Understanding Language of Characterization



From Wikipedia

Characterization or characterisation is the representation of persons (or other beings or creatures) in narrative and dramatic works of art. This representation may include direct methods like the attribution of qualities in description or commentary, and indirect (or “dramatic”) methods inviting readers to infer qualities from characters’ actions, dialogue, or appearance. Such a personage is called a character.[1] Character is a literary element.[2]

There are two ways an author can convey information about a character:

Direct or explicit characterization

The author literally tells the audience what a character is like. This may be done via the narrator, another character or by the character themselves.

Indirect or implicit characterization

The audience must infer for themselves what the character is like through the character’s thoughts, actions, speech (choice of words, manner of speaking), physical appearance, mannerisms and interaction with other characters, including other characters’ reactions to that particular person.


From Wikipedia

A hero (masculine) or heroine (feminine) is a person or main character of a literary work who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through impressive feats of ingenuity, bravery or strength, often sacrificing his or her own personal concerns for some greater good.

The word “hero” or “heroine”, in modern times, is sometimes used to describe the protagonist or the love interest of a story, a usage which can conflict with the superhuman expectations of heroism.[31] A classic example is Anna Karenina, the lead character in the novel of the same title by Leo Tolstoy. In modern literature the hero is more and more a problematic concept. In 1848, for example, William Makepeace Thackeray gave Vanity Fair the subtitle A Novel without a Hero, and imagined a world in which no sympathetic character was to be found.[32]

Minor Character

From Writers Digest (writersdigest.com)

Unless your story takes place in a hermitage or a desert island, your main characters are surrounded by many people who are utterly unimportant in the story. They are background; they are part of the milieu. Here are a few samples:

  • Nora accidentally gave the cabby a $20 bill for a $5 ride and then was too shy to ask for change. Within a minute a skycap had the rest of her money.
  • Pete checked at the desk for his messages. There weren’t any, but the bellman did have a package for him.
  • People started honking their horns before Nora even knew there was a traffic jam.
  • Apparently some suspicious neighbor had called the cops. The uniform who arrested him wasn’t interested in Pete’s explanations, and Pete soon found himself at the precinct headquarters.

Notice how many people we’ve “met” in these few sentences: a cabby, a skycap, a hotel desk clerk, a bellman, horn-honkers in a traffic jam, a suspicious neighbor, a uniformed police officer. Every single one of these people is designed to fulfill a brief role in the story and then vanish completely out of sight.

How do you make people vanish? Any stage director knows the trick. You have a crowd of people on stage, most of them walk-ons. They have to be there because otherwise the setting wouldn’t be realistic—but you don’t want them to distract the audience’s attention. In effect, you want them to be like scenery. They really aren’t characters at all—they’re movable pieces of milieu.

To keep walk-on characters in their place, sometimes stereotyping is exactly the tool of characterization you need.

A stereotype is a character who is a typical member of a group. He does exactly what the readers expect him to do. Therefore, they take no notice of him: He disappears into the background.

Unreliable character

I could not find unreliable character, but did find unreliable narrator

From nownovel.com

It is a character who tells the reader a story that cannot be taken at face value. This may be because the point of view character is insane, lying, deluded or for any number of other reasons.

Perhaps one of the most famous is Vladimir Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man with a predilection for underaged girls or “nymphets” (as he calls them). In Lolita, Nabakov signals Humbert’s unreliability to the reader in a number of ways such as his outrageous claims, his endless justifications for shocking acts and his contempt for others. Alex from A Clockwork Orange is another example of a reprehensible character sharing his unreliable narrative with the reader.

Dishonest narrators can also be used to great effect in stories of crime and mystery. It can be difficult to discuss these types of narrators without spoiling the story, but both Agatha Christie’s classic novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and the recent Gillian Flynn best seller Gone Girl employ unreliable narrators whose lack of trustworthiness is crucial to the construction of both novels’ mystery. Often in books like these the reader starts out trusting the narrator and only as the story goes on realises that something is amiss.


