Ontology for a Formal Description of Literary Characters

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Amélie Zöllner-Weber

    Text Technology - University of Bielefeld

  2. 2. Andreas Witt

    Text Technology - University of Bielefeld

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Astory plot would not work without the actions
of the literary characters included. Actually, their actions and reactions do essentially form the plot.
Furthermore, these characters are often provided with special behaviours or features enriching the story. Thus, within literature studies, the analysis of characters is an important task for analysing and interpreting literature. But the focus in recent approaches is often very restricted so that only some parts of literary characters are shown
(Note [1]) or they demonstrate only a theoretical
classification and do only partially provide evidence for the analysis on literature. Other approaches deal only with special characters so that a generalisation for all characters is often not possible. (Note [2]) Representing and describing a character in most of its facets is often not reached in a (nearly) complete way.
We will present an application of a formal ontology for literary characters. The concepts, which are included
in the ontology, combine several theories for literary
characters. The goal is to derive a model of the structure
of literary characters. For this task, it is required to
establish a flexible and open system so that newly found categories or aspects can be included without restructuring
the ontology. Additionally, it should be possible to
integrate the representation of many characters.
The definition of ‘ontology’ originates from philosophy
and was transferred to the field of the ‘Artificial
Intelligence’ (AI). In general, the philosophical theories of ontology are used to explain the existence of things in the world.(Note: [3]) When the terminus ‘ontology’ was introduced in the field of AI the definition of ontology underwent a semantic change. In AI ontology is defined
as the modelling of concepts of the real world in
computer systems. A definition is given by Gruber: “An ontology is a formal, explicit specification of a shared
conceptualisation.” (Note: [4]) The main goal of an
ontology is to represent information in a structured way. Thus, an ontology comprises hierarchically structured
concepts of a part of the ‘world’, called ‘domain’.
Additionally, there are relations between these concepts.
Usually, an ontology is built up by ‘classes’ or rather
‘concepts’, ‘properties’ (also ‘slots’ or ‘roles’), and
restrictions. By adding so called ‘instances’ individual objects of a class can be realised. The representation of a formal ontology is expressed in a machine-readable format. A formal ontology is represented in form of a logical formalism. This has the advantage that the given information can be used as the base for inferring new information.
Since the 90s, ontologies representing information have become a focussed research field. They are used in many disciplines especially in linguistics or in life sciences. (Note: [5]) Adapting the concept of an ontology in the field of humanities computing is rather new. To our knowledge applying a formal ontology to the representation of literary characters has not been realised so far.
Modelling of the structure of literary
This approach combines several theories of literary
characters to develop the base of the ontology.(Note: [6]) This results in a definition of literary characters as mental information structures of the person who analyses them.(Note: [7]) The information structure consists of a bundle of properties and features.(Note: [8]) It is not always possible to observe all aspects but it is important to take most of them as background for the analyses of literary characters.
In our approach, classes, properties, instances, and
relations of the ontology together form a complex
formal description of the structure of a character. A literary
character is represented by several instances. This differs from other ontologies because there, an individual, e.g.
a special protein in the Gene Ontology, is represented
as one instance. But the outlined ontology represents a
feature or an information of a literary character as one
instance. Otherwise, it is not possible to include all facets
of a character.
Up to now, a first prototype of an ontology was realised.
A rough set of classes and properties was developed.
This set was modelled in the ontology editor ‘Protégé’
(Note: [9]). An extract of the ontology in this editor is
shown in figure 1. Protégé allows the representation of
a formal ontology in the W3C-Standard ‘Web Ontology
Language’ (OWL).(Note: [10])
For applying the ontology, a corpus of selected characters
is constantly integrated into the system. The corpus
consists of selected ‘devil’ characters in literature
covering the motive “Doctor Faustus”. The group of
devil characters are interesting because they show
properties of human beings as well as properties of
