Bedford/St. Martin's virtuaLit Interactive Drama Tutorial Notebook VIEW SEND
Drama in Depth Approaches and Contexts
Select a PlayElements of DramaCultural ContextsCritical Approaches
Setting and Staging


With a few rare exceptions, plays revolve around the actions of their CHARACTERS, the people whose stories are being told. Put simply, a character is any person portrayed by an actor in the drama, although sometimes characters are referred to but never seen on stage.

Playwrights have access to a number of different kinds of characters, and they develop those characters as fully or as sketchily as the needs of the play demand. The main character of a play - the hero or the person the audience is meant to identify with - is the protagonist. In almost every case the story revolves around the protagonist: He or she generates the plot and embodies the play's theme. The primary source of opposition or conflict with the protagonist is the antagonist, who is often but not always a villain. Be aware that it's not always easy to identify the antagonist and the protagonist; in fact, many playwrights deliberately confuse the issue to force their audience to question the motivations and behaviors of their characters.

Because the story usually focuses on them, the antagonist and protagonist are almost always rounded characters. That is, they are fully developed and the audience gets a keen sense of who they are as people. Rounded characters have identifiable personalities, attitudes, desires, motivations, traits, and flaws. The audience's understanding of a rounded character might change as a play progresses; indeed, rounded characters' understandings of themselves and the other characters will usually develop and change through the course of the action.

At least some supporting characters in a play might be rounded as well, but a playwright can also include flat characters whose personalities are probed in considerably less depth. In some cases, a play's cast might also include a few stock characters, or stereotypical types, whose presence helps to move the plot forward and who might embody certain universal principals but whose desires and personalities are not important to the development of the story. (A few examples of stock characters you're probably already familiar with include the hooker with a heart of gold, the selfless mother, or the lovable fool.) Don't be tempted to think of the presence of flat and stock characters in a play as a weakness: On the contrary, these character types focus the audience's attention on the more central personas of the story. And besides, if every character in a large cast were rounded, the show might never end!

The process of developing characters is called characterization. Playwrights use a number of strategies to establish who their characters are. Most often, character is revealed through dialogue and action, either the character's own or that of other characters in the play. Gender, race, and class also figure prominently in defining characters; they might be portrayed through costume, dialect, or how they interact with other characters.

Effective use of character is central to any good play. Indeed, some plays focus more on studying their characters than on plot development, although both may be present in the work.

protagonist: A story’s main character (see also antagonist)
antagonist: The character or force in conflict with the protagonist (see also protagonist)
round character: A complex, fully developed character, often prone to change
flat character: A one-dimensional character, typically not central to the story
stock character: A stereotypical or symbolic character already familiar to audiences
characterization: The process by which an author presents and develops a fictional character

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