The Nature and Types of Character in Fiction
The Nature of Characters
Characters are possibly the most important elements of literary works, including a short story. They are the elements that create and push the plot forward by performing the actions and speaking the dialogues to move the story along the plot line. It is through the characters’ interaction with their environment and how they view their environment that readers can experience the world created in a fiction. No plot would be a story without characters to perform the action and dialogues.
In a fiction, characters are anything representing people. Characters are not always people. They can be animals, plants, or other creatures and things. Yet, whatever they are, they represent persons. They can act, behave, and talk like person. In Boccaro’s A Long walk Home, the characters are Jackson and his father. In Aesop’s The Lion and the Mouse, the characters are the lion and the mouse. In Andersen’s The Last Dreamof Old Oak Tree, the characters are the oak tree, some flies, and some sailors.
Whatever the characters are, they are not real and have no life outside the literary works. However well an author has created the illusion of the reality in his story, the characters are merely construction of words used to express an idea or view of experience, and they must be considered in relation to other elements of the work, such as action and setting. Jackson in Boccaro’s A Long walk Home may be similar to some teens in reality. The old man in Hemingway’s Old Man at the Bridge may have some similar characters with some real people suffering from war. The old oak in Andersen’s The Last Dreamof Old Oak Tree does have some similar characteristics with some real old oaks. However, Jackson, the old man, and the oak in these stories are not real. They are merely the authors’ creation meant to express ideas or to attain other purposes.
Functions of Characters
In a story, the characters have many functions. The first and the most important function is to extend or prolong the plot. It is through the way the characters interact and view their environment that the readers can experience the world created in a story.
The second function of characters is to personify and illustrate the theme of the story. Besides through the plot, the theme of Boccaro’s A Long walk Home, i.e. the idea that “a bitter experience can make one wise”, is expressed through Jackson’s mental and morality traits. In the beginning of the story, Jackson is presented as a teen who thinks that telling a lie is not a problem. But this view of his is changed after seeing his father’s physical and emotional pain due to his lie.
The third function of characters is to make the story interesting. Since the readers are human being, getting to know about a character, especially the protagonist, is usually the major motive the readers have in reading a story. Most readers do love adventures so that the plot often entertain them. However, it is the characters that most readers usually keep in mind after they finished reading the story. The readers can forget a plot, how surprising or entertaining it may be, but they will always remember a well-written character.
Types of Characters
In literary analysis, the types of characters can be discussed in four ways. They can be differentiated between round vs. flat, static vs. developing, protagonist vs. antagonist, and major vs. minor characters. Some of these typologies overlap because a flat character is also a static character who plays the role of the confidant, foil, and minor character of a story.
Round vs. Flat Characters.
A round and a flat characters are differentiated based on two criteria: the amount of detail used to portray them and/or their development in the story. A round character is given with complex detail of personalities and undergoes development. These make him or her unique or have individuality. By contrast, a flat character is portrayed relatively uncomplicated and does not change throughout the course of the story. The difference between these two character types can be analogized to the difference between a three-dimensional shape (3D) and a two-dimensional shape (2D), in which a round character is 3D and a flat character is 2D.
In Boccaro’s A Long walk Home, Jackson is presented with quite many detail. He is 16-years old, a teen who has just learned to drive. He loves watching movies. Initially, he thinks that telling a lie to solve a problem is acceptable. However, the bitter experience he undergoes makes him decide not to lie to his father ever after. Thus, he changes throughout the course of the story. This makes him a round character. Unlike him, his father is given in a relatively uncomplicated personality trait. He does not even have a name and remains the same from the beginning to the end of the story. Thus, he is a flat character.
Developing vs. Static Characters.
Developing and static characters are differentiated based one of the criteria of round vs. flat characters, i.e., their development in the story. A developing character changes throughout the story. He or she changes in personality or grows to a new awareness of life. A static character, on the other hand, remains essentially unchanged throughout the action. Different from a round character who is directly affected in the changes of human relationships that are at the center of the story, a static character will probably play a supporting role in the action.
