Characterization is the process through which an author reveals a character's personality. It's a gentle unfolding of a woman's confidence or a man's brilliant mind.
We see this in plays, novels, TV shows, movies, poems, and any other format that involves the creation of a character. Examples of characterization come forth in a character's thoughts, words, deeds, appearance, and more.
Direct vs. Indirect Characterization
Writers reveal a character's personality through direct characterization, indirect characterization, or a combination of both. You'll see that, in direct characterization, the author comes right out with it and labels the character in a certain way. Indirect characterization is far subtler.
Direct Characterization Examples
With direct characterization, the author will tell you in precise words what the character is like. For example:
The confident woman strode into the pub and took the usually shy Seamus by surprise. Despite his generally reserved nature, he got up the nerve to offer her his seat at the bar.
When we read this, we know right away that the female lead character can saunter into a room without a drop of fear. Likewise, we imagine the male lead is usually shy, keeping to himself. There's no guessing about their inherent natures.
Use these examples of direct characterization in literature to help you understand the concept even better:
“Mr. Bingley was good-looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant.”
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
“He had a long chin and big rather prominent teeth, just covered, when he was not talking, by his full, floridly curved lips. Old, young? Thirty? Fifty? Fifty-five? It was hard to say.”
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
“He was sunshine most always - I mean he made it seem like good weather.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Indirect Characterization Examples
Indirect characterization is more subtle. It's not something we learn straight away in one, short passage. There are five ways a writer might reveal someone's character indirectly:
- Actions - How does the character behave? Is he or she rash and spontaneous? Or, is he or she quiet, reserved, and slow to making any sort of change?
- Effects - How is the character received by other characters? Do people gravitate toward him or her? Or, do they scatter to the wind when they know they're making their way toward them?
- Looks - How is the character described? Is he or she well-polished, wearing the finest of frocks? Or, are they more free-spirited, taking on the mood of a hippie?
- Speech - What type of dialogue is created for the character? Do they stutter and stammer in sheepish tones? Or, are they regal, commanding the attention of the room whenever they speak?
- Thoughts - If an author is omniscient, or able to relay every character's thoughts, then we can learn a lot about the character through their thoughts. Do they go home and brood angrily by the fire? Do they worry and wonder through their days, hoping they haven't offended a soul and garnered everyone's affection?
Indirect characterization most often happens over the course of a longer work of fiction, rather than in a single paragraph or section. However, these shorter examples of indirect characterization in literature will help you see how this type of characterization works in practice:
“Cathy was chewing a piece of meat, chewing with her front teeth. Samuel had never seen anyone chew that way before. And when she had swallowed, her little tongue flicked around her lips. Samuel’s mind repeated, ‘Something—something—can’t find what it is. Something wrong,’ and the silence hung on the table.”
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
“‘First of all,’ he said, ‘if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Characterization of Personality Types
As a literary device, characterization is perhaps one of the most powerful. Writers use similes, metaphors, personification, and more to build a story. But, what's a story without a lead character? As such, characterization is merely another color of paint on their palette. Just as important as the mood or theme, well-planned characterization will build a sturdy foundation for everything to come.
Examples of Characterization Based on Personality Traits
Let's look at a few examples of characterization. These detail a mere smattering of the multitude of ways in which a character can be described.
- Characterizing a kind girl: She gently knelt down and stretched out her hand to help her friend return to her feet after she fell on the field.
- Characterizing a rich man: He chortled heartily before deeply puffing on his Cuban cigar, briefly glancing at his Rolex. He announced his driver would arrive any moment, then tossed back the rest of his whiskey.
- Characterizing a gruff man: "Look here," he said. "I'm not about to take guff from anyone. I've been around the block a few times, and I'm no one's doormat. I don't care who you are or where you're from. I don't want to hear what you have to say."
- Characterizing someone anxious: She twisted her fingers in her hands and bit her lip. Her leg jiggled quickly, and her eyes darted from side to side.
- Characterizing an embarrassed man: He dropped his eyes toward the floor, and his face burned crimson red. His shoulders hunched over, and he pursed his lips, clearly attempting to fight back tears.
- Characterizing someone apologetic: Her eyes pleaded with him to understand what she was trying to say, her breath slow in frequency but intense with each inhale. Her quivering mouth revealed the shame she had for what she had done.
- Characterizing someone stingy: Crinkling his brow and wrinkling his nose, Bill cringed when he saw the check for dinner. Clearly displeased with the cost of his eggs, bacon, doughnuts, and coffee, he yanked open his wallet, tossed a dollar haphazardly on the table for tip, and went to the counter to pay for the meal.
- Characterizing someone messy: She answered the door in a hurry, putting her earrings on while telling me to come in for a moment. I entered what looked like an abandoned war zone. Clothes and shoes were scattered across the floor. Dirty plates with hardened fettuccine noodles were piled on the table while magazines were spread haphazardly across the floor.
- Characterizing someone thankful: She couldn't stop telling him how much she appreciated the small loan he was giving her. Hugs, cheek kisses, and an offer to make dinner ensued, with gratitude oozing from her every word and motion.
- Characterizing someone inconsiderate: After he arrived 25 minutes late for the date, he proceeded to honk the horn from his car, forcing me to scamper across the ice-covered steps in my stilettos.
- Characterizing someone skillful: He pulled the arrow back on the bow until it would go no further. When it left his hand, the arrow glided gracefully through the air and into the center of the target.
The Best Characters Have Depth
Certainly, these examples don't cover every type of character trait. The people we meet in our favorite books are often just as complex as the people we meet in our everyday lives. They're multi-faceted. Sometimes, they're kind and generous. Other times, they're jealous and petty.
If the author has created a strong character, we'll learn there are many layers, and they'll unfold with the greatest of intrigue. This is one of the most essential elements of great short stories and novels, and it’s what makes some books a joy to read.