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Characterization

How a writer can


create a character,
and what we can do
to understand that
creation

Centrality of characters
Characters are essential to a
narrative.
Together with plot, they are one of
the two most important elements.

Some narratives value one of these over


the other.

If we dont care (at least a little)


about characters, we wont care
about the story.

Learning about a character


Everything comes from the text itself
and from our knowledge of life in
general.
That general knowledge of life must
nonetheless be applied in a way that
is consistent with the text.

We cant say that a character must be brave


because hes a Scottish soldier if the story
shows or tells us that he was cowardly.

Making sense of a character


Understanding a character
especially a complex charactercan
be a challenging process
We need to frequently reconsider
our evaluation of a character as we
read
But the place to begin is by asking
what the characters basic situation
is

Basic Situation

Who is the character, generally


speaking?

school boy, dentist, lonely single, homicidal


maniac, confused mathematician, etc., etc.

In what circumstances do we see


the character?

trying to make sense of her entire life, to find


the murderer, to win back his true love, to
sober up, to enjoy life . . .

Basic Situation

What is the character like?

friendly, clever, nasty, joking, powerless, cruel,


confused, etc.

What is the character confronting?

a pleasant, kindly universe where the good


end happily and the bad unhappily, a realm of
poverty, savage beasts, irresponsible parents,
the confusion of middle age, etc.

Ways of creating a character


Here are ten methods that the
writer can use to inform us about
the traits, beliefs, values, actions,
effects, and more of a character.
They dont all need to be used in
one work, but all of them can be.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

looks suggest character: e.g.: a


completely nondescript look may
imply that one is dull, bland; an
exotic look will usually indicate an
exotic character

MENTAL DESCRIPTION

a characters state of mind and


thoughts are very important,
revealing the inner truth that might
not be revealed in any direct
actions; a character may think (or
fear or feel) things that never show
up obviously in his or her behavior

NARRATORS OBSERVATIONS

the narrator can provide


fundamentally important judgments
or generalizations about a character,
telling us directly any number of
things about a characters life,
history, ambitions, strengths and
weaknesses, and so on

CHARACTERS WORDS

a characters words can reveal much


about what he or she finds
important and how he or she relates
to other characters; language and
word-choice are often revealing

CHARACTERS ACTIONS

what a character does reveals a


great deal, as do the characters
choices; a character who talks tough
but acts sheepishly exposes his or
her basic hypocrisyor at least an
essential weakness

MOTIVATIONS AND DESIRES

why a character acts in a certain


way is often as revealing as the
action itself (or more so): one might
do a good thing for a bad reason

COMMENTS BY OTHERS

these comments reveal how the


character is perceived in his or her
social context; if enemies praise a
character, he or she must be very
special; if others simply ignore a
character, he or she may well be
socially insignificant

REACTIONS OF OTHERS

like their words, the behaviors of


characters towards another create
our sense of who he or she is;
others may flock around a morally
good character--or may shun the
good one if they themselves are
bad; they may ignore or sneer at a
contemptible character

PARALLELS AND CONTRASTS


WITH OTHER CHARACTERS

comparisons help us make sense of


a character; cowards in a narrative
will make a brave character seem all
the more noble; comparing someone
to a well-known character from
another work will be revealing; e.g.:
a reference to Uriah Heep suggests
an unctuous hypocrite

SYMBOLS OR IMAGES
LINKED TO THE CHARACTER

almost anything linked to a


character may add to the readers
sense of who and what the character
is: gestures, items of clothing,
settings, descriptive words, symbolic
images, and so on help develop a
character; e.g.: repeatedly
associating a character with fire

Putting all these together


You cant put all these pieces
together until you have finished the
book. But you can pay attention to
them as you read.
Be aware that characters can be
quite complex:

They can have all sorts of internal


contradictions
The less certain they are about something,
the more varied will be the signals they send

ALERT! ALERT!
Good characters are frequently
multilayered and complex. Trying to
understand them with just a few
words can lead to misunderstanding.
Even if theyre not particularly
complex, keep in mind that they
often contain seemingly
contradictory elements.

Contradictory elements
For example: a character who is
very considerate on some occasions
and quite insensitive on others
one who wants to do something and
doesnt want to do itboth, very
much
one who is despondent at some
times and celebratory at others

Depth of characterization

A character can be as simple as this:


The man with the perpetual scowl.
And a character can be as complex
and mysterious as Hamlet or Iago or
Achilles.

The big three to watch for

Choices
What options did the character have and
which did he or she select?

Motivations
What is the character trying to achieve with
a particular action?

Changes
How (and why) does a character change
during the course of the story?

What makes a good


character?
is complicated enough to be
interesting
is internally consistent; plausible
provides us with a reason(s) to care
about what happens to him or her
lacks aesthetically offensive qualities

The End