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20th century typewriter in turquoise, shown with paper inserted and cup of coffee to the left--writer's characterization tools!

Words are the writer’s only tools for characterization in fiction. Just 26 letters can bring hundreds of characters to life.

Yours could be any one of thousands of great literary characters–Atticus Finch, Jo March, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Janie Crawford, Clarissa Dalloway, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Raskolnikov, or the Artful Dodger; all serious readers have their favorites.

The characters in a novel or story are usually the first thing everyone wants to talk about. When I talk to excited readers about fiction they like, most people speak about the fictional characters as if they are real people:

“I love Lizzie Bennett’s independence, and she’s funny!”
“Holden Caulfield is a brat but I like the way he sees through all the fakiness.”
“Gatsby seems so romantic and so lonely.”
“I like watching Janie search so hard for her identity.”
“My heart goes out to Jane Eyre, she’s so mistreated!”

But of course, literary characters are not real people. Writers only make us feel as if they are. How do writers convey to readers the sense that their characters are actual human beings?

Writers use a multitude of clever methods to bring their characters to life. These characterization techniques sometimes vary according to literary fashion, and some endure through every era of storytelling. Learning to spot methods of characterization in fiction helps us come to a deeper understanding of the personality and psychology of a character as the writer conceived it. It also helps us see and enjoy themes or plot conflicts.

Even more, recognizing characterization techniques points out the degree of a writer’s skill, so we can see how one writer differs from another and appreciate excellent fictional artistry all the more.

Woman in Bookshop. Books are lining the walls and woman, wearing skirt, jacket, and light pack, is scanning shelves.

In one bookshop alone are thousands of characters for readers to meet and get to know through clever characterization techniques.

Creating great characters we love, or love to hate, is one of the things we value most in our favorite writers, so let’s take a moment now to see all the methods the great ones use do it.

What Readers See First as Characters Come to Life

By my count, there are at least nine different characterization techniques! In this post, I’ll cover the first four. In How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 2, we’ll talk about the others. Let’s begin here with the aspects of character that readers are likely to notice first:

1. Characterization by Naming

Painting in earth and gray tones showing Ebenezer Scrooge, old man with robe and nightcap, sitting in chair next to ghostly figure. A marvel of great characterization.

Dickens’s famous Ebenezer Scrooge with Marley’s Ghost.

What if Lee Childs’ tough-guy Jack Reacher had been named Harold William Baker? Or if Flemings’ master spy “Bond, James Bond” was “Granger, Elmer Granger”? Or if Christie’s cuddly but deceptively sharp old-lady detective Jane Marple was named “Summer Barrington”? In these cases, just a simple name change could send a carefully built character crashing.

There’s no question that the right name goes a long way in establishing a sense of a character for readers. The names of characters carry more weight in some fictions than others, but aren’t completely unimportant in any well-told story, especially in comedy.

Dickens, for instance, was a master-namer of his characters. Think how perfectly these names fit the personalities of each of the characters: Betsy Trotwood, David Copperfield’s strong opinionated aunt; Esther Summerson, the kind self-deprecating young lady who brings a breath of fresh air into the sad lives of others; and of course, Ebenezer Scrooge, perfect for a miser who is forced to remember, and to commemorate, formative events of his past, the word “Ebenezer” being the Biblical word for monuments built to help people remember events where God intervened in their lives.

Here are some other names that exactly fit their characters:

  • Lizzie Bennet, Jane Austen’s smart, witty, and just-a-bit rebellious young woman.
  • Raskolnikov, deriving from a word meaning “schismatic,” Dostoyevsky’s young rebellious student ideologue who questions conventional morality.
  • Clarissa Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s wealthy and apparently lightweight heroine who spends her life giving parties and yet who has a life-giving effect on everyone who knows her.

It’s no surprise that an author famous for writing technique was also a master character-namer. Henry James’s characters always have just the right names to fit their personal qualities: simple-hearted forthright Daisy Miller and her foil and love interest, over-cultivated Giles Winterbourne; Kate Croy, the desperate but manipulative character who connives to get what she wants in Wings of the Dove. Her lover, over-fastidious Merton Densher, and their would-be victim, warm-hearted American Millie Theale, are also perfectly named.

Painting of Dostoyevsky from waist up, showing bearded, serious man in overlarge brown coat with lapels. Famous for characterization of Raskolnikov.

Dostoevsky, most famous for his self-tormented intellectual Raskolnikov.

