The Grammarphobia Blog

Character analysis

Q: What do you call a character created to represent a class of people? I remember roaring with laughter many years ago when I read an article that referred to Marvin Moped, a generic rude moped rider. It doesn’t take much to make me crack up.

A: We don’t know of a technical term for such a character, but there are many common words or phrases with that sense: “stereotype,” “caricature,” “archetype,” “generic character,” “cartoon character,” “stock character,” and so on.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster says there are two basic character types, the flat character and the round character.

The flat character is the simple, two-dimensional stereotype you’re talking about, while the round character is a complex one with various characteristics.

Forster says a flat character, sometimes called a “type” or “caricature,” is “constructed round a single idea or quality.”

As an example, he cites Mrs. Micawber from Dickens’s novel David Copperfield. Her flat character, Forster says, can be described in one sentence: “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.”

Of the various terms for such a character, we find “stereotype” the most common in linguistic literature.

In “The Notion of Stereotype in Language Study” (an article posted to the Internet on May 22, 2013), the Russian linguist Elena L. Vilinbakhova notes “two major traditions” in linguistics for understanding stereotypes.

“The first approach defines stereotype as a fixed form, fixed expression, or even fixed text,” she writes. “According to the second approach, stereotype is seen as a fixed content, a fixed mental image of a person, an object or an event.”

Other linguists have referred to “formal stereotype” versus “semantic stereotype,” “‘stereotype of speech” vs. “stereotype of thought,” and “stereotype of language” vs. “stereotype of thought.”

Many writers have categorized character types, going back at least as far as the fourth century BC, when Theophrastus listed 30 types, including kolakeia (a sycophant), kakologia (a scandalmonger), and alazoneia (a braggart).

Interestingly, George Eliot borrowed his name for the scholarly narrator of her last published work, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, a meditation on life in the form of character sketches.

When the noun “character” showed up in English in the 14th century it referred to “a distinctive mark impressed, engraved, or otherwise made on a surface; a brand, stamp,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the OED indicates that the word was used from the start both in the literal sense of an actual mark and in the figurative sense of “the indelible quality which baptism, confirmation, and holy orders imprint on the soul.”

English borrowed the term from Middle French, where it was spelled caractere, carrectere, or charactere. But the ultimate source is the Latin noun character, which could refer to a branded or impressed letter or mark as well as a characteristic.

In the early 17th century, the English noun took on the sense of one’s individuality and personality. But it took a few decades more for it to develop the meaning you’re asking about—a fictional portrayal.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from The Rival Ladies, a 1664 play by John Dryden: “He may be allow’d sometimes to Err, who undertakes to move so many Characters and Humours as are requisite in a Play.”

As for “stereotype,” it showed up in the late 18th century as a noun for a method of printing in which a solid plate is formed from a mold of composed type. It’s ultimately derived from the classical Greek words for “solid” and “type.”

As we wrote in a May 8, 2013, post on the blog, the modern sense of a preconceived and oversimplified idea of someone or something showed up in the early 20th century.

When “caricature” appeared in the mid-1700s, according to the OED, it referred to “a portrait or other artistic representation, in which the characteristic features of the original are exaggerated with ludicrous effect.” That’s pretty much what it means today.

Is “caricature” derived from character, the Latin source of the English word “character”?

No, “caricature” comes from the late Latin carricare (to load) and the classical Latin carrus (wagon), the source of the English word “car.”

One might assume that “car” and “cart” are related. Not so. “Cart” comes from Germanic sources: cræt in Old English; cratto, Old High German; kart-r, Old Norse.

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