Critical Concepts


What follows is a rather dense discussion.  I wouldn't post it if I didn't believe that the complexity ultimately serves the cause of clarity.  However, at least for starters you may profit from a somewhat simpler treatment of these terms.

"Character":   disentangling some different senses.

The word "character" derives from the Greek verb charassein, meaning to mark with a cut or furrow.  It came to be used for writing with a stylus in wet clay (as in cuniform script) or engraving on a stone surface.  Hence Greek term charakter for the distinctive mark thus made - a sense still with us in the idea of a "character" as a letter, a repeatable figure recognizable as such.  From this comes the idea of "character" as a "stable nature" or "type," the notion from which a host of others have differentiated.

In ordinary discourse, the term "character" can take on any of a variety of meanings, depending on the context in which it happens to be used.  Consider the difference between the expressions "he's a real character" and "he has real character."  Both point to something remarkable about the person in question.  But the kind of thing that has struck the speaker's attention is different.  

Neither of these senses of the word "character" exactly corresponds to the pair of terms so frequently found in technical talk about works of literature.  

There, the phrase "a character" refers in the first instance to a fictional individual within a larger imaginary situation.  In theater, to be a character in this sense of the term is to be among the dramatis personae (Latin for "roles in the play").  This is the sense at work in remarks like the following:  "What characters has Paul Newman played in the course of his career?"  "It's sometimes hard to keep track of all the characters in novels so immense as Tolstoy's War and Peace."  "Dickens has given the world a host of memorable characters."  For convenience, let's call this "the term 'character' in lit-crit sense 1."

Typically the characters in a fictional work are endowed with distinctive personalities, and this fact (together with the long-established sense of a thing's "character" as its "distinctive nature") has given rise to an additional sense of the term "character" frequent in literary critical talk.  In the course of a longish story, we will meet with several characters (identifiable fictional individuals), but what makes each of them identifiable beyond their proper name ("Ivan Stepanovich") or some descriptive tag ("the older waiter") is their distinctive way of behaving, "behind" which we postulate (as their enabling condition) some persisting personality, or "character."  We have then an separate sense of the term "character":  an hypothetical "self" or "nature" expressed by a given individual's actions.  This concept of "character" has been imported back into everyday life.  (The preference today seems to be to speak of people's "personality," though it is still common to speak of a person's "character traits.")  Both the everyday senses already discussed above ("he's a real character" and "he has real character") are further specializations derived from the concept of a person's "character" as a more or less stable complex of traits - dispositions, attitudes, opinions, values.  In discussions of literature, though, this is perhaps the most important sense of the term "character."  If it is true that Dickens has given the world a gallery of memorable characters, what makes them memorable is their endowment with vivid "characters" in this sense of the term.  For convenience, we can call this "the term 'character' in lit-crit sense 2."

"Character traits" (and traits that are not character traits)

An important reminder:  although the term "trait" can apply to any attribute of a person or thing, not all traits that go to constitute or portray a character (lit-crit sense 1) are necessarily part of that character's "character" in lit-crit sense 2.  The latter, we said, is an hypothetical "self" or "nature" expressed by a given individual's actions, and consists of a more or less stable complex of traits - dispositions, attitudes, opinions, values.  Note that these are the kinds of traits that have psychological or ethical relevance -- i.e., that bear on our conception of a person's personality.   Let's note some important kinds of traits attaching to people that do not fall into this category.  Importantly, physical traits do not, of themselves, constitute what we are calling character traits.   Thus whether a person is 

has nothing in principle to do with that person's "character."   

Of course, when we encounter these in fiction, they may be pressed into service for indirectly indicating or for accounting for character in our sense.  That is, an author may embed the fact that a given character (l-c1) is "spindly-legged" in an overall context of additional details (X has loads of money, but buys his clothes at from the Salvation Army, skimps on food, etc.) to suggest that the person in question "is stingy" ("has a miserly character" in the l-c2 sense).  In the same or another story, the author could fill out the overall portrayal of a character who is "stout" as "self-indulgent" (not prone to refuse a meal) -- or, alternatively, as someone who is "stubborn" (hard to budge).  

Note that in the one case, the stoutness functions as a symptom of the inclination to give in to one's appetites; in the other it serves as a symbol of "being hard to budge" (presumably the person didn't grow stout because he refused to budge, but just so happens, fittingly, to be as potentially hard to budge physically as he is hard to persuade to change his ways, whatever these may be).  That is:  in the first case we have imagined, being stout is an index of self-indulgence because it is understood as a symptom, i.e., an expressive effect of this character trait.  In the second, though, the stoutness would be merely a convenient badge of his stubbornness (or, in some other case, his resoluteness) -- no effect of it, but only an emblem of it.

