an inherent quality of villains, villains may not be morally `bad' in some works, but may have an aesthetic, instead of a purely moral reason for their categorisation as villains.

The French narratologist A. J. Greimas pursued the classification of the elements which make a story move on by proposing a well-known actantial schema, whose source is in Propp's typology. From the perspective of the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp, the author of Morphology of the Folktale(1928), a classification of fairy tales should set out from the functions, i.e. the actions performed by characters, and from the functional roles. There are 31 functions, defined by their significance for the plot development, which remain practically the same in the whole corpus of Russian tales (e.g. test, mission, reward, and so on). Although not all of them appear in every story, their sequence appears identical if viewed comparatively. The roles describe the characters' participation in the events, irrespective of their individual traits: Propp identified such roles as Hero, Sought-for Person, Dispatcher, Helper, Donor (Provider), Villain, False Hero.

Character, action and plot

There are some interconnections between character with action, and hence, also, between character and plot. Tragedy , according to Aristotle, isn't possible without plot, but it is possible without character (at least as the term is understood by some literary critics today). If we accept a looser definition of character, we can say that there is an intimate relationship between action and character to Aristotle. For this reason, the approach to character as a function of the plot has been described by some scholars as Aristotelian.

The interconnection of character with action is also made by the Formalists, to whom character is a product of plot. Character is therefore secondary to the plot to them, and is described as a function or actant (Margolin, 1983: 2). A function or actant when used in relation to a character refers to an abstract sphere of action: a character is therefore identified by what kind of actions he or she has done or will do. In this connection, some kind of formalization may be used to determine a character's functional range. This approach to characterisation is interested in what characters do in a story, not what they are, another way of formulating this is to say that what characters do is what they are.

One actional approach to characterization is that of Vladimir Propp(1968), who divides characters into seven spheres of action: 1) villain, 2) donor, 3) helper, 4) sought-for-person, 5) dispatcher, 6) hero, 7) false hero. Although Propp's spheres of action could also be seen in terms of character roles, their roles are inseparable from what they do.

Another actional approach to characterization is that of Greimas, whose conception of actants views characters as a function of the plot. To Greimas (1990), there are 6 actants: sender, object, receiver, helper, subject,opponent.

However, the relationship between character and plot is not always seen in terms of character being a function of the plot. The novelist Henry James reverses the relationship by insisting that it is the plot that should be a product of character. Although James' idea here may have more general applicability, he may be referring more specifically to fictional narratives; and to his own approach to the writing of fiction in particular.

Another criticism of the actional approach to characterisation is that we do not always respond to characters in relation to the plot: this is true even in fairy tales and other simple stories where plot is important. This is partly due to the apparent presence of human consciousness in narrative, which makes us try to look at aspects of characterisation which are not manifested in characters' actions. We can also note that in many complex narratives, characters are viewed more directly in terms of their inherent qualities, and not in terms of their actions. Furthermore, a distinction is sometimes made between narratives that concentrate on action and plot, and those that concentrate on character, such as that made between the novel of character and the novel of incident in nineteenth century approaches to the novel. Although this approach to the novel has been criticised by Henry James, in his attempt to reverse the relationship between character and plot mentioned above, the more general distinction between narratives that concentrate on character and those in which action and plot predominate, is still very much with us.

Other classifications of characters

Characters may be also divided into other of several types:

Point-of-view character: The character from whose perspective (theme) the audience experiences the story. This is the character that represents the point of view the audience will empathise, or at the very least, sympathise with. Therefore this is the "Main" Character.

Protagonist: The driver of the action of the story and therefore responsible for achieving the story's Objective Story Goal (the surface journey). In western storytelling tradition the Protagonist is usually the Main Character.

Antagonist: The character that stands in opposition to the protagonist.

Static character: A character who does not significantly change during the course of a story.

Dynamic character: A character who undergoes character development during the course of a story.

Foil: The character that contrasts to the protagonist in a way that illuminates their personality or characteristic.

Supporting character: A character that plays a part in the plot, but is not major

Minor character: A character in a very little, not vivid part.

And after this classification we can distinguish the following methods of developing characters:

Appearance: explains or describes the character's outward appearance for the readers to be able to identify them

Dialogue: what they say and how they say it

Action: what the character does and how he/she does it

Reaction of others: how other characters see and treat him/her

Terry W. Ervin and his classification

Fiction writers employ a variety of characters while weaving their tales. Beyond the standard definitions of protagonist (the main character in a literary work) and antagonist (the main character or force that opposes the protagonist in a literary work), recognizing the types of characters and the parts they play while reading an interesting story can add to the experience. In addition, a fuller understanding of the character types and their uses can increase a writer's effectiveness in weaving his own fictional tales.

Below is a list of common character types, followed by an explanation and short example.

Confidante- someone in whom the central character confides, thus revealing the main character's personality, thoughts, and intentions. The confidante does not need to be a person.

Example: In a story, Melvin Sanders is a detective on the trail of a serial killer. He travels with his pet dog, a pug named Chops. Instead of listening to the radio, Melvin talks to Chops, telling him his theories about the serial killer and his concern he may never discover the killer's identity.

In this example Chops is a confidante.

Dynamic Character - a character which changes during the course of a story or novel. The change in outlook or character is permanent. Sometimes a dynamic character is called a developing character.

Example: Ebenezer Scrooge, in A Christmas Carol by Dickens, was very stingy with his money. He worked his employees very very hard for little pay. After his experiences with the ghosts that visited him, he changed his ways, paying his employees a more than fair wage, providing days off work and actually giving gifts.

In this example Ebenezer Scrooge is a dynamic character.

Flat Character - a character who reveals only one, maybe two, personality traits in a story or novel, and the trait(s) do not change.

Example: In a story about a friendly teacher named Sandra Smith, Louis Drud is a janitor in her building. Louis is always tired and grumpy whenever Sandra runs across him and says hello.

In this example Louis Drud is a flat character.

Foil - a character that is used to enhance another character through contrast. Cinderella's grace and beauty as opposed to her nasty, self-centered stepsisters is one clear illustration of a foil many may recall from childhood.

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