Friday, April 9, 2010

What's in a Character?

I thought I'd introduce a new semi-regular feature over here: exploring the etymology (history and previous uses and meanings) of words important to writers. I thought I'd kick this off by doing a tie-in-- we are sans guest post today at the Archives again, so please do go visit and tell us about your favorite character that you've written and why!

As such, my first word is "character". I found this lovely little resource on etymology and that is where I'm pulling my definitions from.

According to, the word "character" can be traced back to:

"early 14c., from O.Fr. caractere (13c., Mod.Fr. caractère), from L. character, from Gk. kharakter "engraved mark," also "symbol or imprint on the soul," from kharassein "to engrave," from kharax "pointed stake," from PIE base *gher- "to scrape, scratch." Meaning extended by metaphor to "a defining quality."
"You remember Eponina, who kept her husband alive in an underground cavern so devotedly and heroically? The force of character she showed in keeping up his spirits would have been used to hide a lover from her husband if they had been living quietly in Rome. Strong characters need strong nourishment." [Stendhal, "De l'Amour" 1822]
Sense of "person in a play or novel" is first attested 1660s, in reference to the "defining qualities" he or she is given by the author. The Latin ch- spelling was restored 1500s."

This is fascinating to me-- I hope it is to you as well.

I like the idea of character being an imprint on one's soul. It's like the very essence of who we are is an immutable, undefinable quality. Also, it strikes me that the idea of a character as a person in a play or novel is a later definition. The people we bandy about in our writing both have character and are characters.

Happy Friday, everyone!


  1. Am I the only one who finds it funny that one of its ancestors means "pointed stake"? LOL

    Fun post.

  2. Stephanie-- I did find that funny too! Those crazy whoever-they-weres!

    Bane-- Thank you, sir :)

  3. I like this new feature! More wrinkles for my brain!

  4. Love the new feature! Interesting background about "character". It makes me think.

  5. This is very interesting to me having taking a few linguistics courses as a grad student, including historical linguistics. Great feature for a blog.

    Now a follower! (and thanks for your follow as well!)

  6. I like that thought too. Like we're so unique that we all have our own imprint. And that our characters should have that too. Awesome!