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 theatre, performance arts and cinema (except for animation and CGI movies), fictional characters are performed by actors, dancers and singers. 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.
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.
One reason for this dash is that, in Britain and in other countries with a feudal heritage, the names of counties and places might be the names of the feudal lords over those places. One cannot arbitrarily give someone the name "Earl of Manchester" because someone may either have or be elevated to such a title, so it may be grounds for a lawsuit. Hence fictitious names are based on disparaged historical characters, or tend to be re-used. For example, "Lady de Winter" is a character in Dumas pčre's Three Musketeers, and the family name was used in Du Maurier's Rebecca. (The same holds true for the names of houses: in the latter book, "Windermere" is named after a lake, not a feudal holding).
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. Her groundbreaking 1975 article, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (http://www.bbk.ac.uk/hafvm/staff_research/visual1.html), 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."
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 Taggart 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, 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 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 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:
- Achilles (Greek mythological hero, immune to all forms of injury except in the back of his heel, source of the term "Achilles heel", referring to a sole flaw, often seemingly insignificant)
- Alice (Lewis Carroll's invention, a young naďve girl transported into a strange and alien land, interprets everything literally)
- Big Brother (iconic leader of the totalitarian state of Oceania in 1984 by George Orwell and possibly a fictitious character within a fictitious work; often used a term to describe any propaganda symbol people are made to love without sense or reason)
- Archie Bunker (from All in the Family, often used as an example of a bigot.)
- Brother Jonathan - symbol of United States (see also: Uncle Sam, John Bull, Nicholas Frog).
- Charlie Brown (from the comic strip, Peanuts, the archtypal lovable loser)
- Captain Ahab (from Herman Melville's Moby Dick, refers to someone with an incessant and obsessive need to accomplish some task)
- Dilbert (from the comic strip bearing his name, a typical parody to a software engineer, specifically one who is in the corporate world of micromanagement & bad bosses)
- Don Quixote (character from Miguel Cervantes' novel of the same name; he believed he was a chivalric knight; often used as a symbol of dedication to achieving one's goals in spite of all obstacles, especially including reality; source of adjective "quixotic")
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (from novel of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson, refers to anyone particularly two-faced, especially with one evil and one good side)
- Dracula (archetypal vampire, sometimes metaphorically any person, event, thing or idea perceived as life- or energy-draining; modern character created by Bram Stoker)
- E.T. (film alien, simple and good yet misunderstood by others)
- Hamlet (The title character of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, who is tortured by a moral dilemma and prone to brooding passion)
- Hercules (Greek mythological character known primarily for his immense physical strength; compare Paul Bunyan)
- Hermione Granger (Harry Potter character, known for possessing a fierce intellect and disdain for rule-breaking, though insecure underneath it all, due to fear of failure)
- Holden Caulfield (protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger who symbolizes troubled, cynical young men)
- Homer Simpson (Character from The Simpsons, often used to refer to a stereotypical American adult male)
- Huckleberry Finn (aka Huck Finn, Mark Twain character, a youth who rescues a slave, has an exceedingly simple moral code and character but is still virtuous)
- Ivan-durak (Иван-дурак in Russian, means "Ivan the stupid", a famous fairy tale character. He is usually the third son of a peasant and, unlike his brothers, is regarded as simple and stupid, but triumphs in the end through sincerity and kindness)
- Jára Cimrman (Czech national genius and famous inventor)
- James Bond (suave, charming secret agent from a series of books and films)
- King Arthur ( legendary British king and epitome of righteousness, justice and virtue; maybe not entirely fictional)
- King Lear (Shakespearean character who does not recognize the only one of three daughters who love him; he is undone by his blindness to her, Cordelia's, love)
- Lolita (nickname of the 12-year-old nymphet from Vladimir Nabokov's novel of the same name, comes to signify any young girl involved with an older man)
- Macbeth (Shakespearean tragic character, undone by his drive for power and the corrupting influence of Lady Macbeth, his wife)
- Miss Piggy (a Muppet who is vain, narcisstic, demanding, greedy and self-centered; compare the lovable and always virtuous Kermit the Frog)
- Mrs. Robinson (an older woman who seduces a recent college graduate in the 1967 film The Graduate, often a term used to describe any older woman who does the same)
- Nozdrev (from Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, a energetic and sprightly man, a mischief, a braggart, and a liar)
- Odysseus (from Homer's Odyssey, spent some thirty years from his family and is often used as a symbol of dedication and wisdom)
- Ophelia (another character from Hamlet, a young girl who goes insane and drowns, possible by suicide and a term used to describe any troubled young woman)
- Penelope (from Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus's wife, often used as a symbol of marital fidelity due to her commitment to her husband, who was absent for twenty years)
- Prince Charming (prince from the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty written in the 17th century by Charles Perrault. The term means any handsome, charming man who is ideal for a said woman)
- Robin Hood (outlaw with a heart of gold who "steals from the rich to give to the poor")
- Romeo and Juliet (from Shakespeare's play of the same name, lovers whose marriage is forbidden due to a family rivalry. Their names are now used to describe any extremely passionate pair of lovers, espeacially those whose love is doomed or forbidden)
- Ebenezer Scrooge (from Dickens's A Christmas Carol, who is miserly and uncharitable)
- Sharikov Polygraph Polygraphovich (from Mikhail Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog, Шариков Полиграф Полиграфович in Russian, a savage, aggressive, uneducated lumpen-proletariat created from a dog in a medical experiment by educated and refined Professor Preobrazhensky)
- Sherlock Holmes, the archetypical figure representing the power of observation and reason in the cause of justice.
- Siren (Homer's Odyssey includes Sirens whose beautiful voice lures sailors to their doom, often symbolically any femme fatale)
- Mr. Spock (Star Trek character, Vulcan/human hybrid who is ruled by logic and reason and ignores passion and emotion, contrasted with the passionate Captain James T. Kirk)
- Superman, the archetypical superhero and modern messiah figure.
- Tom Joad (from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a destitute Oakie who travels with his family to find work during the Great Depression. Joad's name is used to describe anyone who is exploited and left with little options under an economic system)
- Uncle Tom (created by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin, often used to refer to a person who is a disgrace to his or her race, especially African Americans who act in a stereotypical manner)
- Wile E. Coyote (cartoon character who constantly tried and failed to kill the Road Runner, used as a symbol of dedication in the face of futility)
- Yoda (Star Wars character who trained Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi. A commonly used example of a mysterious and wise mentor)
Lists of fictional characters
General lists of fictional characters
Lists of fictional animals
Lists of fictional characters in specific works or series
Lists of hero and villain characters