Characters

Major and Minor Characters

Since drama presents us directly with scenes which are based on people’s actions and interactions, characters play a dominant role in this genre and therefore deserve close attention. The characters in plays can generally be divided into major characters and minor characters, depending on how important they are for the plot. A good indicator as to whether a character is major or minor is the amount of time and speech as well as presence on stage he or she is allocated.

As a rule of thumb, major characters usually have a lot to say and appear frequently throughout the play, while minor characters have less presence or appear only marginally. Thus, for example, Hamlet is clearly the main character or protagonist of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy as we can infer from the fact that he appears in most scenes and is allocated a great number of speeches and, what is more, since even his name appears in the title (he is the eponymous hero). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, by contrast, are only minor characters because they are not as vitally important for the plot and therefore appear only for a short period of time. However, they become major characters in Tom Stoppard's comical re-make of the play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the two attendants are presented as bewildered witnesses and predestined victims.

Occasionally even virtually non-existent characters may be important but this scenario is rather exceptional. An example can be found in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where the action centres around the arrival of the mysterious Godot, whose name even appears in the title of the play although he never actually materialises on stage.

Character Dimensions

Major characters are frequently, albeit not exclusively, multi-dimensional and dynamic (round character) while minor characters often remain mono-dimensional and static (flat character, see Character Dimensions in narrative prose).

Multi-dimensional characters display several (even conflicting) character traits and are thus reasonably complex. They also tend to develop throughout the plot (hence, dynamic), though this is not necessarily the case. Hamlet, for example, is marked by great intellectual and rhetorical power but he is also flawed to the extent that he is indecisive and passive. The audience learns a lot about his inner moral conflict, his wavering between whether to take revenge or not, and we see him in different roles displaying different qualities: as prince and statesman, as son, as Ophelia’s admirer, etc.

Mono-dimensional characters, on the other hand, can usually be summarised by a single phrase or statement, i.e., they have only few character traits and are generally merely types. Frequently, mono-dimensional characters are also static, i.e., they do not develop or change during the play. Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, for example, is not as complex as Hamlet. He can be described as a passionate, rash youth who does not hesitate to take revenge when he hears about his father’s and sister’s deaths. As a character, he corresponds to the conventional revenger type, and part of the reason why he does not come across as a complex figure is that we hardly get to know him. In the play, Laertes functions as a foil for Hamlet since Hamlet’s indecisiveness and thoughtfulness appear as more marked through the contrast between the two young men.

Character and Genre Conventions

Sometimes the quality of characters can also depend on the subgenre to which a play belongs because genres traditionally follow certain conventions even as far as the dramatis personae, i.e., the dramatic personnel, are concerned. According to Aristotle’s Poetics, characters in tragedies have to be of a high social rank so that their downfall in the end can be more tragic (the higher they are, the lower they fall), while comedies typically employ ‘lower’ characters who need not be taken so seriously and can thus be made fun of. Since tragedies deal with difficult conflicts and subject matters, tragic heroes are usually complex. According to Aristotle, they are supposed to be neither too good nor too bad but somewhere ‘in the middle’, which allows them to have some tragic ‘flaw’ (hamartia) that ultimately causes their downfall (Aristotle 1953: 1453a). Since tragic heroes have almost ‘average’ characteristics and inner conflicts, the audience can identify more easily with them, which is an important prerequisite for what Aristotle calls the effect of catharsis (literally, a ‘cleansing’ of one’s feelings), i.e., the fact that one can suffer with the hero, feel pity and fear, and through this strong emotional involvement clarify one’s own state of mind and potentially become a better human being (Aristotle 1953: 1450a; see Zapf 1991:30-40 for a more detailed exploration of Aristotle's concept).

Comedies, by contrast, deal with problems in a lighter manner and therefore do not necessarily require complex figures. Furthermore, types are more appropriate in comedies as their single qualities can be easily exaggerated and thus subverted into laughable behaviour and actions. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the weaver Bottom, who foolishly thinks he can be a great actor, is literally turned into an ass and thus becomes the laughingstock of the play.


Key-Terms:

major / minor   character
eponymous    hero
multi-  dimensional character
dynamic character
round / flat   character

mono-  dimensional character
static character
types
revenger type
foil

dramatis   personae

hamartia

catharsis