Character theory (media)

Character theory. A character theory is used for understanding media, such as print or electronic media texts or productions such as films and plays. It is useful for analysing and understanding media in which people take on the role of an actor or social actor. Character theories are popular with academics teaching and researching media and film studies. They assist in the appreciation of the structure of different types of media and the roles of the characters, fictional or otherwise that are portrayed in them. Character theories are often based on stereotypes, and the different characteristics that make them up can either be used for positive or negatives purposes.

Goffman’s character theory

Erving Goffman’s character theory suggests that there are four main types of broad character in a media text or production:

  • The protagonist (leading character)
  • The deuteragonist (secondary character)
  • The bit player (minor character whose specific background the audience is not aware of)
  • The fool (a character that uses humor to convey messages)

Propp’s Narrative Theory

Vladimir Propp developed a character theory for studying media texts and productions, which indicates that there were 7 broad character types in the 100 tales he analysed, which could be applied to other media:

  • The villain (struggles against the hero)
  • The donor (prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object)
  • The (magical) helper (helps the hero in the quest)
  • The princess (person the hero marries, often sought for during the narrative)
  • The false hero (perceived as good character in beginning but emerges as evil)
  • The dispatcher (character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off)
  • The hero (victim/seeker/paladin/winner, reacts to the donor, usually marries the princess)

Bartle’s character theory

Richard Bartle’s character theory was one of the earliest dedicated to the Internet, and is still used for analysing early virtual worlds today. It took the following form:

  • Achievers (preferred to gain “points,” levels, equipment and other concrete measurements of succeeding in a game)
  • Explorers (preferred to be discovering areas, creating maps and learning about hidden places)
  • Socializers (preferred to be interacting with other players, and on some occasions, computer-controlled characters with personality)
  • Killers (preferred to depart from the norm of being “the good guy” who comes to save the day and play on the side of evil or conquest)

Campbell, Fletcher and Greenhill’s character theory

John Campbell, Gorden Fletcher, and Anita Greenhill developed a character theory for analysing online communities, based on tribal typologies. In the communities they investigated they identified three character types:

  • The Big Man (offer a form of order and stability to the community by absorbing many conflictual situations personally)
  • The Sorcerer (will not engage in reciprocity with others in the community)
  • The Trickster (generally a comical yet complex figure that is found in most of the world’s culture)

Bishop’s character theory

Jonathan Bishop developed a character theory for analysing online communities, partly utilizing Campbell et al.’s character theory. In the online community he investigated, he found a number of character types, which can be applied to various usages of online communities, including Internet trolling.

  • Lurker (makes silent calls by accident, etc., clicking on adverts or ‘like’ buttons, using ’referrer spoofers’, modifying opinion polls or user kudos scores).
  • Elder (out bound member of the community, often engaging in “trolling for newbies”, where they wind up the newer members often without questioning from other members).
  • Troll (takes part in trolling to entertain others and bring some entertainment to an online community).
  • Big Man (does trolling by posting something pleasing to others in order to support their world view).
  • Flirt (takes part in trolling to help others be sociable, including through light ’teasing’).
  • Snert (takes part in trolling to harm others for their own sick entertainment).
  • MHBFY Jenny (takes part in trolling to help people see the lighter side of life and to help others come to terms with their concerns).
  • E-venger (does trolling in order to trip someone up so that their ‘true colours’ are revealed).
  • Chat Room Bob (takes part in trolling to gain the trust of others members in order to exploit them).
  • Ripper (takes part in self-deprecating trolling in order to build a false sense of empathy from others).
  • Wizard (does trolling through making up and sharing content that has humorous effect).
  • Iconoclast (takes part in trolling to help others discover ‘the truth’, often by telling them things completely factual, but which may drive them into a state of consternation. They may post links to content that contradicts the worldview of their target).

Further reading

  • Bishop, J. (2008). Increasing Capital Revenue in Social Networking Communities: Building Social and Economic Relationships through Avatars and Characters. In: Romm-Livermore, C. (ed.) Social Networking Communities and eDating Services: Concepts and Implications. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
  • Bishop, J. (2012). Scope and Limitations in the Government of Wales Act 2006 for Tackling Internet Abuses in the Form of ‘Flame Trolling’. Statute Law Review 33 (2), 207-216.
  • Bishop, J. (2014). Representations of ‘trolls’ in mass media communication: a review of media-texts and moral panics relating to ‘internet trolling.’ The International Journal of Web-Based Communities 10(1), 7-24.
  • Bishop, J. (2013). The Psychology of Trolling and Lurking: The Role of Defriending and Gamification for Increasing Participation in Online Communities Using Seductive Narratives. In: J. Bishop (Ed.) ‘Examining the Concepts, Issues, and Implications of Internet Trolling.’ Hershey, PA: IGI Global. ISBN 1466628030.
  • Campbell, J., Fletcher, G. & Greenhil, A. (2002). Tribalism, Conflict and Shape-shifting Identities in Online Communities. In the Proceedings of the 13th Australasia Conference on Information Systems, Melbourne Australia, 7–9 December 2002
  • Campbell, J., Fletcher, G. and Greenhill, A. (2009). Conflict and Identity Shape Shifting in an Online Financial Community, Information Systems Journal, (19:5), pp. 461–478.
  • Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
  • Hinton, P. (2000. Stereotype, Cognition and Culture. Psychology Press. ISBN 0-415-19866-6
  • Propp, V.I.A. (1969). Morphology of the Folk Tale. Texas: University of Texas Press.
  • Richard Bartle (1996). Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who suit MUDs.

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