Character theory (Media)

Character theory (Media)

A Character theory in the context of media, such as print or electronic media texts or productions such as films and plays, 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 as they are useful for appreciating the structure of different types of media and the roles of the characters, fictional or otherwise that are portrayed in them.


Goffman's Character theory

Erving Goffman's (1959) character theory suggests that there are four main types of broad character in a media text or production;

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

Propp's Character theory

Vladimir Propp (1969) 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:

  1. The villain (struggles against the hero)
  2. The donor (prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object)
  3. The (magical) helper (helps the hero in the quest)
  4. The princess (person the hero marries, often sought for during the narrative)
  5. Her father
  6. The dispatcher (character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off)
  7. The hero or victim/seeker hero, reacts to the donor, weds the princess

Campbell, Fletcher and Greenhill's Character theory

John Campbell, Gorden Fletcher, and Anita Greenhill (2002, 2009) developed a character theory for analysing online communities, based on tribal typologies. In the communities they investigated they identified three character types:

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

Bishop's Character theory

Jonathan Bishop (2008) developed a character theory for analysing online communities, partly utilizing Campbell et al.'s character theory. In the online community he investigated, he found the following character types:

  1. Lurker - The Lurker may experience a force, such as Social, but will not act on it, resulting in them not fully taking part in the community.
  2. Troll - Driven by Chaos forces as a result of Mental Stimuli, would post provocative comments to incite a reaction.
  3. Big Man - Driven by Order forces as a result of Mental Stimuli, will seek to take control of conflict, correcting inaccuracies and keeping discussions on topic.
  4. Flirt Driven by Social forces as a result of Social Stimuli, will seek to keep discussions going and post constructive comments.
  5. Snert - Driven by Anti-social forces as a result of Social Stimuli, will seek to offend their target because of something they said.
  6. E-venger - Driven by Vengeance forces as a result of Emotional Stimuli, will seek to get personal justice for the actions of others that wronged them.
  7. MHBFY Jenny - Driven by Forgiveness forces, as a result of experiencing Emotional Stimuli. As managers they will seek harmony among other members.
  8. Chat Room Bob - Driven by Existential forces as a result of experiencing Gross Stimuli, will seek more intimate encounters with other actors.
  9. Ripper - Driven by Thanatotic forces as a result of experiencing Gross Stimuli, seeks advice and confidence to cause self-harm
  10. Wizard - Driven by Creative forces as a result of experiencing Action Stimuli, will seek to use online tools and artefacts to produce creative works
  11. Iconoclast - Driven by Destructive forces as a result of experiencing Action Stiumli, will seek to destroy content that others have produced


  • 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. New York: IGI Global. Available online
  • 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. Available online.
  • Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
  • Propp, V.I.A. (1969). Morphology of the Folk Tale. Texas: University of Texas Press.

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