Character can index a number of related meanings in different contexts (see below), but in literature--especially fiction--the term describes the creation of human figures who are not real in a flesh-and-blood sense but who act, speak, think, and feel in recognizably human ways. Such characters may be developed with more or less depth or fullness--the classic distinction of round or flat characters. As in real life, some characters may appear stereotypical yet perform vital functions for the story's plot or context.
The greatest authors are often distinguished by their almost god-like ability to create large numbers of lively, important, diverse, and meaningful characters who appear to stand on their own two feet and act under their own volition:
Shakespeare: Romeo, Juliet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Hamlet, Ophelia, Viola, Lear, Cordelia . . .
Chaucer: The Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, the Miller, the Host
Jane Austen: Elizabeth, Darcy, Emma, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Collins . . .
Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist; Pip, Magwitch, Estella, Joe in Great Expectations;
Victor Hugo (Les Miserables): Jean Valjean, Bishop Myriel, Petit Gervais, Inspector Javert
In contrast to such prodigiously creative writers, less gifted authors and most popular fiction typically offers only stock characters who are updated to current fashion:
Character Development in Fiction
Fiction may develop or reveal character in a number of ways but two or three prevail:
Narrative description: the narrator describes a character from more or less distance, offering an outline and selected details of his or her appearance.
+ description of actions, present and past, as indicating or revealing quality of character; actions as clues to character.
Speech: The character's words and their tone and significance reveal the character's inner or ulterior motives.
+ internal speech: In first-person point of view, a character exposes or develops its character by thinking through actions or reactions, or reflecting on past actions or future possibilities.
Oxford English Dictionary
3.a. A graphic symbol standing for a sound, syllable, or notion, used in writing or in printing; one of the simple elements of a written language; e.g. a letter of the alphabet.
4.c. The style of writing peculiar to any individual; handwriting.
8.a. A distinctive mark, evidence, or token; a feature, trait, characteristic.
9. The aggregate of the distinctive features of any thing; essential peculiarity; nature, style; sort, kind, description.
10.a. The face or features as betokening moral qualities; personal appearance. Obs.
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (1616) i. ii. 47, I will believe thou hast a mind that suits With this thy fair and outward character.
11. The sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a race, viewed as a homogeneous whole; the individuality impressed by nature and habit on man or nation; mental or moral constitution.
12.a. Moral qualities strongly developed or strikingly displayed; distinct or distinguished character; character worth speaking of.
17.a. A personality invested with distinctive attributes and qualities, by a novelist or dramatist; also, the personality or ‘part’ assumed by an actor on the stage.
3. Description of characteristics or essential features; portrayal in words.
4. Creation of fictitious characters.