The developing character in a story is usually the round character, while the static character is usually a flat character. Therefore, in Boccaro’s A Long walk Home, Jackson is a developing character, and his father is a static one.
Protagonist vs. Antagonist vs. Confidant vs. Foil
This classification is based on the role or function that characters perform in a story. A protagonist is the principle figure, with whom the readers’ emotions are chiefly involved.
In a story, the protagonist is made to have a minor flaw. He or she should want something and finally changes as a result of the experiences he or she undertakes.
Since the protagonist embodies some of the readers’ idea, they often call the protagonist as their hero or heroine. In such a context, the readers recognize in the protagonist strong similarities to themselves or if his circumstances and problems are like their own. They identify themselves with him and in a sense undergo the same experiences that he does.
An antagonist is the character who plays the role to oppose the protagonist. This opposition is actualized in the conflict that presents obstacles to the protagonist to attain his or her goal. An antagonist, however, is not always a person or a group of people that oppose the protagonist. It can also be a difficult situation or accidental event that works against the protagonist. If the conflicting power is a character, it is called the antagonist who prevents the protagonist from getting what he or she wants. If the conflict is not embodied in a character, it is the antagonistic force. In Gale’s Bill, the conflict is between Bill vs. the nature (his illness causes him to live for six more months only). Thus the story has no antagonist, but antagonistic power.
Since the identification of a protagonist and antagonist is based on a reader’s values and cultural background, not all readers automatically have the same hero or heroine among the characters in the same literary work. To illustrate, suppose some Americans and Vietnamese are watching Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), a war movie of America vs. the Vietnam. To a higher extent, most of the Americans will identify the American soldiers their protagonist, but the Vietnamese will choose the Vietnamese their heroes. In Boccaro’s A Long walk Home, most readers will probably choose Jackson as the protagonist and Jackson’s father as the antagonist. However, other readers may take it other way round: Jackson as the antagonist and his father as the protagonist.
A confidant is a character who plays a minor role and is a close friend of the protagonist to whom she or he can confide and reveal his or her innermost thoughts. Confidants generally appear in long fiction like novels. Since short stories generally focus on a main character, they rarely have a confidant.
A confidant is usually depicted as rather ordinary and static and his or her presence merely supports the characterization of the protagonist or antagonist. By contrasting a confidant to the protagonist, the latter’s personalities are highlighted. A protagonist probably does something with a confidant or shares ideas with him to make the former’s unique qualities clear. In Boccaro’s A Long walk Home there is no confidant, but in Gale’s Bill Minna is a confidant because her presence makes Bill’s characterization more evident.
Quite similar to a confidant, a foil is a rather ordinary and static character whose role is to make the protagonist’s character more evident. However, unlike a confidant who has a close relationship with the protagonist, a foil does not have a close relationship with the protagonist. The woman next door in Gale’s Bill is a foil. By contrasting her to Bill, Bill’s character is easier to understand. Due to their limited length, not all short stories have foil.
Major vs. Minor Characters
Major characters (also called central characters) are those who are central to the plot development. In other words, the plot and resolution of conflict revolve around these characters. Thus, most of the actions, dialogues, and inner thinking are related to the major character. Minor characters, on the other hand, are those who have less influence on the story. They serve to complement the major characters and support to move the plot development. In a short story, the major character is usually a round, and developing character who plays the role of the protagonist or antagonist. In long fiction, like a novel, each of the protagonist and the antagonist is a major character. A minor character is usually a flat and static character who plays the role of a confidant or a foil. In Boccaro’s A Long walk Home, the major character is Jackson while the minor character is his father. Gale’s Bill has a major character, i.e. Bill, and some minor characters, i.e. Minna, the lady next door, the wealthy lady, and Minna’s new parents.***
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