2.4. Character


Character (ethos)  is the second constituent element of a tragedy in Aristotle's Poetics. We have already seen some opinions of Aristotle's concerning the place of character and its relationship with plot.  The subjects of the action Aristotle calls agents  rather than characters ; a distinction which is kept in narratological models up to Bal. 

            Character is not clearly defined in the Poetics, but at one point Aristotle says that "By character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain qualities to the agents" (Poetics  51, VI.6).  Character, then, is not to be taken in the sense of "human being" (Spanish personaje) but rather in the sense of "personality", "disposition" (Spanish carácter ).  It is not the whole of the personality, but rather the disposition to act virtuously or otherwise, as manifested in deliberate ethical intention (proaíresis ). This is manifested both through action and speech: thence the importance of "thought". There is no place in Aristotle's theory for an unconscious revelation of character.  It is made evident only in moral choice.

            With the term "character" we are referring to human or humanised entitities.  Characters are the most important kind of narrative agents  There may be non-human agents (a storm, a river).  It is open to question whether they are not humanised as they become narratively significant, but here we shall maintain the theoretical distinction between agents (semantic clusters which cause narrative change or perform a narrative function) and characters (those clusters that we identify as people or humanised beings). An agent is merely the subject for an action; the subject is defined from this point of view only with respect to his or her role in the action, as the subject or affected of acts and happenings.  The term agents has a connotation of activity which does not accomodate very well with the element of passivity and suffering which seems so strongly linked to many of the Greek tragedies.  For Aristotle, tragedy must be centered on an active figure, the hero.  Action is all: even the chorus is subjected to this rule.   According to Aristotle, the chorus must be regarded as one of the agents. Choral songs must not be lyrical interludes; they should instead be relevant to the plot.  He prefers Sophocles' way to that of Euripides or Agathon. The chorus must get involved in the action.

            "In respect of character there are four things to be aimed at.  First, and most important, it must be good"  (Poetics  56, XV.1).  Aristotle means here moral goodness, but later he will qualify this requirement.  There is a place in his theory for bad characters, of course, and also for not so good characters. Moreover, he does not identify virtue and happiness, as Socrates and Plato had done.  Tragedy deals for Aristotle with the vulnerability of external conditions of happiness, vulnerability of fortune and prosperity, and not of virtue.  And anyway, he does not mean any kind of absolute moral goodness, but rather a fulfilment of the possibilities of each character:

This rule is relative to each class.  Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.  The second thing to aim at is propriety. . . . Thirdly,  character must be true to life. . . .  The fourth point is consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent.  (Poetics  57, XV.1-4)

With these rules, Aristotle sets the foundations of the doctrine of decorum  in characterization, an its slippery requirement that characters in literary works must be both like characters in life and  like characters in other literary works. 


            The last of the four requirements seems to lead us to a regressus in infinitum, but it becomes clearer from what follows that Aristotle is here demanding a certain idealization of character, in the sense of universalization, that is, of an interpretation of the way a character would act "according to the laws of necessity or probability":

So too, the poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it.  In this way Achilles is portrayed by Agathon and Homer.  (Poetics  57, XV.8)

The poet should then preserve the type with its defects, and at the same time ennoble it.  Let us point out that this is a theory of character in tragedy.

            Besides the general requirements of character, we have already seen some specific indications on the characters of tragedy. They must be men better than the average. They must also be friends or relatives.  Aristotle observes that the fact that they belong to a small group of mythical families is convenient, even though it is not a necessary condition. The poet is free to invent his characters, provided that they fulfil the basic requirements.

            The best way of producing pity and fear, according to Aristotle, is through a complex action (one with recognition, or reversal, or both) in which a man not eminently good or just falls into misfortune because of some error or frailty (hamartia ). The character must not be too bad, because his downfall would not bring about terror or pity, and not too good because then the result would be disgust, and not pity. So, hamartia does not necessarily mean "sin", but rather "error" or "unskilfulness" in current Greek usage. In Aristotle's Ethics, it may include sin and crime, but the main sense is something like "rash and culpable negligence". The kind which seems favoured by Aristotle is man's blundering against the supernatural, such as we find in Oedipus Tyrannus.


            A formalist definition would see a character not as a "person" but as a constructive device, "the living embodiment of a collection of motifs" ("Thematics" 88).  As a rule, "The character is a guiding thread which makes it possible to untangle a conglomeration of motifs and permits them to be classified and arranged"  ("Thematics" 88). 

            A name, a set of psychological characteristics, behaviour, and direct characterization by the author, are the building materials of a character. As a construction, the character performs an informational function, and must be recognized and remembered by the reader.  Tomashevski links once more in this way the deeper level of the action with the reading process in a dialectical interplay.  The character's psychological unity affects other elements of the work, constituting what Tomashevki calls the character's "mask."  The division of characters into static and dynamic ("Thematics" 89) should be considered in conjunction with the definition of event we commented on before, since in dynamic characterization "the elements of characterization enter intimately into the story, and the crisis of the character . . . marks a change in the situation in the story [action]" ("Thematics" 89).  This remark could be extended in some degree or other to any event in an action. 