But -- and here is the key point -- (1) in neither of these cases is the physical trait itself a character trait.  Moreover, (2) there is no necessary connection, in fact (i.e., the world within which works of fiction are made and read), between being being spindly-legged and being stingy, or between being stout and being gluttonous or being hard to persuade.  In fiction, as in real life, we may just as well encounter a spindly-legged person who is sympathetic and generous (or who is a marathoner in training).  Nor should we be surprised to come across a person who is stout who is also very firm about giving into his appetites, or who is extremely pliable, even wishy-washy, ready to be persuaded of one thing one minute and of its contrary the next.  Unless we are the victim of witless stereotypes, we will not be inclined automatically to suppose that a blind person is a (intellectually or morally) "blind," or trust someone's judgment just because he has certifiably 20/20 vision.  Finally, (3) when there does turn out to be a symptomatic or a symbolic connection between a physical trait and a character trait, this will be available to be appreciated because the character trait in question is independently testified to by additional evidence.  If, in real life, a person who is suffering from gangrene turns out to be "morally rotten," it will not be because gangrene is the expression of moral rot (whatever that may be in a particular instance), but because we have good (i.e., relevant) evidence that the person is morally rotten in some particular way.  Similarly in fiction:  whether a given story authorizes us to take the fact that a character suffers from gangrene as emblematic of characterological corruption will depend on the whole complex of detail the story affords us concerning that character's conduct.  We can never automatically take a character's dirty hands as signifying that "he has dirty hands" (is responsible for something evil).  In fiction as in life, maybe he is just a conscientious automobile mechanic or a Sunday gardener taking some well-earned recreational relief from the stresses of his job as a salesman!  We should be alert to the possibility that in fiction, as opposed to life outside it, details are often deployed in these additional signifying ways.  But we should always be mindful of the fact that whether, in a given case, they indeed are functioning this way depends on the the implications of other details within the story as a whole.  Finally, (4) we should also be mindful of the fact that authors may employ details ironically -- against the grain of prevalent stereotypes.  A character who is blind may turn out to be deeply "insightful," just as a person who is "hawk-eyed" with respect to his business interests may turn out to be "mole-blind" with respect to his family life -- or vice versa!

There is another way (distinct from symptomatically or symbolically) in which physical traits can be relevant to character traits.  Instead of being either an emblem or an effect of some aspect of a person's personality, a physical trait could (but need not) function as a cause or condition of a psychological disposition or an ethical inclination.  For instance a person who limps in virtue of a childhood episode of polio may turn out to be affected -- "in a deeper sense," we say -- by that circumstance.  This may, for instance, be an adversity against which the person successfully struggles -- developing along the way, say, determination and pluck, insight into the ways in which stereotypes affect people's behavior, clever imagination in steering around the obstacles these attitudes pose.  It may be an adversity against which the person's struggle is unsuccessful, and this result in turn might have effects on that person's character.  (What might these be?  Can you imagine vastly different outcomes of an "unsuccessful struggle"?  Doing so will require you to imagine in specific terms what exactly this "struggle" would consist in.)  

Note, though, that taking clear stock of these matters of motivation (which might have an important bearing on plot development) requires us in the first instance not confuse physical traits with character traits.  Before we can appreciate how a physical trait might contribute to the formation of a character trait we would first have to have them clearly in mind as distinct from each other!  

An analogous series of points can be made about the conceptual distinction between social traits and character traits.  None of the following in itself  falls into the category of "character traits":

Any of these attributes might or might not (like various physical traits) be an essential element of a given person's "personal identity," for himself or herself, or for others.  But they from the standpoint of one's "character" (lit-crit sense 2), they are (like physical traits) "external."  This means that we should keep the concept of personal identity distinct from the concept of "character."  Obviously these will connect to each other in important ways.  But this they can do only in virtue of the fact that they are not identical with each other.  This is one of those situations, with a piece of technical vocabulary, where we have to take care not to let the language we inherit from our language community mislead us!  It turns out that not all traits that attach to a character (a fictional personnage) qualify as what we call "character traits."  (Even more succinctly:  some "traits of a character" are not "traits of character" [of that character].)  The traits that are not properly speaking character traits may, however, relate in one or another important indirect way to character traits.

