In “How to Read Fiction Step 4, Part 1,” we discussed four ways that writers create living characters in fiction, focusing on the four qualities readers are most likely to perceive first: Characterization Through Naming (1), Through Physical Description (2), Through “Tags” and Catchphrases (3), and Through Associated Objects (4). These characterization techniques give readers an immediate and forceful first impression of characters as they first meet them in fiction.
As readers read further and deeper into a tale, they encounter fuller and more subtle means of characterization. Narrators and other characters give readers guidance about main characters. Even more powerful, the characters reveal their own personalities and psyches through their own words and actions. Let’s wade in deeper to see how these techniques work to flesh out fully-developed characters.
What Others Say About the Character
5. Characterization by a Narrator
Some writers fashion narrators who characterize primarily by “showing.” These narrators bring characters into being for readers by showing them multiple details about how characters look, how they speak, how they dress, or how they feel. Readers must use these details to construct a complete idea of a character’s personality.
Other writers don’t leave readers so much alone to draw their own conclusions, but instead just tell them directly what to think about the characters. These narrators don’t just “show,” they “tell.” They explain directly the inner lives, personal qualities, and psychologies of the characters.
Sarah Orne Jewett uses this kind of direct narration in her sweet story “A White Heron” when characterizing her 9-year-old protagonist. In the story, shy nature-loving country girl Sylvia is herding home the family cow through the forest when she is surprised by meeting a young man. This handsome young fellow is an ornithologist who is looking for a white heron to shoot, stuff, and add to his collection to study it.
Sylvia develops a crush on the kind young man, and determines to find out where the white heron nests so she can give him this knowledge as a gift. Sylvia knows of a very tall tree nearby. She thinks that if she climbs to the top of it at dawn, she will be able to see the heron flying out of his nest and discover his location.
In describing Sylvia’s thoughts and actions at this point in the story, Jewett’s narrator tells readers explicitly what Sylvia thinks and feels, even how readers should think and feel about her. When in the hands of a narrator like this one, readers do not need to deduce how to feel about a character or her dilemma, because the narrator makes that explicit.
First, the narrator makes sure that readers understand Sylvia’s conflict: if she reports the heron’s location, the ornithologist will kill the bird, consisting of a betrayal of the birds that Sylvia regards as friends. On this point, the narrator comments, “Alas, if the great wave of human interest which flooded for the first time this dull little life should sweep away the satisfactions of an existence heart to heart with nature and the dumb life of the forest!”
Later, as Sylvia begins the difficult climb up the tree, the narrator continues to make explicit remarks to help control readers’ feelings and judgments of her:
“Who knows how steadily the least twigs held themselves to advantage this light, weak creature on her way! The old pine must have loved his new dependent. More than all the hawks, and bats, and moths, and even the sweet voiced thrushes, was the brave, beating heart of the solitary gray-eyed child.”
— Sarah Orne Jewett, “A White Heron”
These kinds of directly-expressed sentiments were a very popular means of characterization in 19th century fiction, when “A White Heron” was written, but were still used by some famous writers well into the 20th century. D.H. Lawrence, for instance, fashioned a very controlling narrator for his strange, hypnotic tale “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” in which he describes the characters as having feelings that they themselves cannot identify.
It makes sense for Lawrence to create a “tell”-style narrator, since Lawrence’s main point in this story is that people are motivated more by unconscious drives than by conscious thoughts. Even the characters can’t fully articulate their feelings and impulses for themselves, so Lawrence’s narrator does it for them.
Thus in the story, the moody, silent horse-dealer’s daughter Mabel Pervin and the conscientious young doctor Jack Ferguson find themselves unexpectedly in love after he saves her from drowning herself in a pond. Neither character saw it coming at all. Jack, for one, isn’t even very happy about it. All of this, the narrator must explain, because the characters themselves don’t understand it.