In The Bostonians, we find the solemn and censorious champion of women’s rights, Olive Chancellor, as well as her cousin and personal opposite, Basil Ransom, a Southern champion of patriarchy, and beautiful Verena Tarrant, the glib, young, celebrated women’s rights speaker whom both Olive and Basil struggle to love and control. Her name implies glamour but shallowness. Is she a charlatan or just shallow, user or used? Readers must decide.

Just-right names like all of these go a long way toward bringing a character to life for readers.

2. Characterization by Physical Description.

To my dismay, and I think, to modern readers’ great loss, many of today’s fictions tell us little about what the characters look like. I suppose today’s readers are too impatient to read such details, but in my view, they are missing out on a rich readerly experience.

In earlier eras, descriptions of a character’s physical appearance, including clothing and other personal characteristics, were a rich means of conveying a multitude of information about a character. Knowing how the writer pictures a character helps readers feel they are reading about a real person, not just a fictional creation.

High Victorian Physical Characterization
B & W Engraving of picture of Dickens's Mr. Pickwick in a chair on a hill overlooking a huge crowd of Dickens's characters massed in the valley below.

Hundreds of Dickens characters are under review by Mr. Pickwick. Dickens used many different characterization techniques to bring them all to life.

Charlotte Bronte was just one of many masters of this characterization technique. In this passage from Jane Eyre, she paints a detailed picture of Miss Temple, the headmistress of Lowood school, whom the lonely child Jane admires immensely. The passage also showcases Bronte’s seriousness about conveying a complete picture of her characters to readers:

Seen now, in broad daylight, she looked tall, fair, and shapely; brown eyes, with a benignant light in their irids, and a fine pencilling of long lashes round, relieved the whiteness of her large front; on each of her temples her hair, of a very dark brown, was clustered in round curls, according to the fashion of those times, when neither smooth bands nor long ringlets were in vogue; her dress, also in the mode of the day, was of purple cloth, relieved by a sort of Spanish trimming of black velvet; a gold watch (watches were not so common then as now) shone at her girdle. Let the reader add, to complete the picture, refined features; a complexion, if pale, clear; and a stately air and carriage, and he will have, at least as clearly as words can give it, a correct idea of the exterior of Miss Temple. . . .

Jane Eyre first meets the romantic lead of the novel, Mr. Rochester, when he falls off his horse while returning from a long absence from Thornfield Hall, where Jane is employed as the governess. The next evening, he summons her for a conversation; here she describes her impression of his appearance:

[T]he fire shone full on his face. I knew my traveller with his broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair. I recognized his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw – yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake. His shape, now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonized in squareness with his physiognomy: I suppose it was a good figure in the athletic sense of the term – broad-chested and thin-flanked; though neither tall nor graceful.

In this high Victorian style of description, not only are physical details thoroughly rendered, but the writer also weaves in information about the character’s temperament, as shown plainly by their appearance.

Physical Characterization in the Modernist Era
Photo of young writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, sitting at desk with paper and pen, looking up. 1921.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

By the modernist era, full-detail descriptions are less in vogue and minimalism is more the style. Take for instance this sketch of Charlie Wales, the protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Babylon Revisited”:

“He was thirty-five, and good to look at. The Irish mobility of his face was sobered by a deep wrinkle between his eyes. As he rang his brother-in-law’s bell in the Rue Palatine, the wrinkle deepened till it pulled down his brows.”

The description of Marion Peters, the antagonist of the tale, is equally terse:

“Marion Peters came back from the kitchen. She was a tall woman with worried eyes, who had once possessed a fresh American loveliness. Charlie had never been sensitive to it and was always surprised when people spoke of how pretty she had been.”

In Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, so much in both the plot and the theme depend on the point that Daisy Buchanan, the narrator’s cousin and the love of Jay Gatsby’s life, is overpoweringly beautiful. But the only physical details that Nick, the narrator, tells readers about her are vague:

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”

Clearly, Fitzgerald will be establishing Daisy’s beauty and attractiveness through other means than pictorial physical description. Fortunately, there are many other methods he can use, as we will continue to explore in this and in the next post.

1925 Cover of "The Great Gatsby, which relies on modernist-style characterization techniques.

1925 Cover of “The Great Gatsby, which relies on modernist-style characterization techniques.

3. Characterization by “Tags”: Repeated Mannerisms or Catchphrases.

This characterization technique is often used to help create humorous characters, like Bart Simpson’s “eat my shorts” or Homer’s oft-repeated “Doh!” Great writers can create “tags” that cleverly encapsulate an essential personal quality of the character.

