Characterization: What is it?

We’ve been looking at character: introducing the character, forging the reader-character bond, creating contradictions . . .  All good stuff. But let’s back up a bit.  There’s a word that gets thrown around a lot about character, and, I’ll admit, sometimes I feel like maybe I don’t actually know what it means.

The word is “Characterization.”

Characterization: What is it?

Sometimes I’m not so sure the people who throw around this word know what it means either.  I didn’t find any craft masters who defined it.  I had to resort to the dictionary.

1. portrayal; description
2. the act of characterizing or describing the individual quality of a person or thing.
3. the creation and convincing representation of fictitious characters, as in a literary work.

Let’s reword this so that it’s more instructive, so that the goal becomes more clear. Characterization is the act of describing a character so that he seems like a certain kind of person.  Or, perhaps better, it’s the act of describing a character in a way that makes readers believe that the character is a certain kind of person.

Characterization: How do you achieve it on the page?

Fortunately, the craft masters have much more to say about this.  (And I think you’ll find that we’ve already said a lot about it too, making this tool a way to check your work so to speak.)  The answer seems to have four parts:


Only you, the author, can answer that.

But what you’re looking for is an “amalgam of qualities that makes [Character] memorable to others,” says Dwight Swain, or what he calls the “dominant impression.”

Whatever kind of person you decide a character is, the decision, says Mr. Swain, “gives you something predictable to write to. You know in advance how [the character will] tend to behave, so you know the kind of words he’s likely to speak and the things he’s likely to do.”


After a descriptive, engaging–and worth reading in full–passage about a woman in evening wear struggling for a can of pears on the top shelf at the grocery store, David Corbett says there are five aspects to focus on:

  • The character needs or wants something.
  • She is having difficulty getting what she needs or wants, and comes up with a plan for overcoming the difficulty.
  • She exhibits a seeming contradiction: She’s dressed in evening wear at the grocery store at midmorning.
  • Something unexpected happens (she makes a mistake), which renders her vulnerable. (She may even be hurt, enhancing this impression).
  • Her sobbing suggests there is more to her predicament than meets the eye–a secret.  [And, I would add, her sobbing–as opposed to, say, smirking or pounding the pear cans on the ground–foreshadows what kind of secret it might be.]

Mr. Swain adds a few more aspects to consider:

  • gender
  • age
  • vocation
  • manner
  • traits

The first three are self-explanatory.

To the last two, Mr. Swain says manner is “the most important factor in creating a dominant impression. . . . Why?  First, because manner is what impresses those who meet Character. More than appearance, ordinarily, you notice that a boy is timid, a girl shy, a woman whiny, a man grouchy.  Second, manner indicates to a considerable degree what’s going on inside Character.”

As for traits, they are the character’s “habitual modes of response and patterns of behavior,” says Mr. Swain.

Nancy Kress would add another aspect:

  • mannerisms

“Use mannerisms to indicate personality,” says Ms. Kress. “Such mannerisms–habitual physical gestures–tell us something about the inner life of each character.”  But beware of cliché mannerisms. “Search for fresh gestures that let us visualize what your character is doing while telling us something significant about her personality.”

Steven James would add yet another aspect:

  • status (and the character’s response thereto)

“So what exactly is status?” asks Mr. James. “Simply put, in every social interaction, one person has (or attempts to have) a more dominant role. . . . In daily life all of us are constantly adjusting and negotiating the amount of status we portray as we face different situations and interact with different people.  Novelists have the daunting task of showing this dynamic . . .”

Mr. James says, “Status varies with respect to three things: relationship (a father has higher relational status than his ten-year-old daughter), position (a boss has higher positional status than her employees), and situation (if you’re attacked by a team of highly trained ninjas and you’ve never studied martial arts, you’d have quite a bit lower situational status than your nunchucks-wielding assailants).”

“So what’s the key to a well-rounded character?” Mr. James asks.  “Simple: She doesn’t have the same status in every situation.”


Sol Stein says, “There are at least five different ways to characterize:

  1. Through physical attributes.
  2. With clothing or the manner of wearing clothing.
  3. Through psychological attributes and mannerisms.
  4. Through actions.
  5. In dialogue.”

Mr. Swain (and others) would add another way:

     6. Through thoughts and introspection.

We’ve already touched on most of these tools in past character posts (tags, backstory, want/need/flaw/symptomsthree-dimensional characters), and we’ll come back to dialogue, actions, and introspection, and perhaps the other three as well, in dedicated future posts.  So for now I leave you with insight from Nancy Kress on using appearance to characterize.

Ms. Kress says, “A person’s appearance consists of two different aspects: those things he’s chosen and those he has not [chosen, but can react to however he chooses]. We don’t choose our height, age, shoe size or face shape. . . . We do choose our clothing, hairstyle, and level of grooming.  But even these are not completely free choices, in that they are constrained by such factors as income . . . fashion, and custom. This combination of selection with constraining factors is precisely what makes your character’s appearance such a strong tool for characterization.”

Further, “Would including [a character’s] reaction to another’s appearance give us vital information about her?  If so, do it.”


To make a character “vivid and credible to your reader . . . give him the appearance of life. To this end, you use learned tricks and techniques of presentation,” says Mr. Swain.

Which techniques?

a. Tags

For Mr. Swain, the most useful techniques are differentiating characters through contrast and . . .

b. The Reader-Character Bond

. . . compelling the reader to care about the character.

c. Details

For Orson Scott Card, believability is in the details. “You must provide your audience with details that seem familiar and appropriate, so that they are constantly saying to themselves, ‘Yes, that’s right, that’s true, that’s just the way it would be, people do that.”

d. Reactions

Real people have opinions about things.  So another technique is to make sure the character reacts to the story events by way of what Mr. Card calls the character’s “attitude.”

Mr. James agrees. “We understand a person’s characterization, whether in real life or in fiction, by seeing how that person responds in different situations to different people.”

e. Backstory

Real people come from somewhere; they have a family and a past.  So Mr. Card says to give your characters a backstory.

f. Justified Motives

Mr. Card says, “The most important tool that will help your audience believe in your characters is elaboration of motive.” “To make characters more believable, more real, we give them more complex, even contradictory motives, and we justify them better.”

But don’t over-justify, says Mr. Card. “The amount of justification must be in proportion to the event being justified, or it leads the reader to expect things that you aren’t going to deliver.  As a general rule, the more bizarre and unbelievable the character’s behavior and the more important it is to the story, the earlier in the story you have to begin justifying it and the more time you’ll need to spend to make it believable.”


Mr. Corbett says, “Characterization requires a constant back-and-forth between the exterior events of the story and the inner life of the character. This requires training your insight, asking the right questions and not hedging your answers, and learning to listen to yourself when, from the back of your mind, a voice insists: No. Not yet. Make it better.

Albert Zuckerman says, “Remember, what counts in determining character for the reader is limited largely to what we actually see the character do as opposed to what is said about him.”

In other words, you can use a combination of showing and telling to manipulate the reader’s impression of a character:  showing in scene what supports the desired impression and reporting what doesn’t through narration or dialogue.  Just make sure you’re not “telling” something that really should happen in scene. (If you’re not sure, give your beta readers the “telling” version and see if they complain.)

Top Books on Characterization

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Up next, on Monday

Details . . . So many options . . . How do we choose?  We’ll answer that question next Monday. See you then!

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