When you read a great story, one of the first things that should stand out to you are the characters. Skilled authors devote a lot of time and effort to developing their characters because as people, readers tend to connect with the characters—both the good and the bad—more than any other element of the story.
But as a writer, how do you share information about your characters in an effective way? This is where characterization comes in.
What Is Characterization?
Characterization is a literary device that writers use to reveal details about the characters in a story. This typically happens over several stages:
- Initial stage: The writer introduces the character, often while illustrating their behavior or mannerisms.
- Second stage: After showing the external actions, the author then shares the thought processes, ideas, and opinions of the character
- Final stage: In the final stage of characterization, the author shows how other characters in the story respond to the chosen character’s traits and behaviors.
Two Types of Characterization
When you start to build your character and show different aspects of his life to your readers, you can choose from two common methods:
1. Explicit or Direct Characterization
Explicit characterization uses different means to directly tell the audience what the character is like. This is often done through the narrator or the words of another character.
While most characterization involves a mix of both explicit and implicit methods, an over-reliance on explicit or direct characterization can make for rather dull reading.
Thus, it’s important that you include a balanced mix of implicit (or indirect) methods when revealing your characters.
2. Implicit or Indirect Characterization
The implicit method of characterization uses the character’s own behaviors and speech to indirectly reveal their personality. Readers can come to their own conclusions based on these revelations. This technique is also part of the “show don’t tell” strategy, which refers to revealing actions or characters through writing, rather than a narrator simply telling readers about them.
Authors often reveal characters by illustrating—but not directly describing—the following:
- External behaviors
- Internal thought processes
- Speech mannerisms
- Ways of communicating with others
- Responses of other characters to the character being described
Characterization in Drama
Novels offer the luxury of more space to show readers what a character is really like.
But in theatrical dramas, on the other hand, the actors have a limited time to show the audience the personality and thoughts of a character. Because of this restriction, they tend to shy away from direct statements about the nature of a character, and instead rely more on implicit characterization.
This is also why actors need to internalize a character before they portray them on stage or in a film, and why realistic characterization is a highly prized artistic talent.
What Are Examples of Characterization?
The most powerful works of literature use effective characterization to create memorable characters. Here are some examples of characterization in literature:
Example #1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
In this classic novel about the Deep South, the protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, is introduced as a belle enjoying parties and the attention of many men.
The author uses both direct and indirect characterization: the implicit descriptions involve showing how Scarlett behaves, while the explicit ones include a scene where the other women are gossiping and complaining about Scarlett’s behavior:
Her hand was behind her, still holding the knob, when Honey Wilkes’ voice, low pitched, almost in a whisper, came to her through the crack of the opposite door leading into the bedroom.
“I think Scarlett acted as fast as a girl could act today.”
Scarlett felt her heart begin its mad racing again and she clutched her hand against it unconsciously, as if she would squeeze it into submission…
“Oh, Honey, no! Don’t be unkind. She’s just high spirited and vivacious. I thought her most charming.”
…”Well, Miss,” said Honey tartly, her voice rising, “you must be blind… You saw how she was carrying on with every man she could get hold of—even Mr. Kennedy and he’s her own sister’s beau. I never saw the like! And she certainly was going after Charles.”
Example #2. Watership Down by Richard Adams
In this fantasy tale, a rabbit leads a group of other rabbits away from their warren to build a new home elsewhere after receiving a warning from his brother.
The story begins with little said about his personality, but his character becomes clear through the words he says, the way he says them, and the decisions he makes.
One scene that illustrates Hazel’s leadership is when he goes to the leader of Efrafa, a rabbit warren led by a paranoid and controlling tyrant, to propose a deal in order to stop their imminent attack.
In this scene, Adams uses the point of view of the Efrafran leader, who thinks that Hazel is just a messenger. This gives a very effective picture of how humble Hazel was when he approached the enemy camp:
At that moment a rabbit came out of the grass and sat up in the middle of the track. He paused for a few moments and then moved toward them. He was limping and had a strained, resolute look.
“You’re General Woundwort, aren’t you?” said the rabbit. “I’ve come to talk to you.”
“Did Thlayli send you?” asked Woundwort.
“I’m a friend of Thlayli,” replied the rabbit. “I’ve come to ask why you’re here and what it is you want.”
“Were you on the riverbank in the rain?” said Woundwort.
“Yes, I was.”
“What was left unfinished there will be finished now,” said Woundwort. “We are going to destroy you.”
“You won’t find it easy,” replied the other. “You’ll take fewer rabbits home than you brought. We should both do better to come to terms.”
“Very well,” said Woundwort. “These are the terms…”
Example #3. Clover by Susan Coolidge
In this novel, Coolidge sets Clover on a journey to Colorado with her sick brother Phil. Their father arranges for an older woman to go with them as a chaperone—but Mrs. Watson turns out to be an annoying companion for the two youngsters.
The author uses Mrs. Watson’s own words to reveal her character:
“Oh, is it Miss Carr?” was her first salutation. “I’m Mrs. Watson. I thought it might be you, from the fact that you got out of that car, and it seems rather different—I am quite relieved to see you. I didn’t know but something—My daughter she said to me as I was coming away, ‘Now, Mother, don’t lose yourself, whatever you do. It seems quite wild to think of you in Canyon this and Canyon that, and the Garden of the Gods! Do get some one to keep an eye on you, or we shall never hear of you again. You’ll—’ It’s quite a comfort that you have got here. I supposed you would, but the uncertainty—Oh, dear! that man is carrying off my trunks. Please run after him and tell him to bring them back!”
“It’s all right; he’s the porter,” explained Mr. Dayton. “Did you get your checks for Denver or St. Helen’s?”
“Oh, I haven’t any checks yet. I didn’t know which it ought to be, so I waited till—Miss Carr and her brother would see to it for me I knew, and I wrote my daughter—My friend, Mrs. Peters,—I’ve been staying with her, you know,—was sick in bed, and I wouldn’t let—Dear me! what has that gentleman gone off for in such a hurry?”
“He has gone to get your checks,” said Clover, divided between diversion and dismay at this specimen of her future “matron.” “We only stay here a few minutes, I believe. Do you know exactly when the train starts, Mrs. Watson?”
“No, dear, I don’t. I never know anything about trains and things like that. Somebody always has to tell me, and put me on the cars. I shall trust to you and your brother to do that now. It’s a great comfort to have a gentleman to see to things for you.”
A gentleman! Poor Philly!
The Importance of Characterization
As you can see, characterization is an essential tool when it comes to making a story or novel come alive. It also helps the readers relate and connect to the character.
As an exercise, think of a character in a story you’re writing or want to write. Then, write two scenes, one using direct characterization, and the other indirect characterization.
Share your scenes in the comments below!