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Whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, a television show, or a feature-length film, characterization is a vital tool that helps your fictional characters feel like living, breathing people.
What Is Characterization?
Characterization is the way that a writer communicates a character’s traits to the reader. It can either be direct characterization, where the author uses direct statements to tell the readers exactly what the character is like, or indirect characterization, where the writer suggests to the readers what the character is like by describing the way the character acts.
Good characterization is crucial to any short story or novel, because it allows writers to paint compelling portraits of their fictional characters as real people. Any character—whether they’re a round or flat character—needs to feel realistic enough to readers that they care about what happens to them; that’s what keeps readers turning pages.
The History of Characterization
Characterization wasn’t always a part of fiction writing; in fact, while fiction has been around since Ancient Greece, deliberately developing characters didn’t become a popular literary device until the nineteenth century—the works of Ancient Greece were much more plot-centric. The nineteenth century saw the rise of psychology as a field of study, and as people became more interested and aware of their brains in the real world, this transferred over to literature, too.
5 Ways to Reveal Character
Regardless of the type of characterization you use—direct or indirect—there are a few different approaches you can use to make your characters feel developed and interesting.
- How your character looks. Readers can learn a lot about your characters by their physical appearance. Are they fit? Do they wear jeans or slacks? Do they have a cigarette dangling from their lips? Physical description details like these can clue readers in to a character’s personality, lifestyle, and priorities—not to mention give them something to picture as they read.
- How your character acts. Actions speak volumes, and fictional actions are no exception: from the way they walk to their morning rituals to the things they order at a restaurant, describing your character’s actions—the way they interact with the world—is a great way to foster character development. Giving your characters specific mannerisms, like a nervous twitch or a particular way they drink their coffee, will aid in making them feel developed and believable.
- How your character reacts. Anybody can keep their cool if everything’s going as they expect—but what happens when the unexpected strikes? If a server spills a drink, does your character yell or forgive them? If someone tells them they love them, does your character say it back? The ways that your character reacts to small moments or big events tells a lot about what they’re really like.
- How your character speaks. The way your character speaks will say a lot about them. Do they use words like ain’t and gotta? Are they constantly chatting or do they rarely say a word? Do they swear? Do they compliment others or they insult them? Using dialogue is a great way to help authors show where their characters come from, what they care about, and how they express it.
- How your character thinks. There’s nothing like getting right into a character’s head—it’s the most direct way to reveal their personality, but it can also be the most difficult. A character’s thoughts need to be written entirely with their point of view in mind, so you need to be prepared to describe their private thoughts in a way that crafts a believable person.
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