Character theory

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This article refers to the use of the term character theory in mathematics. For the media studies definition, see Character theory (Media). For related senses of the word character, see Character (mathematics).

In mathematics, more specifically in group theory, the character of a group representation is a function on the group that associates to each group element the trace of the corresponding matrix. The character carries the essential information about the representation in a more condensed form. Georg Frobenius initially developed representation theory of finite groups entirely based on the characters, and without any explicit matrix realization of representations themselves. This is possible because a complex representation of a finite group is determined (up to isomorphism) by its character. The situation with representations over a field of positive characteristic, so-called "modular representations", is more delicate, but Richard Brauer developed a powerful theory of characters in this case as well. Many deep theorems on the structure of finite groups use characters of modular representations.


Characters of irreducible representations encode many important properties of a group and can thus be used to study its structure. Character theory is an essential tool in the classification of finite simple groups. Close to half of the proof of the Feit–Thompson theorem involves intricate calculations with character values. Easier, but still essential, results that use character theory include the Burnside theorem (a purely group-theoretic proof of the Burnside theorem has since been found, but that proof came over half a century after Burnside's original proof), and a theorem of Richard Brauer and Michio Suzuki stating that a finite simple group cannot have a generalized quaternion group as its Sylow 2-subgroup.


Let Template:Mvar be a finite-dimensional vector space over a field Template:Mvar and let ρ : G → GL(V) be a representation of a group Template:Mvar on Template:Mvar. The character of Template:Mvar is the function χρ : GF given by

where Tr is the trace.

A character χρ is called irreducible if Template:Mvar is an irreducible representation. The degree of the character Template:Mvar is the dimension of Template:Mvar: this is equal to the value χ(1). A character of degree 1 is called linear. When Template:Mvar is finite and Template:Mvar has characteristic zero, the kernel of the character χρ is the normal subgroup:

which is precisely the kernel of the representation Template:Mvar.


is an algebraic integer for all Template:Mvar in Template:Mvar.

Arithmetic properties

Let ρ and σ be representations of Template:Mvar. Then the following identities hold:

where ρσ is the direct sum, ρσ is the tensor product, ρ denotes the conjugate transpose of Template:Mvar, and Alt2 is the alternating product Alt2 ρ = ρρ and Sym2 is the symmetric square, which is determined by


Character tables

Template:Rellink The irreducible complex characters of a finite group form a character table which encodes much useful information about the group Template:Mvar in a compact form. Each row is labelled by an irreducible character and the entries in the row are the values of that character on the representatives of the respective conjugacy class of Template:Mvar. The columns are labelled by (representatives of) the conjugacy classes of Template:Mvar. It is customary to label the first row by the trivial character, and the first column by (the conjugacy class of) the identity. The entries of the first column are the values of the irreducible characters at the identity, the degree of the irreducible characters. Characters of degree 1 are known as linear characters.

Here is the character table of

the cyclic group with three elements and generator u:

  (1) (u) (u2)
1 1 1 1
χ1 1 Template:Mvar ω2
χ2 1 ω2 Template:Mvar

where Template:Mvar is a primitive third root of unity.

The character table is always square, because the number of irreducible representations is equal to the number of conjugacy classes.[1] The first row of the character table always consists of 1s, and corresponds to the trivial representation (the 1-dimensional representation consisting of 1 × 1 matrices containing the entry 1).

Orthogonality relations

{{#invoke:main|main}} The space of complex-valued class functions of a finite group Template:Mvar has a natural inner-product:

where Template:Overline is the complex conjugate of β(g). With respect to this inner product, the irreducible characters form an orthonormal basis for the space of class-functions, and this yields the orthogonality relation for the rows of the character table:

For g, h in Template:Mvar the orthogonality relation for columns is as follows:

where the sum is over all of the irreducible characters χi of Template:Mvar and the symbol |CG(g)| denotes the order of the centralizer of Template:Mvar.

The orthogonality relations can aid many computations including:

  • Decomposing an unknown character as a linear combination of irreducible characters.
  • Constructing the complete character table when only some of the irreducible characters are known.
  • Finding the orders of the centralizers of representatives of the conjugacy classes of a group.
  • Finding the order of the group.

Character table properties

Certain properties of the group Template:Mvar can be deduced from its character table:

The character table does not in general determine the group up to isomorphism: for example, the quaternion group Template:Mvar and the dihedral group of 8 elements, D4, have the same character table. Brauer asked whether the character table, together with the knowledge of how the powers of elements of its conjugacy classes are distributed, determines a finite group up to isomorphism. In 1964, this was answered in the negative by E. C. Dade.

