I. What is Characterization?
Characterization is a writer’s tool, or “literary device” that occurs any time the author uses details to teach us about a person. This is used over the course of a story in order to tell the tale.
Aristotle first defined characterization in the 15th century, speaking of the importance of plot over character in Poetics, “Tragedy is representation, not of men, but of action and life.” What he means here is that “tragedy” (or drama, meaning a story) is not centered on the thoughts, and histories, and dreams of the characters. The story is centered on what happens to them (the plot), so writers employ characterization to relay information about those thoughts, histories, and dreams, without drifting away from the action.
II. Examples of Characterization
The way a character speaks can inform us of their background and personality, like how educated they are, or what they consider to be important. Even the way other characters speak to and about our characters is a form of characterization.
In the Harry Potter series, Dobby refers to Potter as “the noble Harry Potter,” or “good Harry Potter,” which shows us how the house elf adores the young wizard. It might also be a hint of how Dobby would show affection for other people he admires.
The way a character reacts to a certain scene also teaches us about them. For example, a character who snubs a beggar has is different from a character who opens their wallet and hands over a wad of hundreds, and still there are more differences from a character who works directly with the homeless population in a city. Characterization can happen in many, many ways.
III. Types of Characterization
This is clearly informative, and often uses the narrator, the protagonist, or the character themselves. The narration, “Clara had always been a smug, wicked little princess,” is a form of direct or explicit characterization, as is the line of dialogue, “Nicholas will never stop until he gets what he wants! He’s crazy!”
This more subtle method of characterization relies on you, the reader, to decide for yourself what it means. Indirect or implicit characterization uses behavior, speech, and appearance, as well as the opinions of other characters. Although other characters can be used to make direct characterization (“Nicholas is crazy!”), they can also be used to make indirect characterization about themselves.
Figuring out what it all means is most of the fun, and it’s the reason fans of certain books, shows, and movies can argue about whether or not a certain character is good, or evil, or in love. They’ve interpreted the characterization differently.
c. The Importance of Characterization
Modern storytelling usually emphasizes characterization even more than classical literature. This is because characterization is a major tool in the plot-driven narrative. They can quickly connect the reader to the character, without taking them out of the action. When you’re busy moving characters from one place to another, making things happen to them, it’s clumsy to suddenly stop, get inside of Tom’s head, and drift around with his thoughts for a while. On the other hand, no one is going to truly care about a story if they don’t care about its characters, whether by love or hate or even just amusement or pity.
So, it’s very useful to balance these two areas of development. Plot and character should be developing side by side and rely upon each other, which reflects the human experience. After all, how much of our own “plots” are related to our decisions (our character), and how much of it is totally random and disconnected from what we do?
IV. Characterization in Literature
Many of the most famed manuscripts are beloved for their “strong characters,” which is another way of saying characterization. Harry Potter has already been mentioned and has many beloved characters such as Hermione or Hagrid. From The Great Gatsby to A Christmas Carol, characterization is a major facet of both classical and popular fiction.
In The Great Gatsby, the location of lower upper-class characters (East Egg) compared to the location of upper upper-class characters (West Egg) serves to characterize their financial boundary.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge tells a charity collector that, if the poor would rather die (than go to poor-houses), they’d better do it, and “decrease the surplus population.” This line tells us a lot about how Scrooge sees both other people and his own good fortune.
V. Examples of Characterization in Pop Culture
Characterization, like many elements of storytelling technique, is an invisible tool to most casual readers. Many craft books and classes are devoted to the subject; they help build and portray strong, flawed, and realistic characters. The main source of characterization in pop culture comes from writers, actors, directors, and other types of artists that create scripts or skits. These mediums usually help the actors form the characters seen in plays, movies, TV shows, and other similar mediums. Here are a few examples:
Even Progressive commercials, which use the recurring salesperson Flo, could be said to use this skill.
Comedians can be said to use characterization for their stage personalities, because of its intentionally staged format, which details a certain personality. Comedians like Jeff Dunham actually create multiple characters. Using his ventriloquist skills and characterization, he jokes about different subjects relevant to the character.
In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, we see best-known movie characters that is a product of characterization. In the excerpt from the movie, his monologue introduces us to him, his opinions, and his plan of skipping school. More than likely, the monologue was scripted this way in order to give the audience an idea of the main character and what’s to come.
Keep in mind that although sometimes real people may seem like fictional characters—for example, rock stars or those on reality television—they are not agents of characterization unless they are being featured in a written work, such as in a magazine article, or a biographical book or film. Only in this scenario would the artist then use characterization to show personality in a manner which does not detract from the narrative (plot) itself.
VI. Related Terms
Flat, or unidimensional
These terms are used to criticize characters who are poorly characterized, or poorly developed. Oftentimes, they speak in ways that don’t sound realistic, and are considered to be stereotypes. For example, the busy housewife could easily be called unidimensional. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have characters who seem to be stereotypes, but it does mean that they need to not be stereotypes upon closer examination. Perhaps the busy housewife loves to blow off steam with hiking and camping, instead of with a “spa day” that might just reinforce the stereotype.
Coined by Carl Jung, this refers to a set of twelve character types which (supposedly) exist across cultural boundaries and eras of time. Many writers consult these archetypes, but don’t rely on them alone. The twelves archetypes are: the Hero, the Caregiver, the Explorer, the Rebel, the Lover, the Creator, the Jester, the Innocent, the Sage, the Magician, the Orphan, and the Ruler.
Characterization is one of the main building blocks of fiction today, no matter what genre or media the story uses. Anything that teaches the audience about your character is characterization, but the most common methods are through concrete action, dialogue, description, and the actions, thoughts, and words of the other characters in regards to the characterized character.