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Term Definition

When a person (fictional or nonfictional) is found in a work of art, that person is a character. By analogy, we also use the term character for people in life.


The word "character" seems like such an ordinary one that most people may have trouble defining it without using the word itself in the definition. 

Basically, a character is really just any person in a narrative work of art, including novels, movies, and plays. Every person that can be found within such a work can be called a character within that work. 

Character is usually understood as one of the three main elements of any story. The other two are plot and setting. 

Types of characters

Here are some examples of the literary character being used in actual sentences. 

"In Aronofsky's film The Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays the characters of both the gentle White Swan and the daring title character." 

"If Hermione (and not Harry) had been the main character of the Harry Potter series, then we would have gotten a very different picture of the wizarding world."

 "One of the main mistakes of young writers is to make characters who are not believable enough as authentic, flesh-and-blood human beings." 

As you can see from the examples above, a character is clearly a person within a work of fiction.

In case you're still confused, here are two further guidelines that can help you tell how to use the word character in the right way. 

1. Sometimes, "character" refers to a person's moral stature: people say that the person "has" character. Or, if someone is strange, you might call him "a character". These are different from the literary usage of the term. 

2. Sometimes, the term character is used to refer to the real world in a metaphorical way. For example, it can be said that Al-Qaeda is a main "character" in the story of the War on Terror

Character concepts

The concept of character is probably as old as the human species itself. This is because since the very beginning, people have liked to tell stories about themselves and each other. For example, most high school students read the Epic of Gilgamesh; and experts say that this work dates to 2500 BC at the earliest. Gilgamesh would be the heroic main character of this story. People have clearly been making up and telling stories about characters ever since. 

Since a character is a person in a work of art, "character analysis" refers to trying to understand the structure of a given character, in terms of who they think they are, what they want, what they represent, and so on. For example, the Japanese writer Murakami tends to create rather "flat" main characters for his stories. Character analysis here would consist of understanding why these characters are how they are, and what this says about the world they live in. 

It is worth pointing out that the way people see characters tends to be highly reflective of how their society and culture have understood what it means to be a person. For example, modern efforts to understand the nature of characters is surely related to modern understandings of the human personality, as revealed (for example) by psychoanalysis. Our understanding of characters, then, ultimately mirrors our understanding of ourselves. 

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Synonyms: character

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