Why these distinctions are so important to keep in mind

Thinking of a physical feature or of a social attribute as a character trait will block important potential insights, because doing so makes it impossible to ask how the physical or social trait in question contributes to, or reflects (if it does), this or that personality trait.  (Indeed, it may inhibit us from even noticing that certain character traits are present, and need to be taken into account -- for example, in arriving at an adequate conception of the story's overall theme.)


The centrality of "character" in much narrative and dramatic fiction.

For some writers, the central subject of interest in fiction is the variety and workings of "character" in what we have tagged the "lit-crit 2" sense.  They are deeply curious about why people act the way they do.  This leads them to be interested in figuring out the various ways it is possible for people to misunderstand each others' behavior, either causally ("why would he insult his niece that way?") or in terms of signification ("was she right to take what he said as an insult?").  Such authors will expect us to be willing to embark on complicated explorations of their characters' motivation and assumptions.  They will also typically spend a lot of energy trying to construct or portray their characters' (lit-crit sense 1) in ways that endow them with interesting (convincing and insightfully informative) characters (lit-crit sense 2, the central one).  Often this is an expression of their sharing their readers' interest in issues pertaining to the responsibility of agents for actions and their consequences.  

This deep interest in the element of character is one of the characteristic traits of the genre known as "the short story," which is a comparatively recent literary phenomenon ("merely" a couple of hundred years or so old).

For a discussion of come of the choices writers make in approaching the task of characterization, see the articles in our Glossary of Critical Concepts on

Meanwhile, we should take stock of the fact that not all fiction cares about character. 

Not all fiction cares about character.

We need to remind ourselves that many authors well worth knowing are little concerned with exploring the complexities of this dimension of life.  All fiction may involve characters (lit-crit sense 1), but not all fiction is focused on character (lit-crit sense 2).  

Some writers are instead interested in what can be done by playing with plot (contrapuntality, say, or co-incidence that turns out to be rigorously fatalistic or providential) or with the formal aspect of art (frames, stories-within-stories, etc.).  Or they may prefer to explore the implications of a metaphysical "possibility" ("what if time, like space, could by labyrinthine, so that there were such a thing as divergent, parallel, and convergent times?"  "what would experience be like if one were virtually incapable of abstractions, and were capable of fully concrete perception and memory?")  Or they may be chiefly focused on thinking out what the consequences can be of believing or behaving in certain ways (rather than in, say, the conditions of personality that dispose people to these beliefs or that conduct).

Still others regard the whole notion of character in the sense at hand as an illusion fostered by certain cultures (and notably by Western European culture since the last half or so of the 18th Century or, in other theories, since St. Augustine of Hippo [d. 430], or since Plato, or Homer, or, according to yet others, in certain versions of Hindu philosophy).  There are thinkers who argue that the notion of "character" as something to be postulated as "behind" behavior as its cause is not merely mythology but pernicious in its effects.  The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (d. 1980) criticized the notion of character as a stable essence (determinate nature) behind (and governing) existence (action, conduct, behavior) as one of the chief "mystifications" by which people convince themselves that individuals cannot do otherwise than they do, and must resign themselves to acting out the hidden self with which they have been endowed (by their birth, hence in some versions of the myth by their race).  

On this view, the idea of "character" functions to hide the fundamental fact of human ethical freedom, the power to choose to be whatever, ethically, one pleases.  (One cannot choose the color of one's skin, but this is of no ethical significance.  One can choose to face facts, to die rather than tell a secret, to quit drinking, to take responsibility for the rules one adopts for governing one's conduct.)  An illusion which denies this fact counsels despair to one who has disgraced himself by a cowardly action (if I ran because I was a coward, there was - and is ­­ nothing I can do about it).  But it also licenses the anti-Semite and the racist to despise the Other (who, no matter how charitably he appears to behave, is "a dirty Jew" or a "savage nigger") and to behave inhumanely to that Other (for, if I adopt this perspective, then no matter what I do, I am intrinsically noble in virtue of my indelible status as a "true Frenchman" or "white American").  

