Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Fictional character

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

In theater and movies (except animations), fictional characters are played by actors. In animations, they are voiced by voice actors.

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

Names of Characters

The names of fictional characters are often quite important. The conventions of naming have changed over time. In many Restoration comedies, for example, characters are given emblematic names that sound nothing like real life names: "Sir Fidget", "Mr. Pinchwife" and "Mrs. Squeamish" are some typical examples (all from The Country Wife by William Wycherley).

Some 18th and 19th century texts, on the other hand, represent characters' names by the use of a single letter and a long dash (this convention is also used for other proper nouns, such as place names). This has the effect of suggesting that the author had a real person in mind but omitted the full name for propriety's sake. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo uses this technique.

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

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

Some ways of reading characters

Readers vary enormously in how they understand fictional characters. The most extreme ways of reading fictional characters would be to think of them exactly as real people or to think of them as purely artistic creations that have everything to do with craft and nothing to do with real life. Most styles of reading fall somewhere in between.

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

Character as Patient: Psychoanalytic Readings

Psychoanalytic criticism usually treats characters as real people possessing complex psyches. Psychoanalytic critics approach literary characters as an analyst would treat a patient, searching their dreams, past, and behavior for explanations of their fictional situations.

Alternatively, some psychoanalytic critics read characters as mirrors for the audience's psychological fears and desires. Rather than representing realistic psyches then, fictional characters offer us a way to act out psychological dramas of our own in symbolic and often hyperbolic form. The classic example of this would be Freud's reading of Oedipus (and Hamlet, for that matter) as emblematizing every child's fantasy of murdering his father to possess his mother.

This form of reading persists today in much Film criticism. The feminist critic Laura Mulvey is considered a pioneer in the field, having rejuvenated psychoanalytic criticism by giving it a political spin.

Character as Symbol

In some readings, certain characters are understood to represent a given quality or abstraction. Rather than simply being people, these characters stand for something larger. Many characters in Western Literature have been read as Christ Symbols, for example. Some other famous characters have been read as symbolizing capitalist greed (See F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby), democratic ideals (Luke Skywalker), or quixotic romanticism (El Quijote).

Character as Representative

Another way of reading characters symbolically is to understand each character as a representative of a certain group of people. Many practioners of cultural criticism and feminist criticism read characters in relation to cultural stereotypes. They imagine authors as either relying on or fighting against stereotypes that attribute certain qualities to certain classes of people. Many times, these readings 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. However, many major characters can also be read as representatives of cultural types.

Characters as Historical or Biographical References

Sometimes characters obviously represent important Historical figures or people who played a role in an author's life. 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 characters explains that it is a wrong number, but eventually he decides to pretend to be Auster and see where it leads him.

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, etc. We 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 used alone, without explaining exactly why they are used.

Lists of fictional characters

General lists of fictional characters

Lists of stock characters

Lists of fictional animals

Lists of fictional characters in specific works or series

See also: