Characterization – how you make a fictional character seem like a real, living, breathing person – is tricky. Besides describing characters physically, you need to convey their motivations, goals, personalities and flaws to make characters truly three-dimensional. Here are 5 characterization examples that show how to reveal your characters’ vital qualities:
1: Learn from rich direct characterization examples
There are two broad types of characterization in fiction. When an author describes a character explicitly to the reader, via a narrator or through another character’s eyes, this is called direct characterization.
This type tells us precise information such as how a character looks or how they see the world. Here is a rich example from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), a description of the ageing Fermina Daza:
‘Her stylish attire did not seem appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her figure – long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that were left to her from her wedding portrait, but what she had been deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and dilligence.’ (pp. 25-26)
Marquez explicitly tells us both about Fermina’s appearance and her character (her ‘inborn haughtiness’ and ‘dilligence’). The description is direct and explicit, leaving little to infer.
2: Use subtler indirect character portrayal
The second type is called indirect characterization because it is implicit (it shows rather than tells). We understand the character through actions, responses and lines of dialogue. The author does not say ‘Tom was a very angry individual’, but shows Tom’s anger in full swing.
In Alice Munro’s short story ‘Dimensions’, collected in Too Much Happiness (2009), the author uses subtle indirect characterization. Doree, the protagonist, works as a chambermaid at a hotel. In the opening pages, Munro characterizes Doree through the eyes of her co-workers:
‘They told her she should get trained for a job behind the desk while she was still young and decent-looking. But she was content to do what she did. She didn’t want to have to talk to people.’ (p.1)
This indirect characterization shows Doree is guarded. We later learn that Doree had been married with children, but her husband killed them, believing Doree had left for good when she vacated their home in the middle of a heated argument.
Munro uses indirect character building subtly throughout the story, as Doree recalls the buildup to the murder. Munro shows Lloyd’s controlling, jealous and threatening behaviour through dialogue:
He wanted to know what they talked about, she and Maggie.
“I don’t know. Nothing really.”
“That’s funny. Two women riding in a car. First I heard of it. Two women
talking about nothing. She is out to break us up.”
“Who is? Maggie?”
“I’ve got experience of her kind of woman.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Careful. Don’t call me silly.” (p. 12)
Instead of saying ‘Lloyd was dangerously jealous and aggressive’, Munro shows this in his words. This has a subtler effect, allowing us to interpret and connect characters’ words and deeds ourselves.
3: Using dialogue to reveal characters’ personalities and interests
Dialogue contains many elements that aid characterization. You can show what drives your characters through:
- The content of dialogue – what characters tend to talk about and how they say it
- Gestures and body language (a character who lightly touches another’s shoulder, for example, shows familiarity and ease, versus the guarded signal of conversing with folded arms)
In Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (2000), the author creates a colourful character in Hortense Bowden, a devout Jamaican woman living in London. Smith reveals Hortense’s bold character as well as her controlling approach to parenting her daughter, Clara, through dialogue:
‘If Hortense Bowden caught her daughter sitting wistfully by the barred window, listening to the retreating splutter of an engine while the pages of the New Bible flicked over in the breeze, she koofed her up-side her head and thanked her to remember that only 144,000 of the Witnesses of Jehovah would sit in the court of the Lord on Judgement Day.
“Some people,” Hortense asserted with a snort, ‘have done such a hol’ heap of sinning, it late for dem to be making eyes at Jehovah. It take effort to be close to Jehovah. It take devotion and dedication. Blessed are the pure in heart for they alone shall see God. Matthew 5:8″.’ (p. 30)
Through dialogue, Smith conveys the extent and extremity of Hortense’s piety. Hortense’s accent adds further characterization, showing that the character is still close to her Jamaican roots, despite the change in geography.
Through this type of dialogue-based characterization, we come to ‘know’ a character. We already sense that Hortense has more Bible quotes in store, and more scolding for Clara.
4: Show characters through their actions
It’s not only what a character explicitly thinks or says that forms our idea of them. It’s also elements of action, from details as small as body language to larger acts.
Here, for example, in Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992), she shows the hairdresser Violet as an overburdened yet resourceful woman by describing her endless stream of daily tasks:
“When the customer comes and Violet is sudsing the thin gray hair, murmuring “Ha mercy” at appropriate breaks in the old lady’s stream of confidences, Violet is resituating the cord that holds the stove door to its hinge and rehearsing the month’s plea for three more days to the rent collector.” (p. 16)
These small actions speak volumes, showing Violet’s hard-working, forward-planning character. Small character actions such as these might not be directly relevant to the major plot points of a novel. Yet this indirect characterization gives us context for other, more pivotal character actions. Knowing that Violet plans her next act even while busy with her last, we can guess, for example, that she will be action-oriented in other situations, such as conflict.
5: Show readers your characters’ most private thoughts
Showing readers your characters’ thoughts gives useful insights into their personalities, desires and goals. You might, for example, contradict what a character says with their private, narrated thoughts, to show a deceitful or a two-faced personality.
The modernist author Virginia Woolf excels at showing her characters’ psychologies. The style of narration called ‘stream of consciousness’ enables her to show her characters’ fleeting associations from moment to moment.
Here, for example, Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), remembers Peter Walsh, a man who’s desire to marry she refused.The third person narration clearly follows Clarissa’s private thoughts:
‘For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter and his were dry sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, if he were with me now what would he say? – some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people; they came back in the middle of St. James Park on a fine morning – indeed they did.’ (p. 4)
Through this private thought and memory, we see how the character has learned and grown. Woolf shows us how deeply Clarissa forms attachments to others, as well as her self-reflective nature.
To conclude, combine direct and indirect characterization. Use dialogue, action and characters’ thoughts because this will create richer, more detailed character portraits in your writing.
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