Characterization (care-ack-tur-ih-ZEY-shun) uses context and detail to reveal something about a character. In literature, characterization is expressed directly and indirectly through physical descriptions, dialogue, characters’ inner thoughts, and actions. These details reveal characters’ behavior, psychology, personality, and motive.
Character hasn’t always been central to stories. Plot-driven narratives dominated literature prior to the 19th century. Realism, a literary movement that emerged in the mid-1800s, prized authenticity and verisimilitude, emphasizing genuine depictions of people as a critical aspect to plot and narrative. Characterization remains significant to this day.
Direct and Indirect Characterization
Writers can convey characterization directly or indirectly, and they tend to use both methods to achieve fully realized and developed characters.
Direct characterization is explicit. It is commonly achieved through description and dialogue, in which the narrator or one character explicitly attributes traits or qualities to another.
In this example from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, protagonist Pip describes his brother-in-law:
She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand. Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow—a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness.
Pip explicitly describes Joe’s physical appearance and temperament: He is fair in complexion and personality, good-natured, sweet-tempered, and easygoing but also naïve. This provides a strong foundation for readers to visualize and understand Joe as a character.
Indirect characterization is implied; readers must infer character on their own through contextual clues. Thoughts, actions, speech patterns, appearance, mannerisms, clothing—all these can inform character.
In this excerpt from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Fern’s father just departed for the hog house with an ax:
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
Fern lacks the life experience to realize the pragmatism in her father’s actions. While White doesn’t explicitly call Fern naïve, it’s implied through the mention of her age. Her surge of moral outrage also suggests a strong sense of justice and empathy.
Characterization and Character Types
Characterization often depends on character type, as different types fulfill certain roles in a story.
A protagonist is a major character; their arc drives the plot. Protagonists often exemplify positive or heroic traits, like Harry Potter, who is courageous, perseverant, and has a strong sense of justice. Antiheroes are a type of protagonist who lack those heroic qualities; they often defy conventional ethics or exhibit dubious or gray morality. Rodion Raskolnikov from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is an antihero.
Antagonists tend to embody negative traits, like Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort, who is arrogant, cruel, and utterly lacking in empathy. Antagonists are often foils—characters whose personality traits clash with the protagonist’s. Readers can discern much about characterization through that contrast.
Here are other character types that affect characterization.
- Round characters are crucial to the narrative; they are richly characterized and demonstrate a variety of personality traits. Round characters tend to be dynamic: They encounter conflict and affect change, and they transform in response to those experiences.
- Flat characters are secondary and incidental. Because they exert little influence over the plot, they are less developed and tend to exhibit a single personality trait.
- Archetypal characters represent patterns in human experience. Readers can easily identify them because they recur throughout literature. The mentor is a common fictional archetype; they guide and support the protagonist using their wisdom and life experience. Gandalf the Grey from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series is a classic mentor character.
- Stock characters have become conventional or stereotypical through repeated use in literature. They are like archetypal characters but generally flat and one-dimensional. They are often caricatures who embody ideals (the noble savage) or flaws (the village idiot).
- Dynamic characters transform after encountering conflict or other narrative action. A protagonist who starts off lonely and isolated will likely find a sense of community and belonging by the story’s end.
- Static characters remain unchanged throughout the story. Joe Gargery, mentioned above, is a static character. His good nature holds steadfast even when faced with injustice and cruelty.
The Functions of Characterization
Characterization breathes life into a story by making characters more dynamic and engaging. Good characterization is often realistic, meaning characters act in a way that’s authentic to the human experience. They make choices, feel emotions, and display reactions that reflect real life. These expressions of humanity make them more interesting and relatable to the reader.
Writers also use characterization to show development. Just as people change with age and experience, characters change in tandem with the plot. As a protagonist moves through the narrative, encountering and reacting to other characters, settings, and situations, they transform. This mirrors how a person can grow in the real world and emphasizes the sense of progression from a story’s beginning to its end.
