Fictional character

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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.

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 père'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"[1], 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. 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 (as in One of the Guys by Robert Clark Young), or quixotic romanticism (Don Quixote).

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 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 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.

Round characters vs. flat characters

Some critics distinguish between "round characters" and "flat characters" or types. 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 Gone with the Wind's Rhett Butler.

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. Often, these characters are the basis of "flat characters", though elements of stock characters can also be present in round characters as well.

Unusual uses

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 a type of 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 examples of this is 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.

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. The film Being John Malkovich explores the strange situation of characters in film.

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.

Iconic fictional characters

Some fictional characters are so famous that they can be references easily outside of the work from which they came, often because they have come to symbolize some archetype or ideal.

Character Description Significance
Alice The young heroine of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Symbolic of a naïve girl introduced into a strange, new world
Batman DC Comics superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger Symbol of mystery and heroism driven by a dark obsession
Big Brother Iconic leader of the totalitarian state of Oceania in 1984 by George Orwell Term describing any propaganda symbol people are made to feverously love without sense or reason; also used for any monitoring or supervising perceived as overly intrusive
Bugs Bunny Carrot-chomping, Warner Brothers cartoon rabbit, known for the catch phrase “What’s Up Doc?” Symbol of benign slyness and cunning
Archie Bunker Character in the sitcom All in the Family His name has become a term for bigot, especially an older one who maintains outdated attitudes
Charlie Brown Child protagonist of the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz Prototypical lovable loser and chronic worrier
Captain Ahab Sea captain from Moby Dick by Hermann Melville, who is on a never-ending quest to kill the title whale Often used to describe a person with a destructive, hate-driven and all-consuming quest
Cinderella Title character from an age-old rags-to-riches fairy tale Term for anyone who rises from a meager, unhappy life into a more pleasant one; especially a woman who does so through a relationship with an elite man
Cthulhu Godlike monstrosity in H.P. Lovecraft's short story "Call of Cthulhu". Personification of cosmic forces beyond mankind's comprehension.
Darth Vader Villain and leader of the Galactic Empire in George LucasStar Wars films Symbol of evil, heartlessness, and supreme power
Don Quixote Title character from Miguel Cervantes' novel; believed he was a chivalric knight although he was actually a self-deluded buffoon Symbol of dedication to achieving one's goals in spite of all obstacles, especially reality; source of adjective "quixotic"
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Title characters from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; due to a wayward experience the quiet scientist Jekyll would transform into the malicious Hyde Refers to anyone particularly two-faced, especially with one bad and one good side
Dracula Title vampire from Bram Stoker’s horror novel Archetypal vampire, a metaphor for any person, thing or idea that is life or energy-draining
Hamlet Protagonist of William Shakespeare play of the same name Symbol of any brooding, angry young man with a willingness to accost others; also used to symbolize indecisiveness
Holden Caulfield Protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger Symbol of troubled, cynical young men
Homer Simpson Character from the animated sitcom The Simpsons, created by Matt Groening Often used to refer to a stereotypical American, adult male
Huckleberry Finn Runaway youth featured in several works by Mark Twain Symbol of anyone with an exceedingly simple moral code, especially one that clashes with larger society
Indiana Jones Globe-trotting archaeologist in a series of films by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Symbol of high adventure
James Bond Secret agent from a series of novels by Ian Fleming and a long-running series films Used to describe anyone who is suave, charming, clever and attractive to women; inspiration to countless movie spies
King Arthur Legendary British king; maybe not entirely fictional Epitome of righteousness, justice and virtue
Lolita Nickname of the 12-year-old girl from Vladimir Nabokov's novel of the same name Name for any young girl involved with an older man
Macbeth Title character from a William Shakespeare play Symbolic of anyone undone by a drive for power
Ophelia Character in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. One-time love interest of the title character; she who drowns, possibly by suicide Term used to describe any troubled and mentally unstable young woman
Prince Charming Prince from the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault Term for any handsome, charismatic, and ideal male suitor
Robin Hood Outlaw from British legend who "steals from the rich to give to the poor" Archetypical “outlaw hero” who fights the wealthy and powerful for the sake of the poor and helpless.
Romeo and Juliet Title couple from William Shakespeare's play of the same name, lovers whose marriage is forbidden by a family rivalry. Their names are used to describe any passionate pair of young lovers, especially one whose love is doomed or forbidden
Ebenezer Scrooge Wealthy, ill-tempered old man from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Term used to describe anyone miserly and uncharitable
Sherlock Holmes Detective from several stories by Arthur Conan Doyle Figure representing the power of observation and reason in the cause of justice.
Mr. Spock Character in the television series Star Trek, a Vulcan/human hybrid Symbol of logic and reason over passion and emotion
Superman DC Comics superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Archetypical superhero, modern messiah figure and a symbol of unstoppable good
Uncle Tom Character in Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a black slave who is docile and obedient Term for a person who is a disgrace to his or her race, especially African Americans who act in a stereotypical manner or act to please the "white establishment"
Wile E. Coyote Warner Brothers cartoon character who constantly tries and fails to kill the Road Runner Symbol of dedication in the face of futility
Yoda Mentor of hero Luke Skywalker in George LucasStar Wars film series Commonly used example of a mysterious and wise mentor

Lists of fictional characters


Stock characters

Fictional animals

Lists of fictional characters in specific works or series

Heroes and villains

See also

es:Personaje de ficción fi:Kuvitteellinen henkilö he:דמות ספרותית hu:Kitalált szereplő ja:キャラクター ja:架空の人名一覧 nl:Karakter (persoon) sl:Namišljena oseba