From Wikipedia

A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning “player of the first part, chief actor”) is the main character in any story, such as a literary work or drama.[1]

The protagonist is at the center of the story, should be making the difficult choices and key decisions, and should be experiencing the consequences of those decisions. The Protagonist can affect the main characters decisions. The protagonist should be propelling the story forward. If a story contains a subplot, or is a narrative that is made up of several stories, then there may be a character who is interpreted as the protagonist of each subplot or individual story.[2]

From Merriam-Webster

a :  the principal character in a literary work (as a drama or story)
b :  a leading actor, character, or participant in a literary work or real event


From Wikipedia

An antihero, or antiheroine, is a protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, or morality.[1][2][3][4][5] These characters are usually considered “conspicuously contrary to an archetypal hero”.[6]

Revisionist Western films commonly have an antihero as the lead character who is morally ambiguous. Clint Eastwood, pictured here in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), portrayed the Man with No Name, an archetypical antihero, in the Spaghetti Western Dollars Trilogy.

From Merriam-Webster

a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities

Cameo appearance

From Wikipedia

A cameo role or cameo appearance (/ˈkæmioʊ/; often shortened to just cameo) is a brief appearance or voice part of a known person in a work of the performing arts, typically unnamed or appearing as themselves. These roles are generally small, many of them non-speaking ones, and are commonly either appearances in a work in which they hold some special significance (such as actors from an original movie appearing in its remake), or renowned people making uncredited appearances. Short appearances by celebrities, film directors, politicians, athletes or musicians are common. A crew member of the show or movie playing a minor role can be referred to as a cameo as well, such as Alfred Hitchcock‘s frequently performed cameos.

Cameos also occur in novels and other literary works. “Literary cameos” usually involve an established character from another work who makes a brief appearance to establish a shared universe setting, to make a point, or to offer homage. Balzac often employed this practice, as in his Comédie humaine. Sometimes a cameo features a historical person who “drops in” on fictional characters in a historical novel, as when Benjamin Franklin shares a beer with Phillipe Charboneau in The Bastard by John Jakes.[citation needed]

A cameo appearance can be made by the author of a work to put a sort of personal “signature” on a story. Vladimir Nabokov often put himself in his novels; for instance, the very minor character Vivian Darkbloom (an anagram of the author’s name) in Lolita.[3]

Credible character

From sharoncrawfordauthor.com

Hopefully the characters and their plots in life are consistent and make sense – bearing in mind that these characters often do the unthinkable –murder, sexual assault, cause explosions, perform an indignity to a dead body, even fall in love. But like all characters in fiction or real life, what they do has some meaning and motivation – even if only clear in their minds.

So, how can you make your characters credible?  In a nutshell:

Make your characters three dimensional. There is more to a character than his or her looks and dialogue. A character has feelings, likes, dislikes, idiosyncrasies, flaws, strengths, baggage, etc. Your reader must connect to your characters – not necessarily like them.

From storyinliteraryfiction.com

Credibility (willingness to accept something as true in the characters and in their story world) must be meticulously nurtured in the literary story as an art form. Often credibility slips with illogical progression of plot ideas, or with poorly integrated character thoughts, actions, and words. Readers will fail to connect to a story where there is erosion of credibility, and the writing will not succeed. Even if the story requires suspension of disbelief–as all stories do to some degree–there is always a dependency on the absolutely logical association and progression of ideas for good writing.

From melmenzies.co.uk


In this Post, and the next, I’m going to show you how to know and grow your Characters. Today we’re going to look at credibility, in the following ways:

  • Physical attributes
  • Historical perspective
  • Personality traits

Although you will use only a fraction of the details you accumulate about your characters, you do need to know them through and through. That’s because every thought they have, every word they speak and every action they take, will be determined by the three aspects we’ve identified above. More of this at a later date.

