Serious music students practice their scales, learning the notes by rote before they ever play a piece of music. They play the same piece over and over, receiving correction from a teacher until playing at a satisfactory level. Likewise, a writer who uses a spelling, grammar, and plagiarism checking tool to review a piece can learn from the corrections, improving her finished product. The writer who studies her craft can learn to play symphonies, while the writer who shuns formal learning and relies solely on instinct may find herself stuck playing “Chopsticks.”
What is Characterization?
Talent and learning must come together to produce great writing. Like spelling and grammar, characterization is a skill that can be learned. Characterization is, simply defined, the process by which the author reveals a character to the reader.
Details like mannerisms, dialogue, and physical appearance all contribute to the building of the character in the reader’s mind. The reader gets to know the characters through the process of characterization.
Characters, like people, reveal themselves through various means. Dialogue, appearance, speech, and the effect a person has on those who already know him all play a part in forming our assumptions of a character. Characterization can be either direct or indirect, and both types fall into one of several categories.
Direct & Indirect Characterization
Direct characterization should be used sparingly. Description of a character’s appearance, mannerism, personality, or habits is direct characterization. A common ploy, especially among new or inexperienced authors, is to have the character studying himself or herself in a mirror. The technique, when the writer uses the opportunity to simply describe the physical characteristics, results in the impression of a narcissistic character obsessed with his or her appearance, unless the physical description is secondary to the character’s thoughts and feelings about his or her appearance.
In Piers Anthony’s book Ogre, Ogre the main character, Tandy, examines herself in a mirror:
She was nineteen years old, but she looked like a child in her nightie and lady-slippers, her brown tresses mussed from constant squirming, her blue eyes peering out worriedly. She wished she looked more like her mother- but of course no human person could match the pretty faces and fantastic figures of nymphs.
From this short paragraph, the reader learns that Tandy is childlike, with brown hair and blue eyes, but far more of Tandy’s character and current state of mind is revealed than her physical statistics. The reader sees a troubled young woman, the child of a mythological creature who is slightly insecure in her own emerging womanhood.
Characterization with Dialogue
Actions may speak louder than words, but in writing, speech is the primary tool for revealing a character to the reader. Dialogue is one of the most effective ways of conveying not only information that moves the story forward, but details about the speaker.
Grammar, word choice, dialect, accent, tone, and delivery all come together to paint an indelible picture in the reader’s mind. Dialogue may be spoken (external) or written (internal). A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Well-crafted dialogue will paint a picture in the reader’s mind, revealing clues about age, education, social status, attitude, worldview, and bent, that would take pages of pure description to create.
A Character’s Effect on Others
The effect a character has on others is another subtle yet important tool. The character who commands an air of respect is likely the hero, while the one who inspires sneers may be the villain or the underdog. Lemony Snicket, in A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning, used the children’s first impression of Count Olaf to strongly influence the reader’s view of the villain:
They wondered … whether, for the rest of their lives, they would always feel as though Count Olaf were watching them even when he wasn’t nearby.
The Effects of a Character’s Name
What’s in a name? A character’s name can be an indicator of their basic personality. Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape both have memorable and sinister-sounding names that fit their personalities. Bilbo Baggins sounds like a respectable sort of individual from a long line of stolid ancestors. Huckleberry Finn is the ideal handle for the delinquent child of a drunken vagabond. By employing a combination of direct and indirect characterization techniques, the writer can create characters that come to life on the page.