We can see Lawrence’s narrator at work in an earlier passage of this story, where he describes Mabel’s brother Fred Henry. In this scene, the family’s horse-dealing business has gone bankrupt, and the family is having a last breakfast together as the remaining horses are led away by their new owner:
There was another helpless silence at the table. Joe sprawled uneasily in his seat, not willing to go till the family conclave was dissolved. Fred Henry, the second brother, was erect, clean-limbed, alert. He had watched the passing of the horses with more sang-froid. If he was an animal, like Joe, he was an animal which controls, not one which is controlled. He was master of any horse, and he carried himself with a well-tempered air of mastery. But he was not master of the situations of life. He pushed his coarse brown moustache upwards, off his lip, and glanced irritably at his sister, who sat impassive and inscrutable.
D. H. Lawrence–“The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter”
These days, it is more the fashion for narrators to provide signs and clues about characters from which readers must figure out what a particular character is like—to “show” more than “tell.” But in Lawrence’s work, we see a narrator who takes firm hold of readers and tells them exactly what is going on in the minds and souls of the characters. Here he suggests to readers that people can be compared to different kinds of animals, leading to further speculation about what unconscious forces may control human behavior.
Whether a narrator’s remarks are subtle and indirect, or explicit like Lawrence’s and Jewett’s, what the narrator says about characters is a very important means the writer has for conveying a sense to readers that his or her characters are truly real.
6. Characterization by the Other Characters
While the narrator may be the most prominent source of information about a character, the author can also make great use of what the other characters have to say about each other to flesh out an important character.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway comes to mind here, since in this novel, everybody thinks and talks about everybody else. Clarissa tells herself things about Peter, Peter talks to Sally about Clarissa, Lady Bruton talks to Richard about Clarissa and Peter, Lucrezia talks to Dr. Holmes about Septimus—and on and on.
Wuthering Heights is another great example of a novel in which the characters’ observations about each other play a large role in depicting them vividly for readers. For example, housekeeper Nelly sums up the young Cathy as “a wild wick slip but with the sweetest smile.” When the Grange tenant Lockwood compliments the portrait of Edgar, who later married Cathy, Nelly disagrees somewhat with Lockwood’s positive evaluation. She says that Edgar “looked better when he was animated; that is his everyday countenance: he wanted spirit in general.”
Although Nelly sometimes goes awry in her understanding of people and events in the novel, she proves herself insightful in these two brief assessments, which taken together pinpoint exactly why Cathy and Edgar, two very opposite personalities, were not completely satisfied by their marriage–one is all energy, while the other lacks it .
At another point, a character helps readers understand another character when Cathy warns Isabelle against indulging her crush on Heathcliff. She tells Isabelle, “He’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.” This description doesn’t deter Isabelle, but it may spur readers to question their own attraction to this violent but charismatic character.
Sometimes Characters come to Life by Resisting the Characterization of Others
Authors can use characters’ speech about other characters another way: they can have a major character contradict those character’s wrong opinions through their thoughts, speech, or actions. Doing this really helps establish a rounded personality for a character, who seems instantly more complex when readers can see the character in a completely different way from how the other characters do.
William Faulkner often turns this character development technique into an opportunity to explore a theme: the all-too-human difficulty in understanding other people. In the famous short story “A Rose for Emily,” the narrator, one of Emily’s fellow townspeople, relates all the mistaken guesses, judgments, and surmises that people made about Emily throughout her whole life. Faulkner gets some grim humor out of showing the stubborn but strange Miss Emily contradict one of the town’s predictions after another, and in the end shocking everyone with how very wrong their guesses had always been.
How Characters Speak for Themselves
Writers don’t always have to be “telling” readers about characters, or having other characters do it for them. Characters can speak, think, and act directly for themselves. Here are three more ways writers use this to establish characters for readers.
