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What is Characterization in Literature?

    what is characterization in literature

    Have you ever read a story where you feel like you know the characters? Or like you can picture them as if they were right before you? That’s the power of strong characterization. Get ready to dive into the world of creating strong characters by exploring its various forms, purposes, and techniques. This is your ultimate guide to characterization.

    Characterization Definition

    In literature, characterization refers to the art of developing a character in a story. It’s a literary device that authors use whenever they reveal details, big or small, about a character to the audience. Characterization includes everything from physical traits and personality traits to a character’s perspectives and motivations. Authors use various tools, from descriptive language to dialogue, to help paint a vivid picture of their characters, carefully selecting everything from how they think and speak to how they act and interact with other characters.

    Authors can reveal insights about characters through one of two types of characterization: direct or indirect. Direct characterization involves the author or other characters explicitly stating traits about a character. In contrast, indirect characterization relies on subtle cues such as actions, thoughts, dialogue, and interactions with other characters—but more on that in a moment.

    How to Pronounce Characterization

    You can break the term “characterization” down into six syllables for easier pronunciation, like so: KARR-ACK-TER-AI-ZEY-SHUN.

    Types of Characterization

    Sometimes, characterization is explicitly stated. Other times, it’s implied through what a character says, thinks, or does. Authors often rely on direct and indirect characterization methods to bring their characters to life.

    Direct Characterization

    Direct characterization involves the author explicitly stating a character’s traits and attributes. These can include physical descriptions, personality traits, motivations, and background information.

    For example, if a character is brave, the author will simply describe the character as brave. The readers do not need to interpret much—the author directly tells them what they need to know about the character.

    Indirect Characterization

    Indirect characterization, on the other hand, requires readers to make some inferences about a character based on their actions, dialogue, thoughts, and interactions with others. Rather than being told explicitly about a character, authors weave more subtleties of their behaviors and actions to provide insights into a character’s personality and motivations.

    In this case, if a character is brave, an author might reveal that quality through a courageous act that displays the character’s bravery. While indirect characterization requires more analysis on the reader’s part, it allows authors to craft more nuanced and dynamic characters.

    Read this for more tips on how to teach direct and indirect characterization.

    Types of Characters

    While some characters are more complex than others, they all serve a purpose in a story. Let’s take a look at some of the most common categories of characters:

    Round vs. Flat Characters

    Whether a character is round or flat has to do with how complex the character is. Round characters are multidimensional, exhibiting a range of traits, emotions, and motivations. They often undergo significant growth or change throughout the story, making them more dynamic and relatable to readers.

    Then there are the flat characters, who are one-dimensional and lack a sense of complexity and depth. However, these characters typically have a specific purpose or stereotype within the narrative, often as foils to main characters or catalysts for plot development.

    Dynamic vs. Static Characters

    The extent to which a character undergoes chance and experiences growth throughout a story helps classify them as dynamic or static. A dynamic character experiences significant growth or change as they work through the story’s conflicts. They undergo notable internal or external changes throughout the story, evolving in response to challenges, conflicts, or revelations. These characters experience growth, development, or transformation, often leading to profound insights or shifts in perspective. Dynamic characters are instrumental in driving the plot forward and exploring a story’s themes.

    On the other hand, static characters remain unchanged throughout the story. Instead, they maintain consistent traits, beliefs, and behaviors from beginning to end. While this may sound boring, static characters often play a pivotal role in a dynamic character’s growth or represent specific ideas, themes, or archetypes within the narrative.

    Character Archetypes

    If you’ve ever read a story and felt like you’ve “met” a particular character before, it could be thanks to character archetypes. Character archetypes are recurring patterns or motifs in literature representing universal human experiences or traits. You can think of character archetypes as templates for creating characters and are often used to evoke certain emotions or convey particular messages.

    While there are 12 classic archetypes, some of the most widely used include:

    • The Hero: The Hero is often courageous and selfless, willing to face adversity and danger to protect others or achieve a goal. They usually embark on a transformative hero’s journey, where they must overcome challenges and obstacles before reaching their goals.
    • The Rebel: The Rebel is often passionate and defiant, challenging the status quo. In search of change, they challenge established norms and authority structures, willing to risk everything to fight for their beliefs.
    • The Innocent: The Innocent is often a hopeful and naive character who sees the world with optimism and wonder. They are inherently good, believing the same for the people and the world around them. The Innocent maintains a sense of hope, even in the face of adversity or hardship, often inspiring those around them.
    • The Ruler: The Ruler archetype embodies power, authority, and leadership. These characters can fall into two categories: Benevolent rulers who strive to serve the greater good and better society as a whole, or corrupt rulers who are willing to do anything to hold onto their state of power and influence. 
    • The Sage: The Sage is wise, knowledgeable, and insightful. This character archetype shows up as a mentor or guide, offering invaluable wisdom and perspective to other characters. The Sage often guides others on their journey of self-discovery and enlightenment.

