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  Character is derived from the Greek word for the impression made in wax by a seal-stone or seal-ring. This primary meaning is still used in typography and computing, where a ‘character’ is a mark with a single meaning, which can be varied only if it is modified in some way, or associated with another mark or marks. (Thus, a has a different significance from A or a; 1 is different from—1 or 11.)

In ancient Greek philosophy, the word ‘character’ came to have a second meaning: the ‘stamp’ of personality each of us possesses, as if we were wax imprinted by the gods or by circumstance. Greek philosophers used to teach about human nature by describing ‘characters’ of this kind, what we might think of (again, using an image from printing) as ‘stereotypes’. The best-known surviving work of this kind is Theophrastos\' Characters (3rd century  BCE), which today is read less for its philosophical content than for its lively, witty descriptions of such marketplace personalities as the Bore, the Superstitious Person, the Gossip or the Boaster.

In medieval Europe, people often defined character as the results, in a person, of the pull of opposing forces—those of good and evil, or God and the Devil. This was an unconscious parallel to the Greek idea that characters were stamped on us at birth by the gods, but it also allowed the possibility of variation and change, as one resisted or accepted a particular kind of pull. In literature, writers followed this idea or played with the proposition (from alchemy) that all substances were a blend of earth, air, fire and water. The theory of ‘humours’ (best known in Britain from its use by Ben Jonson, but common in all European literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance) says that human types are all blended from those four elements and seldom depart from them—a gift to comedy in particular.

In modern times, character has been explained more in psychological terms (particularly Freud\'s theories). In fiction, opaqueness and latency of character—anathema to earlier writers—have become important resources, and part of the enjoyment of much modern literature and drama is finding a character that develops or reveals himself or herself as the work proceeds. Some modern literature, for example the novels of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka, and many of the plays of the theatre of the absurd, have even centred on ‘characters’ who have no character at all. In terms of the original meaning of the word, this is a spectacular and creatively useful irony. KMcL



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