7. Characterization Through Speech: How a Character Talks, and Dialogues with Others
The older the fiction, the less likely that the characters will sound different from each other when they talk, because differentiating characters by their speech habits was a technique that writers had to invent and develop. But by the end of the 18th century, writers were taking advantage of this delightful and hard-to-craft means of characterization: giving characters their own unique voice, so they sound distinctively different from the other characters when they speak.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is a famous character whose voice is unmistakable from his first line. Twain explains so much about what Huck is like just from the way he speaks, coming to life for readers with every word:
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.
–Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
In Raymond Carver’s wonderful short story “Cathedral,” the distinctively-voiced first person narrator tells the story of how his wife’s blind friend comes to visit them at their not-so-happy home. What he explains, what he chooses to leave out, and his sardonic yet subtly comic tone of voice tells readers a lot about who this guy is. It’s clear from the way he describes the start of the blind man’s visit that he is uncomfortable around people with disabilities. He also seems resentful and jealous of his wife’s friendship with this man:
I saw my wife laughing as she parked the car. I saw her get out of the car and shut the door. She was still wearing a smile. Just amazing. She went around to the other side of the car to where the blind man was already starting to get out. This blind man, feature this, he was wearing a full beard! A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say.
–Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”
Readers get more acquainted with the narrator’s ironic sense of humor when he goes on to describe the uncomfortable dinner that his wife, Robert, and himself eat together. The narrator’s ignorance about blind people is on view, but also a hint that he is developing a little respect for Robert, even if only to admire his method for finding everything on his plate:
We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed the table. We were into serious eating. The blind man had right away located his foods, he knew just where everything was on his plate. I watched with admiration as he used his knife and fork on the meat. He’d cut two pieces of the meat, fork the meat into his mouth, and then go all out for the scalloped potatoes, the beans next, and then he’d tear off a hunk of buttered bread and eat that. He’d follow this up with a big drink of milk. It didn’t seem to bother him to use his fingers once in a while, either.
We finished everything, including half a strawberry pie. For a few moments, we sat as if stunned. Sweat beaded on our faces. Finally, we got up from the table and left the dirty plates. We didn’t look back.
–Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”
The detailed, down-home, sarcastic, humorous voice in itself tells readers a lot about the personality, prejudices, and, in spite of everything, the appealing humor of this character.
Not only do characters talk to readers; they talk to each other. Writers use dialogue to reveal a lot about characters’ personalities, and their relationships to each other.
If you have ever taken a college course in basic fiction or creative writing, you have probably been asked to read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Written almost entirely in dialogue, this story is a casebook in how writers can subtly convey both character traits and relationships without using hardly any kind of direct narration at all.
In the story, the young unmarried couple (“the man” and “the girl”) are waiting for a train at a small station in Spain. The girl tries to engage in light banter, but the man keeps recurring to his argument that she get an abortion. Eventually the girl shuts down the conversation, but not before the reader glimpses her desire to have the baby. The story is a masterpiece that showcases how complex characters can be built using only one or two means of characterization.
There’s another great piece of dialogue in the story we just discussed, “Cathedral,” when the narrator has a passive-aggressive argument with his wife while she is peeling potatoes to get ready for their visitor’s dinner. In just a few short speeches, readers can see that the man and his wife are not in sync, and make some good surmises why and whose fault that is. Take a look at the story and enjoy watching the characters develop.
8. What the Character is Thinking
Sometimes the writer doesn’t have the character say everything he or she is thinking. In those cases, the portrayal of a character’s inner thoughts is a powerful way of helping readers to experience a character as a real person.
In the early days of the novel genre, writers often turned to “epistolary fiction” to help reveal the inner psyches of characters. In an epistolary novel, the story is told by characters in a series of personal letters. Early novelist Samuel Richardson was famous for this technique, used in the novel Pamela and in the massive tale Clarissa. Through writing letters, characters can reveal their most personal thoughts that would not fit naturally into appropriate dialogue they might have in public with other characters.
By the beginning of the 19th century, especially after Jane Austen invented “free indirect discourse,” through which she used the narrative voice to report the inner thoughts of the characters without putting their ideas into quoted speeches, writers began more and more to report a character’s inner thoughts. Different writers rely on this technique in different degrees.