    Why is Characterization Important?

    Characterization is a vital element of narrative writing that adds depth, emotion, and meaning to a story. Strong, well-developed characters breathe life into a story, making it more engaging, meaningful, and thought-provoking.

    Overall, characters serve several purposes:

    • Engage Readers: Well-developed characters anchor readers in the story’s world, fostering a sense of connection and investment in the narrative.
    • Add Depth and Complexity: Characters add richness and complexity to the narrative, transforming it from a series of events strung together to an engaging story with a lasting impact.
    • Provide Insight into Human Nature: Characters serve as mirrors to reflect aspects of the human condition, offering insights into the complexities of human nature and behavior.
    • Foster Empathy and Perspective: Well-crafted characters encourage readers to see the world through different perspectives and identities, broadening their understanding of the world around them.
    • Explore of Themes and Ideas: Characters allow authors to explore themes, ideas, and moral dilemmas in an engaging and creative way.

    Tips for Teaching Characterization

    • Analyze Characters in Pop Culture: Encourage students to analyze characters from movies, TV shows, or video games, applying the same techniques used to analyze characters in literature to deepen their understanding of characterization across various media.
    • Teach Students to S.T.E.A.L.: Teach students the S.T.E.A.L. method, a mnemonic device to help them remember the different aspects of characterization and how to analyze them in a text.
    • Compare and Contrast Characters: Have students compare and contrast different characters from a text, examining their traits, motivations, and actions to identify similarities and differences and gain insight into their roles within the narrative.
    • Teach Character Archetypes: Introduce students to common character archetypes and explain how these archetypes serve as patterns of characterization across different stories to convey universal themes and experiences.
    • Teach Short Stories: Use short stories featuring well-developed characters to provide students with concise yet engaging narratives that allow for in-depth character analysis.
    • Connect to Theme: Encourage students to explore how characters’ traits, actions, and relationships contribute to a text’s overarching themes, helping them recognize the connection between characterization and theme.
    • Get Into Character: Engage students in fun activities such as role-playing, dramatic readings, or creative writing activities from a character’s perspective to deepen their empathy and understanding of characters’ motivations.
    • Get Visual: Have students create visual representations of their character analysis, allowing them to deepen their understanding of characterization through a creative medium. For example, they can create one-pagers, body biographies, mood boards, or collages.

    Examples of Characterization in Literature

    1.    Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby

    “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” -Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby

    One look at how the narrator, Nick Carraway, describes her, and it’s clear that Daisy Buchanan is a symbol of wealth, glamor, and unattainable desire in the novel. He describes her face as having “bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth,” and her voice as alluring and compelling. This characterization is further emphasized by her interaction with the titular character, Jay Gatsby, throughout his relentless pursuit of winning over her life (but really, trying to repeat the past #impossible). But it doesn’t stop there for Daisy—there are plenty of instances where her selfish and careless actions showcase Fitergerald’s views on the moral decay of the Jazz Age, highlighting the emptiness of materialism and the illusion of the American Dream.

    Check out my character analysis activity for The Great Gatsby.

    2.    Old Man Warner from “The Lottery”

    “There’s always been a lottery.” Old Man Warner, “The Lottery”

    Shirly Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a dark tale about the dangers of blindly following traditions simply because it’s what you’re supposed to do. Old Man Warner, introduced as “the oldest man in town,” fervently defends the town’s annual lottery

    despite its brutal and deadly consequences. His characterization comes through in his dialogue as he refers to those who do not adhere to the tradition as a “pack of crazy fools” before referencing an old saying that connects the lottery sacrifice to a robust harvest. Warner’s words and actions represent his adherence to traditions while underscoring Jackson’s commentary on the dangers of conformity and mob mentality.

    Access my complete analysis of “The Lottery.” 

    3.    Abigail Williams from The Crucible

    “Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down.” -Abigail Williams, The Crucible

    Abigail Williams is nothing but trouble. Depicted as a manipulative and vindictive young woman, Abigail becomes the ringleader of the group of girls who initiate the chaos of the Salem witch trials. Throughout the play, Abigail’s words and actions reveal her cunning and calculating nature as she avoids consequences and chases her desires (aka her love for John Proctor)—-even if it means ruining the lives of (and killing) innocent townspeople in the process. Using the forces of deception and fear, she manages to turn the power structure of Salem upside down, showcasing just how destructive fear-based hysteria and intolerance can be.

    Additional Resources for Teaching Characterization

    Download my free STEAL chart, perfect for tracking characterization!

    Looking for a fun activity? Teach characterization using body biographies.

    Here are some of the best short stories for teaching characterization.

    Share this character archetype article full of examples they will recognize. 

    Keep students engaged and learning with these videos:

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