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Literary Elements Character. as a literary term, refers to a person or an animal in a story, poem, novel, or a play. A writer who is adept in the realistic creation of characters is said to be good at “characterization.”. Real Life and Literary Characters.

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Literary elements character l.jpg

Literary ElementsCharacter

as a literary term, refers to a person or an animal in a story, poem, novel, or a play.

A writer who is adept in the realistic creation of characters is said to be good at “characterization.”


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Real Life andLiterary Characters

One of the marvels of literature is that writers can teach us about real people and about human nature by creating and presenting to us their imaginary characters.

One reason readers love literature is that we experience and come to know “people” whom we will never otherwise “meet.” Getting to know characters such as Don Quixote, Hester Prynne, Hamlet, Jay Gatsby, and Madame Bovary enriches our lives.


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The Difference. . . .

When we say about a real person, “He’s a real character,” we mean that he has notably unique or conspicuous traits. All characters in fiction have chosen traits and perform actions which the author has chosen, eliminating other possible traits and actions in order to highlight certain aspects of that one character. Some characters seem very lifelike or true to life, while others may seem fantastic, so imagined that we would never really expect to meet such a real person in our own lives.


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. . . is Choice and Arrangement

Writing fiction and poetry is making art. Characters are made, artificial representations. Authors carefully choose the background and circumstances in which they place their characters. In doing so, they eliminate the more trivial everyday occurrences which tend to clutter the scenes in our own everyday lives. This is why literary characters are so different from the rest of us. Just about everything they do and say may seem important and interesting!


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Everything Matters

In fact, since authors choose their characters’ words and actions, those authors consider everything a character says and does to be important. And so should we. It’s helpful, then, to pay close and special attention to what each character says and does. Such attention is crucial in a short story because no character is really “on stage” very long.

Pay special attention to repetition of images or patterns in relation to any character. Such images may give us a key insight into that character’s personality.


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Born Again Characters

Some authors do bring their characters back to life in other works. Then we can get to know the characters even better because we are allowed to see them in a variety of circumstances, in other stories. But such is generally not the case in short stories, although there are many notable exceptions. One is Sherlock Holmes, whom we know through a lengthy series of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. We continue reading these stories and others with recurring characters because we have grown to know and perhaps love the character and we want to know what he or she is up to, what new circumstance presents itself.


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Life on the Page

Characters live only on the page. They have no lives beyond the page. Thus -- although we can speculate -- it is not really fruitful to write too much about what a character might do off the page, after a story ends. This limitation forces readers to focus our attention, and our own critical writing, on the evidence we do have -- whatever the characters say, do, or tell us about themselves in the storyat hand, or on whatever another character or the story’s narrator tells us.


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Knowing a Character

Ways we can learn about particular characters:

  • Action: what the character does

  • Dialogue: what the character says

  • Narration: what a narrator conveys

  • Appearance how the character looks

  • Name how the character is named:

    (Mr Gradgrind, for example, is a dull, strict, and unforgiving teacher in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times.)


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Types of Conflict

Remember types of conflict occurring in a short story:

  • character vs. character

  • character vs. society

  • character vs. nature

  • character vs. self

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Character by Role

  • Protagonist: the central character

  • Antagonist: the character or force against whom the central character struggles

  • Foil: a character whose only role is to emphasize and highlight by contrast the development taking place in other characters

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  • [No moral judgment is implied by the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist.” An antagonist could be “good” while a protagonist could be “evil.”]


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Character by Change and Development

  • Static character: one who remains the same, or very nearly so, throughout a story, unchanging

  • Dynamic character: one who changes

  • Flat character: a “type” or “one-dimensional”or, perhaps, a “stock” character with no depth or complexity of personality: the faithful sidekick; the shrewish wife; the cruel stepmother; the bad cop

  • Round character: a “three-dimensional” character, sufficiently complex as to be believable as a person with all the depth and unpredictability that real people have, one having “more facets” than a flat character (Kennedy & Gioia 61).


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For more info

“Characterization.” A Handbook to Literature. Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon, eds. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

Works Cited

Kennedy, X. J. and Dana Gioia, eds. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: Longman, 1999. 60-63.


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