The question of identity, stated mathematically as a = a, is as old as philosophy. Western philosophy has long held to the argument that a does in fact always equal a, a philosophical tenet described as “essentialism.” The essentialist belief holds that each individual has some unique characteristic, or “essence,” that separates him or her from all other individuals. This essence, or soul, is viewed as being eternal and unchanging. The soul of the person at five is the soul of that person at fifty: a = a.
The literary convention of character follows a similar argument. An individual literary character is typically assumed to have an essential nature, by which means a reader or audience can distinguish that character from others. The most gripping fictional characters are, nevertheless, those who change in some form or another over the course of a narrative, who undergo a transformation and become something other than what they were at the beginning. Much of the appeal of narrative has to do with the tension between these two aspects of character.
Self-image derived from economic status has been one traditional means of determining both the type and importance of a literary character. Traditionally and historically, characters of low economic status are relegated to minor, static, roles. They are slaves, servants, fools, and the like, and usually remain in the background while the serious action goes on among those higher up the economic pyramid. This representation and stereotyping have been challenged throughout the history of literature.