Recently I have been on a classic detective fiction reading spree, and spent some time with the novels of P. D. James. In her famous characters of DCI Adam Dalgliesh and Detective Inspector Kate Miskin, P. D. James has fashioned two intense people who say very little of what they are actually thinking. If readers had access only to what they say aloud, how they look, and what they do, they would know little about these characters at all, and probably would feel little personal relationship to them.
However, James gives readers a constant window on their thoughts, essential information for understanding what these two people are really like. Portraying their inner thoughts enriches them as characters and also gives James room to develop thought-provoking themes by tying them to the ideas going through the minds of her characters.
In many novels, especially the comic or the suspenseful, the readers’ enjoyment of the plot may be produced by the writer’s careful management of which character’s thoughts we see, and which we don’t. A couple of famous examples occur in Austen’s Emma and DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Both these novels keep readers inside the minds of characters whose views prove to be somewhat unreliable. They see and report many truths about characters and their actions, but are only partially aware of what is really going on in the minds of other crucial characters.
For example, Austen’s Emma Woodhouse is proud of her ability to “read” the minds of other characters; she especially likes to spot characters who she thinks are falling in love with each other. However, as the novel progresses, readers are surprised right alongside Emma herself that she can be quite wrong about everyone’s thoughts and feelings. Indeed, Emma turns out to have misread almost everyone, from the insinuating Mr. Elton, to the reserved Jane Fairfax, to her gentle friend Harriet. Even worse, Emma misunderstands her own inner feelings. Austen has a lot of fun with these discrepancies between Emma’s thoughts and outer realities, and also makes a deft point about human nature.
The narrator of DuMaurier’s Rebecca becomes obsessed with her new husband Max’s former deceased wife. She hears from so many characters how wonderful Rebecca was that she imagines and fears that Max will never get over Rebecca’s loss. She assumes Max is wishing he had never married herself. The reader, like the narrator, is kept outside Max’s thoughts the whole time, and must try, alongside the narrator, to surmise from his words and actions how he really feels. This “Max thought blackout” produces much of the suspense of the novel, as readers gradually figure out, along with the narrator, what really went on between Max and Rebecca.
9. Characterization through Actions
In real life, they say, actions speak louder than words. In fiction, words describing actions speak very loudly indeed about what all the characters in the story are truly like. Interestingly, though, a character’s actions can be used two ways. An action can reveal or illustrate a permanent quality of a character; it can also do just the opposite: an uncharacteristic action can show readers how a character has changed or developed in the course of the tale.
When Actions Reveal Character
Most straightforwardly, writers can use actions to show readers what the characters are truly like. In this case, a character’s actions are usually consistent with their speech, inner thoughts, physical descriptions, and so on, just continuing to reveal more and more about what readers have already begun to surmise about a particular character.
For instance, Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” begins with a town’s inquiry into whether the protagonist’s father, Abner Snopes, is guilty of burning someone’s barn. Readers don’t long question whether he is guilty, since Abner establishes his mean, resentful, and destructive character with every subsequent action, from the cold orders he gives to his wife, daughters, and little son Sarty, to the way he builds a campfire, to the way he walks machine-like through filth and tracks it defiantly onto his new landlord’s expensive rug. Here, the writer has used actions to confirm and illustrate the character’s inner self.
Some fictions mislead readers, and other characters, about a crucial character’s true inner self, then use the character’s actions to reveal the truth about his or her psychology. For instance, in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad created Mr. Kurtz, a character who at first appears as an upstanding, moral, idealistic person who wants to spread civilization to help others. His speech, appearance, and the opinions of other characters all support this interpretation.
However, Marlowe the narrator eventually learns that when Kurtz had found himself alone deep in the jungle, he set himself up as an idol, ruled over others through fear, and engaged in total debauchery. Thus it is the actions of the character that alone provide a powerful contradiction to the earlier mistaken impressions of Mr. Kurtz. In this case, action is the most powerful means of characterization in Conrad’s story.
