I’m coming to think that the conundrum in my previous post derives from not clearly distinguishing between two meanings of “virtual.” When I first described fictional characters as “virtual agents,” I was thinking in terms of their semiotic construction, in parallel with the concept of the self as a sign (per Peirce), and also the more general sense of “virtual” as similar in appearance or effect. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the term “virtual world” goes as far back as 1903, but really took off around 1987, and the sense of “virtual” as “electronically simulated” surely dates from then. But the virtual agents of theater aren’t the same sort of entities as the virtual humans of VWs. The latter should be considered a type of “displaced” or “surrogate” embodiment (in the sense one might likewise call a puppet a type of “displaced” or “surrogate” embodiment). But to avoid confusion, I should refer to the virtual agents of drama through the more customary phrase “dramatic characters” (or just “characters”), except when I need to make the specific point about their function as iconic signs of agency.
This does raise the question of the ontology of fictional objects (fictional realism or non-realism). I’ll have to poke around in that subject and decide whether it makes much difference to the overall ontology, since there’s no question that dramatic characters are semiotic constructs in either case.