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Characterization

Aug 30, 2022
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Early literary studies, such as those of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, emphasized solely on plot over character. Aristotle argued in his Poetics that tragedy “is a representation, not of men, but of action and life,” and advocated for the “primacy of plot over characters.” It wasn’t until the 15th century that characters, and thus characterization, became pivotal in narratives. Characterization became especially important in the 19th century, with the rise of realist novels and the influential development of psychology that relentlessly sought to depict people accurately.  

Now, let us try to define the term characterization: 

Characterization is the representation of a character’s trait, psychology, and motives in a narrative. Characterization can take place through direct description, in which the qualities of the character are described by a narrator, another character, or the character himself or herself. It can also happen indirectly when the character’s traits are revealed through his or her actions, thoughts, or dialogue. 

A writer uses two methods to develop characterization and convey information about the character: Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization

It’s worth noting that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. To develop their characters, most authors can use both direct and indirect methods of characterization, which they still do. 

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Let us take a look at these. 

Direct characterization: 

The author directly describes a character’s qualities in direct characterization. It is also called explicit characterization. Such a direct description could come from the narrator, another character, or the character in question himself. 

Direct characterization aids readers in visualizing a believable character in their minds. Although good writers encourage the reader to add their own details, some character aspects are required for the plot. Consider a character who uses their appearance to manipulate others, or one whose job pits them against another character. 

Example: 

“Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life.” 

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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by R.L Stevenson. 

This description appears in the first paragraph of the story to establish the character of Mr. Utterson, who serves as a stand-in for the reader as he watches Dr. Jekyll’s story unfold. 

Indirect characterization: 

Rather than explicitly describing a character’s qualities, a writer portrays the character as he or she moves through the world, allowing the reader to infer the character’s qualities from his or her behavior in indirect characterization. It is also known as implicit characterization

In contrast to direct characterization, indirect characterization contains more nuance and ambiguity, allowing for more interpretation. In general, indirect characterization improves reader engagement because it encourages them to use their imaginations more, making the story and characters more personal to them. 

Details that may contribute to a character’s indirect characterization include: 

  • The character’s thoughts. 
  • The character’s actions. 
  • What a character says (their choice of words). 
  • How a character talks (their dialect, tone and manner of speaking). 
  • The character’s appearance. 
  • The character’s movements and mannerisms. 
  • How the character interacts with others (and how others react to the character). 

Example: 

Mrs. Dubose lived alone except for a Negro girl in constant attendance, two doors up the street from us in a house with steep front steps and a dog-trot hall. She was very old; she spent most of each day in bed and the rest of it in a wheelchair. It was rumored that she kept a CSA pistol concealed among her numerous shawls and wraps. Jem and I hated her. If she was on the porch when we passed, we would be raked by her wrathful gaze, subjected to ruthless interrogation regarding our behavior, and given a melancholy prediction on what we would amount to when we grew up, which was always nothing. We had long ago given up the idea of walking past her house on the opposite side of the street; that only made her raise her voice and let the whole neighborhood in on it. We could do nothing to please her. If I said as sunnily as I could, “Hey, Mrs. Dubose,” I would receive for an answer, “Don’t you say hey to me, you ugly girl! You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose!” 

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee 

Here, the author uses implicit characterization to describe Mrs. Dubose. 

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