In order to compile a profile of each character, it’s not a bad idea to use a large sheet of paper (or an MS Excel Worksheet on your computer). You could even sketch an outline drawing, if that helps, and colour in some of the features. It doesn’t have to be a work of art! Simply a visual reminder to you so that you don’t make the mistake, half way through the book, of reducing your character’s height by four inches, or have the blue eyes of page four become the brown eyes of page 104.


From Wikipedia

An antagonist is a character, group of characters, institution, or concept that stands in or represents opposition against which the protagonist(s) must contend. In other words, an antagonist is a person or a group of people who opposes a protagonist.[1]

From Merriam-Webster

one that contends with or opposes another


From Merriam-Webster

to experience empathy <empathized with his son’s fears>

Empathy –                  the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :  the capacity for this

to have the same feelings as another person : to feel empathy for someone

From Dictionary.com

To sum up the differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms: sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.


From Google

a habitual gesture or way of speaking or behaving.

“learning the great man’s speeches and studying his mannerisms”

synonyms: idiosyncrasy, quirk, oddity, foible, trait, peculiarity, habit, characteristic, characteristic gesture, trick

“he has the mannerisms of a bishop without actually having become one”

From me

Like pointing when speaking

Or taking off glasses to clean them when nervous

Psychological attributes

From psychologyinfo.com

Traits and characteristics are the same thing. A trait is a distinguishing characteristic, feature or quality.  In psychological terms, we usually think about personality traits and behavioral characteristics that define an individual. We all have traits. Psychologists often refer to personality traits or characteristics.  The unique combination of personality traits we each possess makes us individuals.  But, certain traits have become associated with psychological problems. For example, if someone is very neat and orderly, many people might call them obsessive-compulsive. That implies that all orderly people have something wrong with them, and that’s just not true!

Some examples of personality traits


emotional stability










From Wikipedia

A villain (also known as the “antagonist”, “baddie”, “bad guy”, “heavy” or “black hat”) is an “evil” character in a story, whether a historical narrative or, especially, a work of fiction.

The villain usually is the antagonist (though can be the protagonist), the character who tends to have a negative effect on other characters. A female villain is occasionally called a villainess. Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as “a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”.[1]

Ben Bova recommends to authors that their works not contain villains. He states, in his Tips for writers:

“In the real world there are no villains. No one actually sets out to do evil… Fiction mirrors life. Or, more accurately, fiction serves as a lens to focus of what they know in life and bring its realities into sharper, clearer understanding for us. There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.”[19]

In an attempt to add realism to their stories, many writers will try to create “sympathetic” villains, the antithesis to an antihero. These villains come in just as many shapes and sizes as antiheroes do. Some may wish to make the world a better place but go to antagonistic lengths to do so (such as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, who commits various crimes in an attempt to complete his goal of creating a cheap, renewable source of energy,

Narrative drive

From Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

Narrative drive is the sense that the story is moving forward and going somewhere. It gives a plot momentum and a sense of urgency. Characters have things to do and those goals advance the story.

Show, don’t tell

From Wikipedia

Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to interpret significant details in the text. The technique applies equally to nonfiction and all forms of fiction, literature including Haiku[1] and Imagism poetry in particular, speech, movie making, and playwriting.[2][3][4][5]

The concept is often attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, reputed to have said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” In fact, the quote is probably apocryphal, but derived from a letter to his brother in which he wrote “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” [6]

One-dimensional character (and flat/round characters)

From Wikipedia

The psychologist Carl Jung identified twelve primary ‘original patterns’ of the human psyche. He believed that these reside in the collective subconscious of people across cultural and political boundaries. These twelve archetypes are often cited in fictional characters. ‘Flat’ characters may be considered so because they stick to a single archetype without deviating, whereas ‘complex’ or ‘realistic’ characters will combine several archetypes, with some being more dominant than others – as people are in real life. Jung’s twelve archetypes are: the Innocent, the Orphan, the Hero, the Caregiver, the Explorer, the Rebel, the Lover, the Creator, the Jester, the Sage, the Magician, and the Ruler.

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