supernormal characters. The text corpus comprises an
intersection of several literary epochs like ‘Sturm and
Drang’ or the period of ‘Biedermeier’ and different kinds
of text (e.g. tragedy, early prose, prose). A large part
of the text corpus is already XML-annotated. The
annotation is based on TEI P5 (Note: [11]), but user
defined modifications of the tag set are included as well.
An aim is to cross-reference from the ontology to parts in
a text showing a special event of the character and vice
After an evaluation phase the ontology system will
be adapted to the needs of a potential user. Later, the
ontology will be open for the community, so that interested
users can describe literary characters and can do a search
for them. Therefore, the inclusion of new categories for
the ontology is allowed. Providing the ontology to the
community enables the development of extensions as
well as the inclusion of further characters. We expect that
such an ontology can be a good resource for the comparative
literature studies, especially since inferences across
several characters can be drawn automatically.
Our approach is focussed on a community which is
interested in literary characters and formal ontologies.
Accessing the ontology has to be realised in an intuitive
way so that a user does not need to have much knowledge
about the applied technologies.
Fig. 1: Part of the ontology of literary characters
in the Protégé editor.
Summary The presented approach proposes a way to model the
information about literary characters in a formal
way. Making use of this concept it is not intended that the
ontology contains a consensus of analysing and describing
characters. In this respect our ontology differs from
ontologies, from the “hard sciences”, where an ontology
is regarded as a “shared conceptualisation” of a field. By
applying the technique of a formal ontology a flexible
and extensible system can be realised. This offers new
and individual perspectives on literary characters.
Because the ontology is modelled with the rather new
web technology standard OWL, a prerequisite for an
open access is satisfied.
In the near future the functions for describing and
searching characters will be improved. It is also planned
to integrate more literary characters. Notes:
[1] For example, Propp or Greimas analyse literary
characters only as far as their functions for the plot are concerned (see Propp 1975, Greimas 1983).
[2] Wahl Armstrong 1979, Propp 1975.
[3] See also Puppe et al. 2000.
[4] Gruber 1993, p.199.
[5] An example of an application in natural science is the Gene Ontology (GO, http://www.geneontology.org). In linguistics many applications of semantic webs like WordNet (http://wordnet.princeton.edu), GermaNet which are very similar to an ontology are developed.
[6] Some categories of the approaches of Fotis Jannidis,
Werner Kummer, Jurij M. Lotman, and Göran
Nieragden are adopted (see Jannidis 2004,
Kummer 1975, Lotman 1972, Nieragden 1995).
[7] See Jannidis, 2004, p.185.
[8] This definition relates to Lotman’s approach
(Lotman 1972).
[9] See http://protege.stanford.edu
[10] See http://www.w3.org/2004/OWL/
[11] See http://www.tei-c.org/P5/
Greimas, A.J. (1983). Les Actants, les Acteurs et les
Figures. In: Algirdas Julien Greimas: Du sens II: Essais
sémiotiques. Paris: Editions du Seuil. pp.46-66.
Gruber, T. R. (1993). A translation approach to portable ontology specifications. Knowledge Acquisition, 5. pp.199-220.
Jannidis, F. (2004). Figur und Person - Beitrag zur
historischen Narratologie. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Kummer, W. (1975). Grundlagen der Texttheorie -
Zur handlungstheoretischen Begründung einer
materialistischen Sprachwissenschaft. Hamburg:
Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag.
Lotman, J.M. (1972). Die Struktur literarischer Texte. Chapter: Der Begriff der Figur; Von der Spezifik
der künstlerischen Welt, Figur und Charakter.
München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.
Nieragden, G. (1995). Figurendarstellung im Roman: Eine narratologische Systematik am Beispiel von
David Lodges Changing Places und Ian McEwans The Child in Time. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.
Propp, V. (1975). Morphologie des Märchens. Karl
Eimermacher (Eds.). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Puppe, F. et al. (2000). Knowledge Engineering.
In: Günther Görz et al.(Eds.): Handbuch der
Künstlichen Intelligenz. München: Oldenbourg
Verlag 2000. pp.599 - 641.
Wahl Armstrong, M. (1979). Rolle und Charakter –
Studien zur Menschendarstellung im Nibelungenlied. Göppingen: Kümmerle Verlag.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Paris, France

July 5, 2006 - July 9, 2006

151 works by 245 authors indexed

The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.

Conference website: http://www.allc-ach2006.colloques.paris-sorbonne.fr/

Series: ACH/ICCH (26), ACH/ALLC (18), ALLC/EADH (33), ADHO (1)

Organizers: ACH, ADHO, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None