Especially in tragic tales, characters are often depicted as having the seeds of their own destruction already embedded in their psyches. Early hints of a tragic flaw will flower into destructive actions by the end of a tragedy.
A famous example from American literature is Moby Dick’s Ahab, who relentlessly stalks the great white whale who has bitten off his leg. The books’ plot springs from Ahab’s implacable anger against nature and this fierce whale who was the cause of his misfortune. In spite of a powerful scene when the ship’s gentle and reasonable first mate gets Ahab to waver, his subsequent actions prove that this need for revenge against the universe is a personal quality too strong to overcome.
Actions Can Show How Characters Change
Characters don’t always behave predictably or consistently. Often, the suspense of a story involves making the reader wonder exactly what action a character will take in a crucial situation, and thus reveal whether a character will change or just stay the same.
In the Faulkner story we discussed above, “Barn Burning,” the protagonist is Abner’s 10 year old son Sarty. Sarty is deeply conflicted about whether he should support his family at all costs—to stick to his “blood”—or to throw his weight on the side of doing “right,” placing himself on the side of people who practice a moral code he admires and believes. As his father Abner prepares to burn down another barn as revenge for a conflict with his landlord, Sarty must decide whether to keep quiet to protect his father, or to warn the man, as he feels is the right thing to do. The action he chooses shows readers whether the character has changed and developed, or not.
One of the most famous changes of heart in literature is the turnaround of mean-spirited miser Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s Christmas Carol. In the beginning of the tale, Scrooge is shown taking a variety of actions that establish his overall nastiness: his harsh treatment of his innocent clerk Bob Cratchit, his unpleasantness to his nephew, his disregard for the poor, even his heckling of Christmas carolers. But at the end of the story, his actions demonstrate a very different sort of character: he buys a turkey for Cratchit’s family, gives him a raise, reconciles with his nephew and his wife, and looks after the ailing Tiny Tim. All these actions speak louder than any words could do that Scrooge’s inner character has been revolutionized.
This kind of conversion, if properly prepared and accounted for, can be very satisfying to readers, but only if the characters’ depicted actions clearly demonstrate a true and believable change of heart or mind.
How Developed are the Characters in the Fiction You Are Reading?
In the early days of the novel genre, not all of these characterization techniques had been developed. Thus, if you pick up Daniel Defoe’s great novel Moll Flanders, published in 1722, all the characters talk alike (although they do talk a lot), almost no one has a real name (Moll Flanders is actually just a nickname for “thief”), and we don’t know anything about what anybody looks like. Moll herself is the charming talkative narrator, so we rely on her voice to tell us everything about what the other characters are like, along with observing the few actions allotted to each character.
However, by the 19th century, the greatest novels availed themselves of every characterization technique we have discussed. From Part 1: Naming, Physical Appearance, Tags, and Associated Objects; from Part 2: Narrator Explanation, Comments from other Characters, Character Speech and Dialogue, Character’s Inner Thoughts, and Actions. In the 20th century, minimalism came into vogue, with writers choosing to feature just a few characterization techniques from which readers needed to surmise and piece together what all the characters were truly like.
What about the 21st century? Go on a “reading mission” to find out! Next time you pick up a current novel or short story, notice how many and what kinds of techniques writers use to paint characters and bring them to life. Today’s novels, especially bestsellers, tend to be short, with a minimal number of techniques used to paint a character. As we learned from examining 20th century masterpieces like The Great Gatsby, a skillful minimalist can communicate a rich characterization with careful use of just a few techniques.
But sometimes minimal characterization is just the sign of a lazy writer, or, dare I say, a writer who fears that readers will be lazy? If characterization is lean in a fiction you are reading, decide whether the writer’s technical choices succeed in painting a rich, round character, or just daub a cardboard cutout.
I like my fictional characters rich and round. How about you?
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Sarah Orne Jewett: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Moby Dick Final Chase: By I. W. Taber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.