Narrative Elements

Characterization



What is it?

Characterization is the way in which authors convey information about their characters. Characterization can be direct, as when an author tells readers what a character is like (e.g. "George was cunning and greedy.") or indirect, as when an author shows what a character is like by portraying his or her actions, speech, or thoughts (eg. "On the crowded subway, George slipped his hand into the man's coat pocket and withdrew the wallet, undetected."). Descriptions of a character's appearance, behavior, interests, way of speaking, and other mannerisms are all part of characterization. For stories written in the first-person point of view, the narrator's voice, or way of telling the story, is essential to his or her characterization.


Why is it important?

Characterization is a crucial part of making a story compelling. In order to interest and move readers, characters need to seem real. Authors achieve this by providing details that make characters individual and particular. Good characterization gives readers a strong sense of characters' personalities and complexities; it makes characters vivid, alive and believable.


How do I create it?

Create characterization by choosing details that make real or fictional characters seem life-like and individual.

To create characterization in fiction or non-fiction,


Self Check

Ask yourself these questions when trying to understand characterization:


Example

"Lincoln's shock of black hair, brown furrowed face, and deep-set eyes made him look older than his fifty-one years. He was a familiar figure to almost everyone in Springfield, as was his singular way of walking, which gave the impression that his long, gaunt frame needed oiling. He plodded forward in an awkward manner, hands hanging at his sides or folded behind his back. His step had no spring...

"His features, even supporters conceded, were not such 'as belong to a handsome man.' In repose, his face was '[overspread] with sadness,' the reporter Horace White noted... Yet when Lincoln began to speak, White observed, 'this expression of sorrow dropped from him instantly. His face lighted up with a winning smile, and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart, and the promise of true friendship.'"

—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
What does the character look like? Lincoln has black hair and a wrinkled face. He looks older than he is, and he appears deeply sad until he starts talking. He has a particular, awkward way of walking.
How does the character behave towards others? How do others behave toward the character? He is warm and friendly towards others, and others—or at least this reporter—seem to react with fondness and admiration toward him.
What does the character seem to care about? Lincoln seems to care about and thrive on his interactions with others; he seems less concerned with his physical appearance.
What adjectives does the author use to describe the character's personality? The author quotes the reporter as saying when Lincoln interacts with people, he loses his sorrowful appearance and becomes bright with "a winning smile," "keen intelligence," "genuine kindness," and "true friendship."
What does the character think or say? I'm not sure yet what he thinks or says.


Characterization Tip

Characterization never stops! Stay aware of how a character is described, how others react to the character, and how those things change throughout the text. Changes in characters are often crucial to the meaning of a story.