Catchphrases aren’t used only with humorous characters. Some example of more serious “tags”: “Bah, Humbug,” Jay Gatsby’s “Old Sport,” Bartleby the Scrivener’s “I’d prefer not to,” and Holden Caulfield’s favorite word for just about everything he observes in people or in modern life: “Phony.”

Photo of Katherine Hepburn dressed as Jo March, wavy long hair bow at neck, wearing printed pinafore over plain gray dress, looking serious.

Katherine Hepburn portrays Jo March in the Little Women film.

“Tags” don’t have to be catchphrases; sometimes tags are repeated or characteristic actions. For example, in Alcott’s Little Women, Jo March, the “tomboy” sister, is always running everywhere, messing up her clothes, whistling, and using slang. These tags help readers identify her strong and rebellious nature, and thus look forward to reading more about her whenever she comes on the scene. Having seen her characteristic “tag” behaviors, readers will enjoy wondering how these same characteristics will play out in whatever scene comes next.

4. Characterization by Associated Objects

Closely related to “tags” are objects, modes of dress, or aspects of a setting that are always associated with a particular character. For instance, magical Mary Poppins always carries an umbrella, signifying both her practical and her magical side. An umbrella is an important association also with Mrs. Matthew Bagnet in Dickens’s Bleak House, the self-reliant soldier’s wife who has made her way home from several places in the world carrying nothing but her cloak and this extremely serviceable umbrella.

Also in Dickens, we find two important associations with Wemmick, the law clerk in Great Expectations. His mouth looks like a tight post-office slot at work, but it relaxes to a normal expression when he is ensconced in his own home that looks just like a miniature castle. This transfer of objects associated with Wemmick, from the tight postal slot to whimsical castle, clarifies how Wemmick feels about his job in the law business: to do it, he must turn himself into a mechanical being with no personal feelings. He saves emotions for his home life, where, in his own castle, he is in charge of his own life.

Turning to a classic detective writer, Dorothy Sayers’s famous detective Lord Peter Wimsey often dons a monocle to make crime suspects think that he is an unintelligent upper class” twit” when he actually has sharp powers of reasoning and observation.

How Characters Dress

Objects or modes of dress associated with characters can convey many subtle qualities of character. For example, Jane Eyre’s insistence on wearing a plain gray dress with few ornaments tells readers about her unwillingness or inability to believe she could ever be good looking. Her unfashionably plain dress also conveys her independent, if somewhat dark, spirit.

In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, Aunt Sylvie always wears a huge coat with big pockets that she seldom takes off, packing the pockets full of random food or newspapers when she takes her nieces on little adventures. The coat suggests her preference for her former life as a transient, which she lived for years before appearing to take care of her orphaned nieces. The coat seems to be a subtle threat to the girls that Sylvie could leave them just as other caretakers have left them before.

Close-up of very old typewriter keyboard showing the alphabet, all the letters needed for applying many characterization techniques.

All the tools needed to create thousands of fictional characters, using nine or more characterization techniques.

Next Time: Even Deeper Characterization Techniques

We have now explored the first four qualities of character that readers are likely to apprehend about each new character they meet when reading fiction. Stop every few moments as you read your next novel or short story to savor the writer’s work and talent in fashioning the characters for you to enjoy: their names, how they look, catchphrases and mannerisms, and associated objects. How well do these choices fit the character a writer is painting? Are they brilliant, so-so, or even misleading mistakes for that character? Brilliant use of such techniques is one way master writers are set apart from the common herd.

In the next post, we will cover characterization techniques that readers experience as they read more deeply into a story. First, the writer can bring a character to life through what others say about the character: both third-person narrators and other characters can have their say. Second, as the story moves forward, characters will speak and act for themselves: their manner of speech and dialogue with other characters, their inner thoughts as created by the writer, and their actions can work together to build a reader’s sense that the character he or she is reading about is an actual living being.

Join us for How to Read Fiction Step 4, Part 2 for more about these techniques!

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*Photo Credits

Typewriter with Coffee.

Bookshop Photo by John Michael Thomson on Unsplash.

Ebenezer Scrooge. Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Dostoevsky painting by Vasily Perov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Pickwick Greeting Dickens’s Characters. William Holbrook Beard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons  {{PD-1923}}.

F. Scott Fitzgerald. By The World’s Work (The World’s Work (June 1921), p. 192) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great Gatsby Novel Cover. By Musée Annam [Public domain or CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Katherine Hepburn as Jo March. By RKO Radio Pictures  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Old black typewriter. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

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.

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