Types of Characters in Fiction
"What does characterization do for a story? In a nutshell, it allows us to empathize with the protagonist and
secondary characters, and thus feel that what is happening to these people in the story is vicariously happening
to us; and it also gives us a sense of verisimilitude, or the semblance of living reality. An important part of
characterization is dialogue, for it is both spoken and inward dialogue that afford us the opportunity to see into
the characters' hearts and examine their motivations. In the best of stories, it is actually characterization that
moves the story along, because a compelling character in a difficult situation creates his or her own plot."
Karen Bernardo, Characterization in Literature
In fictional literature, authors use many different types of characters to tell their stories. Different types of
characters fulfill different roles in the narrative process, and with a little bit of analysis, you can usually detect
some or all of the types below.
Major or central characters are vital to the development and resolution of the conflict. In other words, the plot
and resolution of conflict revolves around these characters.
Minor characters serve to complement the major characters and help move the plot events forward.
Dynamic - A dynamic character is a person who changes over time, usually as a result of resolving a central
conflict or facing a major crisis. Most dynamic characters tend to be central rather than peripheral characters,
because resolving the conflict is the major role of central characters.
Static - A static character is someone who does not change over time; his or her personality does not transform
Round - A rounded character is anyone who has a complex personality; he or she is often portrayed as a
conflicted and contradictory person.
Flat - A flat character is the opposite of a round character. This literary personality is notable for one kind of
personality trait or characteristic.
Stock - Stock characters are those types of characters who have become conventional or stereotypical through
repeated use in particular types of stories. Stock characters are instantly recognizable to readers or audience
members (e.g. the femme fatale, the cynical but moral private eye, the mad scientist, the geeky boy with glasses,
and the faithful sidekick). Stock characters are normally one-dimensional flat characters, but sometimes stock
personalities are deeply conflicted, rounded characters (e.g. the "Hamlet" type).
Protagonist - The protagonist is the central person in a story, and is often referred to as the story's main
character. He or she (or they) is faced with a conflict that must be resolved. The protagonist may not always be
admirable (e.g. an anti-hero); nevertheless s/he must command involvement on the part of the reader, or better
Antagonist - The antagonist is the character(s) (or situation) that represents the opposition against which the
protagonist must contend. In other words, the antagonist is an obstacle that the protagonist must overcome.
Anti-Hero - A major character, usually the protagonist, who lacks conventional nobility of mind, and who
struggles for values not deemed universally admirable. Duddy, in Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of
Duddy Kravitz, is a classic anti-hero. He's vulgar, manipulative and self-centered. Nevertheless, Duddy is the
center of the story, and we are drawn to the challenges he must overcome and the goals he seeks to achieve.
Foil - A foil is any character (usually the antagonist or an important supporting character) whose personal
qualities contrast with another character (usually the protagonist). By providing this contrast, we get to know
more about the other character.
Symbolic - A symbolic character is any major or minor character whose very existence represents some major
idea or aspect of society. For example, in Lord of the Flies, Piggy is a symbol of both the rationality and physical
weakness of modern civilization; Jack, on the other hand, symbolizes the violent tendencies (the Id) that William
Golding believes is within human nature.
Direct presentation (or characterization) - This refers to what the speaker or narrator directly says or thinks
about a character. In other words, in a direct characterization, the reader is told what the character is like. When
Dickens describes Scrooge like this: "I present him to you: Ebenezer Scrooge....the most tightfisted hand at the
grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!" - this is very
Indirect presentation (or characterization) - This refers to what the character says or does. The reader then
infers what the character is all about. This mimics how we understand people in the real world, since we can't
"get inside their heads". In other words, in an indirect characterization, it's the reader who is obliged to figure out
what the character is like. And sometimes the reader will get it wrong.
Ten (Direct or Indirect) Ways in which a Character Can Be Revealed:
a. By psychological description.
b. By physical description.
c. By probing what s/he thinks.
d. By what s/he says.
e. By how s/he says it.
f. By what s/he does.
g. By what others say about him or her.
h. By his or her environment.
i. By her reaction to others.
j. By his reaction to himself.
*Things to Remember:
Literary characters may embody more than one of these character types at the same time. A dynamic
character may also be the antagonist, and a protagonist can also be, say, a flat and stock character (i.e. the one-
Here's a very common mistake: while characters are often round and dynamic, that does not mean these two
terms mean the same thing. The former refers to a character's complexity, while the latter refers to a character's
development over time. Students also make this mistake with flat and static characters.