ARTICLE #6 - Characterization

Characterization is the depiction of convincing and distinctive features, traits and attributes of a literary or dramatic character. It’s presented directly, indirectly or in combination of both tools used in drama and fictitious works for the reading or viewing audience.

There are five methods of characterization: Physical description, Action, Inner thoughts, Reaction, and Speech. Here’s a common and very useful acronym I have found to help you remember this set of descriptive tools: PAIRS. These defining devices are predominantly used to depict the two types of well-rounded characters found in literature or drama that creates the central elements of a story’s plot; that is the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist is the person the plot revolves around while, on the other hand, the one who opposes and foils the protagonist’s efforts is known as the antagonist.

Direct Characterization (Also known as Explicit Characterization)

In the direct use of characterization, the author tells the reader what the character is like. Below are some helpful examples of direct characterization.

  • He raised one beefy hand. His silver hair glimmered in the glow of the low-lit chandeliers.

  • Steve stood there, naked. His tall, lean, yet strongly muscular body, blushed in the sunlight.

  • Carrie’s deep-dark skin glistened with moisture from the run. Again, she sprang forward, nimble and agile as a gazelle.

  • Sarah had grown bitter with age, too hardened by the cruelty she’d suffered to now care for a young child.

  • Horrified, I stared into the mirror, unbelieving the sight of the emaciated, pallor woman standing there, staring back at me. This woman, her eyes sunken deep into their dark sockets, and receding, sparse, straggly hair that once hung like a burgundy curtain, couldn’t be me.

  • Charlie, now in his late thirties, was always a huge fellow and dimwitted; but his childlike mannerism made him tolerable to most of the townspeople.

  • At twenty-four, Mike was already an accomplished thermonuclear astrophysicist and material engineer. He functioned as the lead scientist of a covert government project at Spectra.

  • Realization hit him between the eyes like a physical blow. The sun rays stabbed through the peppertree’s speckled shade like heated daggers. His pale skin felt dry, scuffed from the scouring breeze.

Indirect Characterization (Also known as Implicit Characterization)

In the indirect use of characterization, the author shows the reader the persona of the character through the character’s thought’s, behavior, works and deeds. This type of characterization takes more time to develop and requires that the reader makes interpretations about what the character does, says or how they respond and behave in any given situation. This technique gives the reader a deeper, more rounded view of the character.

  • The success of this project falls on me, Steve thought, recently formulating the newest space capsule’s nano-material. Yet, he remained unenthused. Although the tests he’d performed on its durability, temperature range, and resistance to the earth’s gravitational pull had gone well for the umpteenth time, for him, he knew, that wasn’t good enough. It had to be incontestably perfect for the upcoming space mission.

In this reference, the writer does not come out and say that Steve is a perfectionist but, instead, through Steve’s eyes, the reader is shown Steve’s need for perfection.

  • Strange, she thought. It all felt strange. That truck, the weather. And, so hot. Any hotter, she felt she’d combust. Waves of heat waft off the sidewalk and asphalt. Looking down, she scooped up the keys she’d dropped, then made her way to the car. Moisture stained her tube-top. Sweat dripped from beneath her breast. She yanked off her thin, cover-blouse. I don’t care, she huffed silently. No one ever paid attention to her flat-chest anyway; besides, it was too frigging hot for any clothes.

From this indirect character depiction, the author doesn’t need to tell the reader that it’s hot; the reader experiences the heat through the sensations and reactions of the character. It’s also clear that the character is so hot that she can’t keep all her clothing on, and – with the combined use of direct characterization, the reader learns that the character has small breast, which, indirectly, allows the reader to surmise, small breast makes the character feel less attractive.

  • He didn’t believe Andy’s abduction account. That would be stretching it a bit. But what about the lights? He thought. They’d both seen them. He had to rule out coincidence. The lights he and Andy had witnessed shared too many similarities. But the occurrences were so many years apart. Were they components of the same phenomenon? Could there be a real connection? And to add aliens to the equation would be rash. Besides, he didn’t believe in folklore. There had to be a scientific explanation. At any rate, he didn’t want to wind up anything like Andy – considered a nut job, isolated, paranoid and alone.

From this reference the reader is inside the main character’s head, trying to figure out a puzzle of unnatural events. The character is equally determined to use a scientific approach. From his thoughts, the reader would also realize the character’s fear of being discredited as a scientist and conceivably aligned with someone, named Andy, who is not only discredited in his accounts of alien abduction but is publicly ridiculed.

Characterization remains an important tool in literature and drama, and has been for nearly five hundred years. Before then, the emphasis in literary and dramatic works were placed on plot development; the characters remained stock and flat. Today’s authors realize the need for developing rounded characters, particularly with the protagonist and antagonist. The reader needs to feel as though they know and understand the characters, why they do and say the things they do, not just what is happening around them. If an author bypasses strong character development, he or she stands to be strongly criticized for having stock, flat, or static characters, showing no dimension; or worst, they are said to have unbelievable characters. So, remember, it is important to “flesh-out” your character’s personality, traits, attributes, fears, and short coming, as well as their strengths and achievements.


It’s once again time to put thoughts and pen to paper, and create those special, rounded people of your story.

C. R. Swainward

#fictionwriting #writing #characterization

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