What is the etopeia?

What Does Etopeia Mean

We explain what an etopeia is and various literary examples. Also, what are prosopography and portraiture?

The Ethiopian describes the spiritual qualities of a character.

What is the etopeia ?

The etopeia is a literary figure that consists of the moral or behavioral description of a character , that is, of his character, his virtues, his personality qualities or his spiritual qualities, instead of the physical ones. The term comes from the Greek word ethopoeia , composed of the voices ethos , " custom ", and poiein , "imitate".


Like prosopography (physical description) and portrait (the sum of both), the etopeia is part of the techniques of literary description . It differs from them because it contains an element of imagination that allows it to be, in some way, more theatrical.

Thus, it allows us to imagine situations in which the character would have reacted in one way or another, in order to make it clear to the reader what type of character he is and how he thinks. In this sense, the etopeia allows for monologue and self-description.

It is a common technique in literature , especially in cases where the character's ethical and / or moral actions are relevant. It is also used when it is sought that it represents a certain way of thinking, as occurs in the field of narrative allegories.

It can help you: Literary resources

Examples from Ethiopia

The following are examples of the use of ethopeia:

  • From The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway:

“In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and while he rowed he heard the trembling sound of the flying fish coming out of the water and the hiss that their rigid wings made while furrowing the air in the dark. He was very attracted to the flying fish that were his main friends in the ocean. He felt compassion for the birds, especially the small, delicate, dark terns that were always flying and searching and almost never found, and he thought: birds lead a harder life than we do, except the predatory ones and the big and strong ones. »

  • From Medea to Sophocles:

“Horrible red flowers bloom under their peaceful faces. They are the flowers cultivated by my hand, the hand of a mother. I have given life, now I also take it away, and no magic can restore the spirit of these innocents. They will never put their tiny arms around my neck again, their laughter will never bring the music of the spheres to my ears. That revenge is sweet is a lie. "

  • From Plutarch's Parallel Lives :

Daughter of the most illustrious citizen, Metellus Scipio, wife of Pompey, prince of enormous power, mother of the most precious of children, I find myself shaken in all directions by such a mass of calamities that I can assume them in my head or in the silence of my thoughts, I have no words or phrases with which to express them.


Contrary to the etopeia, which focuses on the moral and personality aspects, or the subjective actions of the character, prosopography consists of a description of the character's outward appearance , that is, of his entirely physical features.

This term also comes from the ancient Greek prosopon , "mask", and graphos , "writing", since in ancient Greek theater actors used masks to embody their characters.

An example of prosopography would be the following, taken from the Exemplary Novels of Cervantes:

«This one that you see here, with an aquiline face, with brown hair, a smooth and unprepared forehead, with happy eyes and a crooked nose, although well proportioned, silver beards, which were not made of gold for twenty years; the big mustaches ... »


Finally, the sum of the ethopeia and the prosopography make up the portrait: the full description of the character , or the construction of his profile. Through it, the character can be known both in his moral and thought interiority , as well as in his external physical appearance.

It is generally mediated by a narrator, that is, an observer who from his point of view describes the character, although it is not uncommon for it to consist of a self-portrait.

For example, let's read part of Nicanor Parra's self-portrait:

Consider, boys, This mendicant friar's coat: I am a teacher in a dark high school, I have lost my voice doing classes. (After all or nothing I do forty hours a week). What does my slapped face tell you? It is true that it inspires pity to look at me! And what do these healing shoes suggest to you? That aged without art or part.

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