Cacophony  Language that is discordant and difficult to pronounce, such as this line from John Updike's "Player Piano": "never my numb plunker fumbles." Cacophony ("bad sound") may be unintentional in the writer's sense of music, or it may be used consciously for deliberate dramatic effect. See also euphony.

Caesura A pause within a line of poetry that contributes to the rhythm of the line. A caesura can occur anywhere within a line and need not be indicated by punctuation. In scanning a line, caesuras are indicated by a double vertical line (||). See also meter, rhythm, scansion.

Canon Those works generally considered by scholars, critics, and teachers to be the most important to read and study, which collectively constitute the "masterpieces" of literature. Since the 1960s, the traditional English and American literary canon, consisting mostly of works by white male writers, has been rapidly expanding to include many female writers and writers of varying ethnic backgrounds.

Carpe diem The Latin phrase meaning "seize the day." This is a very common literary theme, especially in lyric poetry, which emphasizes that life is short, time is fleeting, and that one should make the most of present pleasures. Robert Herrick's poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" employs the carpe diem theme. For an example of a carpe diem poem, go to the VirtuaLit Interactive Poetry Tutorial.

Catharsis Meaning "purgation," catharsis describes the release of the emotions of pity and fear by the audience at the end of a tragedy. In his Poetics , Aristotle discusses the importance of catharsis. The audience faces the misfortunes of the protagonist, which elicit pity and compassion. Simultaneously, the audience also confronts the failure of the protagonist, thus receiving a frightening reminder of human limitations and frailties. Ultimately, however, both these negative emotions are purged, because the tragic protagonist's suffering is an affirmation of human values rather than a despairing denial of them. See also tragedy.

Character, characterization  A character is a person presented in a dramatic or narrative work, and characterization is the process by which a writer makes that character seem real to the reader. A hero or heroine, often called the protagonist, is the central character who engages the reader's interest and empathy. The antagonist is the character, force, or collection of forces that stands directly opposed to the protagonist and gives rise to the conflict of the story. A static character does not change throughout the work, and the reader's knowledge of that character does not grow, whereas a dynamic character undergoes some kind of change because of the action in the plot. A flat character embodies one or two qualities, ideas, or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary. They are not psychologically complex characters and therefore are readily accessible to readers. Some flat characters are recognized as stock characters; they embody stereotypes such as the "dumb blonde" or the "mean stepfather." They become types rather than individuals. Round characters are more complex than flat or stock characters, and often display the inconsistencies and internal conflicts found in most real people. They are more fully developed, and therefore are harder to summarize. Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Showing allows the author to present a character talking and acting, and lets the reader infer what kind of person the character is. In telling, the author intervenes to describe and sometimes evaluate the character for the reader. Characters can be convincing whether they are presented by showing or by telling, as long as their actions are motivated. Motivated action by the characters occurs when the reader or audience is offered reasons for how the characters behave, what they say, and the decisions they make. Plausible action is action by a character in a story that seems reasonable, given the motivations presented. See also plot. For discussions of characterization and an exercise, go to the VirtuaLit Interactive Fiction Tutorial.

Chorus In Greek tragedies (especially those of Aeschylus and Sophocles), a group of people who serve mainly as commentators on the characters.

Cliché An idea or expression that has become tired and trite from overuse, its freshness and clarity having worn off. Clichés often anesthetize readers, and are usually a sign of weak writing. See also sentimentality, stock responses.

Climax See plot.

Closet drama A play that is written to be read rather than performed onstage. In this kind of drama, literary art outweighs all other considerations. See also drama.

Colloquial Refers to a type of informal diction that reflects casual, conversational language and often includes slang expressions. See also diction.

Comedy A work intended to interest, involve, and amuse the reader or audience, in which no terrible disaster occurs and that ends happily for the main characters. High comedy refers to verbal wit, such as puns, whereas low comedy is generally associated with physical action and is less intellectual. Romantic comedy involves a love affair that meets with various obstacles (like disapproving parents, mistaken identities, deceptions, or other sorts of misunderstandings) but overcomes them to end in a blissful union. Shakespeare's comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, are considered romantic comedies.

Comic relief A humorous scene or incident that alleviates tension in an otherwise serious work. In many instances these moments enhance the thematic significance of the story in addition to providing laughter. When Hamlet jokes with the gravediggers we laugh, but something hauntingly serious about the humor also intensifies our more serious emotions.

Conflict The struggle within the plot between opposing forces. The protagonist engages in the conflict with the antagonist, which may take the form of a character, society, nature, or an aspect of the protagonist's personality. See also character, plot.

Connotation  Associations and implications that go beyond the literal meaning of a word, which derive from how the word has been commonly used and the associations people make with it. For example, the word eagle connotes ideas of liberty and freedom that have little to do with the word's literal meaning. See also denotation. For discussions of connotation and an exercise, go to the VirtuaLit Interactive Poetry Tutorial.

Consonance A common type of near rhyme that consists of identical consonant sounds preceded by different vowel sounds: home, same; worth, breath.  See also rhyme.

Contextual symbol See symbol.

Controlling metaphor See metaphor.

Convention A characteristic of a literary genre (often unrealistic) that is understood and accepted by audiences because it has come, through usage and time, to be recognized as a familiar technique. For example, the division of a play into acts and scenes is a dramatic convention, as are soliloquies and asides. Flashbacks and foreshadowing are examples of literary conventions.

Conventional symbol  See symbol.

Cosmic irony See irony.

Couplet Two consecutive lines of poetry that usually rhyme and have the same meter. A heroic couplet is a couplet written in rhymed iambic pentameter.

Crisis A turning point in the action of a story that has a powerful effect on the protagonist. Opposing forces come together decisively to lead to the climax of the plot. See also plot.

Cultural criticism An approach to literature that focuses on the historical as well as social, political, and economic contexts of a work. Popular culture mass produced and consumed cultural artifacts ranging from advertising to popular fiction to television to rock music is given equal emphasis as "high culture." Cultural critics use widely eclectic strategies such as new historicism, psychology, gender studies, and deconstructionism to analyze not only literary texts but everything from radio talk shows, comic strips, calendar art, commercials, to travel guides and baseball cards. See also historical criticism, Marxist criticism, postcolonial criticism.

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