Characters are probably the most important and fundamental element of fiction. In fiction, a character is an imagined person who participates in a story. The character is usually a person, but can also be a personal identity or a personified animal or subject (for example, see Orwell’s Animal Farm or a voice that inhabits an object), however there may be exceptions to this general premise. When readers re-imagine these characters from fiction, they recognize human personalities in these characters that become familiar to us. If the fictional story is a work of art that imitates life, the characters in the work usually act in a manner that is consistent with the life that they imitate (as a side note, even in science fiction, even if the characters are not human, they still exhibit human emotion. Despite the fact that there are spaceships flying around, Luke Skywalker and even Dr. Spock still exhibit human qualities). The author of the story works hard to ensure that the characters behave in a consistent manner by showing the reader what motivates the characters to action. Because the author has gotten us to “suspend our disbelief” about this fictional story with these fictional characters, if a character should behave in an unexpected way – acts in a way contrary to what we have been led to believe about his or her personality or nature – the reader trusts that there was a reason for this change in behavior and that the author will let the reader know sooner or later.
There are several different types of characters that readers will find in literature. One of these types is the point of view character. This character is the eyes and ears of the reader – it is from this perspective (or point of view) that the reader will experience the story. One might also call the point of view character the “main character” because it is expected that the author will either identify or empathize or sympathize with this character because the story is being told from this point of view.
In addition to the “point of view character” or the “main character,” authors also often utilize what is known as the “stock character.” Essentially, the stock character is a stereotyped character. Throughout the long history of our literature – from classical literature to the most contemporary literature – readers have been acquainted with many different stereotyped characters. These characters rely very heavily on either cultural types or names for their personalities, their speech, and various other characteristics. Generally, these stock characters could be described as literary archetypes; however, they are often much more narrowly defined. Stock characters are very important in fiction in that they provide characters in which more developed characters can interact with in ways that the audience is familiar. The idea behind stock characters is that the audience will recognize them immediately.
While stock characters are important in that the author can use them within the context of the story without having to dedicate time and space to develop the characters more fully, a good work of fiction will contain characters that the reader will see as unique individuals. The stock or stereotyped character has a single dominant virtue or vice or outstanding characteristic while the more developed characters tend to be multifaceted and unique just like the people that readers might meet every day in real life.
These unique and seemingly real individuals can also be characterized into different types of characters. These characters can either be “flat” or “round” characters depending upon how the author styles their character. Some critics use the terms “static” and “dynamic” when describing these types of characters. A flat or static character often only has one outstanding trait or feature that the audience can easily recognize. Flat characters are often stock characters, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Just because a character is flat doesn’t necessarily mean that the short story or novel is an inferior work of art – in fact, even in some of the greatest short stories or novels, the minor characters tend to be flat because to style them any other way would cost the author time and space and might also distract the reader from the main character as well.
In contrast to flat characters, fiction also has “round” characters. These characters are also often called “dynamic” characters. These characters are much more multifaceted than either stock or static characters. These characters are often more prominent in the story and the author uses more time and space to create the details that add depth to these characters. Depending upon the point of view of the story, the reader sees this character as he appears to other characters in the story, as he appears to the narrator of the story, and/ or as he appears to himself within his own mind. This is how the reader experiences the character and gets acquainted with him or her in the context of the story. While flat or static characters tend to stay the same during the story, round or dynamic characters tend to change in the story – they learn, they become enlightened; they grow in wisdom, or deteriorate in mind and spirit. While events might happen around the flat or stock characters, they tend to happen to the dynamic character.
The name of the character is often very important to the development of the character. Often, names can give the reader clues about the characters nature or personality. For example, if a banker in a story was named “Robin Banks,” would the reader be able to trust the character? What if a female character in a short story or novel was named “Faith?” What might that tell the reader? Often, the names of the characters are not this obvious. In literature, authors have developed the custom of using allusions to give the character his or her name. An allusion is a reference to a famous person, place or thing. For example, if an author were to name a character “Jezebel,” what would the reader think about that character? Jezebel is allusion to the Old Testament. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, often used these Old Testament allusions as well. For example, Captain Ahab from the novel Moby Dick is an allusion to Ahab, the King of Israel during the divided kingdom period in the Old Testament. Melville also named one of his characters “Ishmael” after a biblical outcast. The opening sentence of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael” sets the tone for the novel and also immediately gives the reader a clue about the nature and personality of the character. In short, a good name often reveals much about the nature or personality of a character.
While a good name might be the first step in developing good characters, authors also employ other methods to help them with characterization. One of the methods that authors use to develop their characters is the characters appearance. The author explains or describes the character’s appearance to the reader so that the reader can draw inferences and make conclusions about the character. For example, if the author describes the character as being “clothed in sack cloth,” what is he hoping that the reader will immediately think about the character? What if the character is described as being “tall and lanky but not skinny, hair neatly trimmed and parted on the side, wearing a gray flannel suit that seemed to be the fashionable uniform of the up and coming in New York City?” Not only can the author lead the reader to draw conclusions about a character from the character’s appearance, but the author can also provide clues about the character through dialogue. Dialogue is what the characters say and how they say it. The interactions that the characters have with other characters can tell the reader a lot about those characters and how they interact with others in their social milieu. While what the characters wear is important and what they say is also important, it is often what they do that is most important. Conventional wisdom tells us that “actions speak louder than words.” It is often through action – what the character does and how he or she does it – that helps the reader to see into the character’s nature and personality. Not only does the action of the character give the reader clues about this nature and personality, but the reaction of others – how the other characters see and treat the character – that also contributes to the reader’s understanding.
Some critics use the term “protagonist” to describe a character. The protagonist drives the action of the story. Essentially, this character is responsible for taking the reader toward the story’s ultimate end or goal. In the Western Literary Tradition, the protagonist is most often the main character in the story. In order for a story to have a protagonist, there must be an antagonist that opposes the protagonist and keeps him or her from reaching the story’s ultimate goal. The antagonist can be a stock character, a flat character, or even a round character. Sometimes, the antagonist is a special kind of antagonist called a “foil.” A foil is an antagonist that stands in stark contrast to the protagonist and the contrast between the two characters illuminates the nature and personality of both the protagonist and the antagonist. This idea of a “foil” is often very effectively used in comic books and graphic novels.
Throughout much of our literary history, the main character in a story was often portrayed as being heroic. The heroic qualities of the traditional hero often include bravery, skill, idealism, and sense of purpose (for a more complete discussion of the hero in literature, see this article about Joseph Campbell). However, in more contemporary fiction, the main character of a novel or short story often lacks these heroic characteristics. Instead of a hero, these recent novels and short stories feature what critics call the “antihero.” The antihero can be defined as being a protagonist in a novel or short story that lacks one or more of the traditional qualities found in the heroic tradition. The antihero is often portrayed as being a normal run of the mill inglorious inhabitant of the modern world. While the epic poets during the Heroic Age painted their heroic characters as being bold and decisive leaders of their people that personified the ideals of the culture, modern writers often portray these antiheros as being loners who are just barely able to survive the modern world. Essentially, these are characters that lack character.