Literary Terms Project List

This year, you are going to make a Literary Terms Notebook. Use a composition book or a spiral notebook. These notes need to be copied out WORD for WORD. You will then have a very thorough reference book that you can use for other English classes too. Plus writing things out actually helps you to REMEMBER things better.

Week 1–



CHARACTER: A person (sometimes a group of people, an animal, or a physical force) invented by an author who has an impact on the outcome of the story. Character motivation must be consistent; the character must be convincing and lifelike.

PROTAGONIST: the hero, chief character, or force in the work which the reader wants to succeed

ANTAGONIST: a force or character opposing the protagonist who tries to stop the protagonist from reaching his desired goal

FOIL: a character who serves by contrast to emphasize the qualities of another character

CHARACTERIZATION: The process of revealing  the personality of a character in a story is called characterization. A writer can reveal character by

  1. letting us hear the character speak
  2. describing how the character looks and dresses
  3. letting us listen to the character’s inner thoughts and feelings
  4. revealing what other characters in the story think or say about the character
  5. showing us what the character does–how he or she acts
  6. telling us directly what the character’s personality is like: cruel, kind, sneaky, brave, and so on.

The first five ways of revealing a character are known as indirect characterization. When a writer uses indirect characterization, we have to use our own judgment to decide what a character is like, based on the evidence the writer gives us. But when a writer uses the sixth method, known as direct characterization, we don’t have to decide for ourselves; we are told directly what the character is like.

Characters can be classified as static or dynamic. A static character is one who does not change much in the course of a story. By contrast, a dynamic character changes as a result of the story’s events.

Characters can also be classified as flat or round. A flat character has only one or two traits and these can be described in a few words. Such a character has no depth, like a piece of cardboard. A round character, like a real person, has many different character traits, which sometimes contradict each other.


CONFLICT: The relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist. The conflict can be threefold: 1) conflict between individuals, 2) between the character and circumstances intervening between him and a goal he has set himself, and 3) conflict of opposing tendencies within a single individual’s mind.

There are five basic types of conflict:

  • MAN vs. MAN: One character in the story has a problem with one or more of the other characters.
  • MAN vs. SOCIETY: A character has a conflict or problem with some element of society–the school, the law, the accepted way of doing things, and so on.
  • MAN vs. HIMSELF: A character has trouble deciding what to do in a particular situation.
  • MAN vs. NATURE: A character has a problem with some natural happening: a snowstorm, an avalanche, the bitter cold, or any of the other elements common to nature.
  • MAN vs. FATE: A character has to battle what seems to be an uncontrollable problem. Whenever the problem seems to be a strange or unbelievable coincidence, fate can be considered the cause of the conflict.

In an external conflict, a character struggles against an outside force. An internal conflict takes place entirely within a character’s own mind. An internal conflict is a struggle between opposing needs or desires or emotions within a single person. Many works, especially long ones, contain both internal and external conflicts.


THEME: It is a statement about life or universal truth that a particular work is trying to get across to the reader. In stories written for children, the theme is often spelled out clearly at the end when the author says “…and so, the moral of the story is ”

In more complex literature, the theme may not be so moralistic in tone, or at least not so clearly spelled out.

The theme is NOT the same as the subject of a work. The subject of a work can usually be expressed in one word or two: love, childhood, death. The theme is the idea that the writer wishes to reveal about that subject. The theme is something that can be expressed in at least one complete sentence. For example the theme of Romeo and Juliet can be stated this way: “Love is more powerful than hatred.”

The theme is not usually stated directly in the work of literature. Most often, the reader has to think of all the elements  of the work and use them to make an inference, or educated guess about what the theme is.


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