Sartre is willing to permit the use of the word "character," but only on condition that it be assigned a logically quite different meaning and function.  It cannot be used to denote a supposed essence (stable and "real") behind existence (actual conduct, which is, however, merely "appearance" insofar as it is derivative of the "real" productive factor, essential character).  It can only serve as a provisional empirical generalization of someone's behavior.  On this view, we can, if we insist, call someone "a coward," but do so legitimately only on condition that we understand this to mean no more than that up to now he has conducted himself in a cowardly fashion, and that as soon as he chooses to behave in a courageous manner, he ceases to "be a coward."  In this way of speaking, it is not necessary to rule out talk of "motivation" - but only so long as one does not conceive of the "motives behind an action" (even collectively) as "making" the agent "act" as he does.  For Sartre, the crucial point is that one can never leave out of account, finally, that it is choice (human freedom) that makes any potentially motivating factor into an actual motive.  It is not, he insists, your values that "make you decide" to do this rather than that.  It is your chosen allegiance to those values that give them any leverage over your conduct in the first place.  Sartre is fed up, in other words, with people who ask to be excused from the consequences of their concrete decisions because their sincere convictions "gave them no alternative."

Character is nevertheless a central dimension of much fiction.

Now it is true that some writers who are fascinated by the dimension of character in fiction also hold the conviction that "character is fate."  But many others are convinced of the opposite.  In fact, a particular object of fascination in much literature, especially beginning in the 19th Century, is the possibility of "change in character."   Is it possible that people can, under the pressure of certain experiences, actually end up becoming fundamentally different than they started out as being?  Can people "reformulate" their "identity"?  These questions are at the heart of one of the great inventions in the genre of the novel, the so-called Bildungsroman, or "novel of education," as they are in one of the major focuses of psychology in the last hundred years, the theorizing and study of "personality development."  On a smaller scale, they are the staple of "initiation" stories, though they are by no means restricted to this.  

Still, curiosity about the possibility and conditions of "change in identity" has been remarkably intense, in fiction and in psychology, during the last century.  In talk about literature, this has led to the development of a crude but useful terminological distinction of two sorts of characterization:  "static" and "dynamic".  

Mapping the relations among these different senses of the term.

As we have already noted, the idea of character as a bundle of traits or dispositions has been imported from fiction into everyday life. We also noted that it is from this general idea that there have evolved the more general conceptions of "being a character" (being quirky in some respect), of "having character" (ethically admirable bundles of traits), and of "having a character" (in the more general ethical sense of exhibiting virtues and/or vices).  All of these, we said, are logically different from each other - and from the two senses that predominate in discussions of works of literature.

Having said this, however, we have to note that the three everyday senses of the term "character" are often relevant in discussions involving the second (and most central) sense in which the term functions in literary critical discourse.

After all, a major reason storytellers and readers are interested in the workings of character in the sense of "what makes a person tick" is because they have a moral curiosity:  Among the traits that typically engage our interest, in fiction, are those of ethical relevance, including those that go to make up a person's "character" in the general moral sense.  And certain standard combinations of these have such a proven power of arousing our laughter, our admiration, or our contempt, that they appear again and again in literature, often because authors are inspired to imitate and adapt successful precedents from their own reading.  Hence the phenomenon of stock characters. <To be elaborated. Patience please.>

Recall again those idioms "he's a real character" and "he has real character."  Note that in neither of these phrases is "real" opposed to "fictional."  The force of "real" in the first case is rather to declare that the person is "quite definitely striking" in his ways.  Its equivalent would be something like "extremely."  That is, the opposite of "being a real character" is either "well, sort of being a character" or "not being especially eccentric in one's ways or particularly striking in one's style of conduct."  And the opposite of "having real character" is "having poor character" or "no character."  Nor does this latter mean "lacking identifiable qualities or even necessarily being unpredictable," since one may be (say) expected to be unreliable in keeping promises or telling the truth.

Thus it is logically possible (though almost always stylistically foolish) to say something like "Falstaff is a character in Shakespeare's play Henry the Fourth, Part One, who, though he's quite a character, basically lacks character, being an instance of the stock character known as miles gloriosus."  This would be an overly cute way of saying that Falstaff is one of the fictional personages in that play, portrayed on the conventional model of the braggart soldier, who is charming and funny but, in the end, recognized as ethically unsound.

For the same reason, one can say of a fictional character that he lacks character (is morally weak) or is not properly to be described as "a character" - that the set of traits with which he is endowed by the author do not include anything properly describable as eccentricities).

Related topics:

  Critical Concepts:  Flat and Round Characterization

  Critical Concepts:  "Static" and "Dynamic" Characterization

  Critical Concepts: Classifying plots in terms of characterization

  Critical Concepts:  Responsibility [of agents for actions and their consequences]

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to .

   Contents copyright © 2000, 2001 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 06 September 2001.