Guide to Literary Terms

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Character

Character - an aggregate of traits and features that form the nature of some person or animal. It also refers to moral qualities and ethical standards and principles. In literature, character refers to a person represented in a story, novel, play, etc.

The word is from the Greek kharakter, meaning “stamp,” and kharassein, meaning “to engrave.” Originally, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (372 – 287 B.C.), a pupil of Aristotle’s, used it in his book Characters which contained short prose sketches of different types of people molded to a pattern which served as a model for some Seventeenth-Century writers. In Seventeenth and Eighteenth-century England, a character was a formal sketch or descriptive analysis of a particular virtue or vice as represented in a person, what is now more often called a character sketch.

Chaucer wrote character sketches in the General Prologue to his The Canterbury Tales.