Characterization can also show cause and effect or incite action. Take Samwise Gamgee, companion and servant to Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. Sam embodies the sidekick archetype. He’s loyal to a fault, and that devotion leads him on a quest across Middle Earth despite enormous peril and a dim chance of survival. Even when Frodo falters, Sam persists. His incredible fidelity and strength of will ensure the quest’s success.
Characterization in Other Media
Where literature is bound by words and characterization must build through sentences or even paragraphs, visual media can express it easily through visual cues. Scenery, staging, wardrobe, makeup, props, and the like are all carefully designed to convey a specific message or idea.
In short, there’s an immediacy to visual storytelling as several details are presented at once. A character enters the scene, and viewers can immediately discern several facts or make judgments based on observation.
Consider villains from Disney’s animated films, like Cruella Deville, Ursula, Maleficent, Hades, Jafar—the list goes on. They come in all shapes and sizes, but they share common design attributes that clearly suggest their evil, scheming personalities: thin eyebrows, sharp cheekbones, narrow noses, angular eyes, and dark clothes.
Examples of Characterization in Literature
1. Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
Pullman’s fantasy children series—some consider it a response to The Chronicles of Narnia—follows protagonist Lyra Belacqua as she opposes and tries to overthrow a corrupt theocracy. In this scene, Lyra has just overheard a plot to kill her uncle, Lord Asriel, while she is hidden in a wardrobe. She observes her uncle as he enters the room:
Then Lord Asriel stood up and turned away from the fire. She saw him fully, and marveled at the contrast he made with the plump Butler, the stooped and languid Scholars. Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight: never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it.
This passage demonstrates both direct and indirect characterization. While other characters are plump, stooped, and languid, Lord Asriel stands tall with powerful shoulders and a dominating countenance. His fierce face, flashing eyes and savage laughter suggest a cold personality and keen intelligence. He might even possess a violent streak, which is supported by the comparison to a wild animal.
2. Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
One of Williams’s most famous works, this play portrays a family in crisis. Early in Act I comes a scene that gives a taste of the dynamic between Brick and his wife Maggie:
BRICK: I’ve dropped my crutch.
[He has stopped rubbing his hair dry but still stands hanging onto the towel rack in a white towel-cloth robe.]
MARGARET: Lean on me.
BRICK: No, just give me my crutch.
MARGARET: Lean on my shoulder.
BRICK: I don’t want your shoulder, I want my crutch!
[This is spoken like sudden lightning.]
MARGARET: Here, here, take it, take it!
This scene’s indirect characterization sheds a light on Brick and Maggie’s personalities as well as their marriage. Brick’s sudden and emphatic rejection of Maggie’s support shows his mercurial mood and indifference toward his wife; he’d rather cling to a towel rack than accept her touch. Maggie, however, is determined to support her husband and keep the peace—expressed through her repeated line, “Lean on me,” and frenzied capitulation to his demands.
3. Charlotte Perkins Gillman, The Yellow Wallpaper
This feminist short story details a woman’s descent into madness as she begins to obsess over and fear the wallpaper in her bedroom. The narrator presents her story in a series of diary entries. This passage from the first entry explains why the narrator and her husband have moved into a colonial mansion for the summer:
John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see, he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?
My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.
So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.
Personally, I disagree with their ideas.
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
The reader is told very little about the narrator, but her diary provides a wealth of indirect characterization. This passage reveals that she feels dismissed by her husband, who does not take her illness seriously. She’s skeptical of the treatment he prescribes but feels she has no voice to advocate for her own health and wellbeing. So, she uses writing to express her frustrations, free of his judgment.
Further Resources on Characterization
TVTropes features an extensive list of common character tropes.
Writers seeking to flesh out their characters might benefit from these free character development worksheets by Dr. Victoria Lynn Schmidt.
The Writing Cooperative provides a lesson on creating and developing authentic characters.