The linear characters form a character group, which has important number theoretic connections.Template:Which

Induced characters and Frobenius reciprocity

{{#invoke:main|main}} The characters discussed in this section are assumed to be complex-valued. Let Template:Mvar be a subgroup of the finite group Template:Mvar. Given a character Template:Mvar of Template:Mvar, let χH denote its restriction to Template:Mvar. Let Template:Mvar be a character of Template:Mvar. Ferdinand Georg Frobenius showed how to construct a character of Template:Mvar from Template:Mvar, using what is now known as Frobenius reciprocity. Since the irreducible characters of Template:Mvar form an orthonormal basis for the space of complex-valued class functions of Template:Mvar, there is a unique class function θG of Template:Mvar with the property that

for each irreducible character Template:Mvar of Template:Mvar (the leftmost inner product is for class functions of Template:Mvar and the rightmost inner product is for class functions of Template:Mvar). Since the restriction of a character of Template:Mvar to the subgroup Template:Mvar is again a character of Template:Mvar, this definition makes it clear that θG is a non-negative integer combination of irreducible characters of Template:Mvar, so is indeed a character of Template:Mvar. It is known as the character of Template:Mvar induced from Template:Mvar. The defining formula of Frobenius reciprocity can be extended to general complex-valued class functions.

Given a matrix representation Template:Mvar of Template:Mvar, Frobenius later gave an explicit way to construct a matrix representation of Template:Mvar, known as the representation induced from Template:Mvar, and written analogously as ρG. This led to an alternative description of the induced character θG. This induced character vanishes on all elements of Template:Mvar which are not conjugate to any element of Template:Mvar. Since the induced character is a class function of Template:Mvar, it is only now necessary to describe its values on elements of Template:Mvar. If one writes Template:Mvar as a disjoint union of right cosets of Template:Mvar, say

then, given an element Template:Mvar of Template:Mvar, we have:

Because Template:Mvar is a class function of Template:Mvar, this value does not depend on the particular choice of coset representatives.

This alternative description of the induced character sometimes allows explicit computation from relatively little information about the embedding of Template:Mvar in Template:Mvar, and is often useful for calculation of particular character tables. When Template:Mvar is the trivial character of Template:Mvar, the induced character obtained is known as the permutation character of Template:Mvar (on the cosets of Template:Mvar).

The general technique of character induction and later refinements found numerous applications in finite group theory and elsewhere in mathematics, in the hands of mathematicians such as Emil Artin, Richard Brauer, Walter Feit and Michio Suzuki, as well as Frobenius himself.

Mackey decomposition

Mackey decomposition was defined and explored by George Mackey in the context of Lie groups, but is a powerful tool in the character theory and representation theory of finite groups. Its basic form concerns the way a character (or module) induced from a subgroup Template:Mvar of a finite group Template:Mvar behaves on restriction back to a (possibly different) subgroup Template:Mvar of Template:Mvar, and makes use of the decomposition of Template:Mvar into (H, K)-double cosets.


is a disjoint union, and Template:Mvar is a complex class function of Template:Mvar, then Mackey's formula states that

where θ t is the class function of t−1Ht defined by θ t(t−1Ht) = θ(h) for all Template:Mvar in Template:Mvar. There is a similar formula for the restriction of an induced module to a subgroup, which holds for representations over any ring, and has applications in a wide variety of algebraic and topological contexts.

Mackey decomposition, in conjunction with Frobenius reciprocity, yields a well-known and useful formula for the inner product of two class functions Template:Mvar and Template:Mvar induced from respective subgroups Template:Mvar and Template:Mvar, whose utility lies in the fact that it only depends on how conjugates of Template:Mvar and Template:Mvar intersect each other. The formula (with its derivation) is:

(where Template:Mvar is a full set of (H, K)-double coset representatives, as before). This formula is often used when Template:Mvar and Template:Mvar are linear characters, in which case all the inner products appearing in the right hand sum are either 1 or 0, depending on whether or not the linear characters θ t and Template:Mvar have the same restriction to t−1HtK. If Template:Mvar and Template:Mvar are both trivial characters, then the inner product simplifies to |T |.

"Twisted" dimension

One may interpret the character of a representation as the "twisted" dimension of a vector space.[2] Treating the character as a function of the elements of the group χ(g), its value at the identity is the dimension of the space, since χ(1) = Tr(ρ(1)) = Tr(IV) = dim(V). Accordingly, one can view the other values of the character as "twisted" dimensions.Template:Clarify

One can find analogs or generalizations of statements about dimensions to statements about characters or representations. A sophisticated example of this occurs in the theory of monstrous moonshine: the [[j-invariant|Template:Mvar-invariant]] is the graded dimension of an infinite-dimensional graded representation of the Monster group, and replacing the dimension with the character gives the McKay–Thompson series for each element of the Monster group.[2]

Characters of Lie groups and Lie algebras

{{#invoke:main|main}} Let Template:Mvar be a Lie group with associated Lie algebra , and let Template:Mvar (resp. ) be the Cartan subgroup (resp. Cartan subalgebra).

Let Template:Mvar be a representation of Template:Mvar If we write the weight spaces of Template:Mvar as Vλ, then, we can define the formal character of the Lie group and Lie algebra as

where we sum over all weights of the weight lattice. In the above expression, e λ is a formal object satisfying e λe μ = eλ+μ. This formal character is related to the regular one for other groups. If eXH, where Template:Mvar is the Cartan subgroup of Template:Mvar (that is, Template:Mvar belongs to ), then

The above discussion for the decomposition of tensor products and other representations continue to hold true for the formal character. In the case of a compact Lie group, the Weyl character formula can be used to calculate the formal character.

See also


  1. Serre, §2.5
  2. 2.0 2.1 Template:Harv


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