            In spite of his insistence on the constructedness of character and what Barthes would call its indexical nature relating different levels of the textual structure, Tomashevski tries to divide the constructive elements into those belonging to the fabula (action) and those proper to the siuzhet  (story, plot):

The protagonist is by no means an essential part of the story.  The story, as a system of motifs, may dispense entirely with him and his characteristics.  The protagonist, rather, is the result of the formation of the story material into a plot.  ("Thematics" 90)

Accordingly, what gives us the sense of a character's being the hero are shown to be the constructive elements of the story: point of view, commentary by the narrator, etc. 

            So far we have established an analytical difference between characters and agents.  We can now add a third analytical category: actants.            

            We have defined a character as a cluster of relevant semantic traits.  Now if several actors share the same structural function in the narrative, we can consider all of them as a more complex cluster.  In simple narratives, there are four main kinds of actants: subject, object, helper  and opponent.   We can pursue the linguistic analogy we have suggested earlier by comparing the macrostructure of such simple narratives to a transitive phrase: we can easily see the analogy between the subject of the sentence and the hero(es) of the narrative.  The basic plot of such narratives often consists in appropriating an object, literally or metaphorically, by undergoing a series of trials.  E. g.:


The knights of the Round Table      find          the Holy Grail.


                  subject                                    verb         object


This is the basic pattern of a hero's quest, probably the most basic of all narrative models.  In his quest, the hero meets other characters which qualify either as helpers or opponents, providing us with the basic actantial structure of narrative:







            Helper _________>   Subject  <_________ Opponent



Mythic narratives often include another basic pair of actants: the sender  and the receiver.  The narrative movement does not originate in the subject: the subject performs the action at the bequest of some sender.  And the object is not destined to himself, but to some receiver.  In folk narratives, it is usually the hero's community or family who benefits from the magic object obtained by the hero.  This actantial structure can be represented thus:


            Sender ------------  Object ------------- Receiver



            Helper ------------ Subject ------------- Opponent




            Characters must be defined insofar as they are  and as they act.  That is, the description must take into account what the character is and its role in the action. 

            Both the being and the actions of the characters becomes clearer through a modal analysis of their structural position.[1]  The four verbs must, can, want, know  provide us with a handy analytical grid, characterising the actors from four different points of view:

Must  provides a moral  perspective on the action.  Characters hold different obligations and duties, and these may change as the narrative progresses.  The nature of this obligation should be specified: is it related to a social identity or role of the character?  Is it self-imposed? If so, why, or in which sense is it individual? Is it the result of a promise, or is it given with the definition of the character? Does the character fulfil the moral duties which are a part of his/her initial characterisation?  Many stories, starting with the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve, are based on the transgression of an obligation.  We should remember at this point that the reader does not have immediate access to the moral world of the action: this has sense only as mediated through the narrator's and the author's values. 

  Can:   Here we must analyse the character from the point of view of its powers and abilities.   As happens with all these modalities, we have to adjust our expectations to the genre conventions of this particular narrative: in the world of romance, the hero is superior by far to us; in other genres, differences may be more blurred.[2]  An analysis intrinsic to the level of the action will always take into account the comparative ability and power ‹described in each narrative situation‹ of the different characters.

  Want:  Here we are concerned with the volition and desire of the characters.  If necessary we may draw a difference between conscious and unconscious objects of desire or aims.  Do these aims coincide in the case of several characters?  Is this a reason for collaboration or for conflict? Why?  In modal analysis we can also reverse the categories and focus on what a character fears  or wants to avoid  (or, for that matter, can't do, ignores, or mustn't do).

  Know.  This is the epistemic  description of the characters.  What is the picture each character has of the action at any given moment?  How does s/he conceive the other characters' selves, duties, desires, aims, knowledge?  How does this compare with other characters' pictures?  As we relate the level of the action analysis to other levels, we will also need to check the character's knowledge against the narrator's or the implied reader's.[3]  Here we meet for the first time the concept of point of view, but for the moment it is not a narrative  point of view, but an actional point of view.  All characters in an action may be conceived as having their perceptual and cognitive point of view, though only a few or none of these points of view may be drawn upon for narrative use at the level of the story.

            Any change in the modal description of a character is an event.  It may be an insignificant event or a major one ‹for instance, an anagnorisis  is nothing but a momentuous transformation of a character's epistemic characterisation: the character suddenly becomes aware of a circumstance which is crucial to the unfolding of the plot ‹in the case of anagnorisis a mistaken identity, as in Oedipus the King.





[1]          See Greimas and Courtés 231 for a table of these different modal characterisations.

[2]          See on this point Northrop Frye's characterisation of the relative abilities of heroes and audience (Anatomy  33ff.)

[3]          See the basic diagrams offered by Pouillon (Tiempo y novela  ch. 1.1) or Genette ("Discours" 206).  We shall return to this question later, seen from the levels of narrating and reading.