Definition of Characterization

Characterization is the act of creating and describing characters in literature. Characterization includes both descriptions of a character’s physical attributes as well as the character’s personality. The way that characters act, think, and speak also adds to their characterization. There are two subsets of the definition of characterization: direct and indirect characterization. We explore this distinction in more depth below.

Direct Versus Indirect Characterization

Direct characterization, also known as explicit characterization, consists of the author telling the audience what a character is like. A narrator may give this information, or a character in the story may do it. Examples of direct characterization would be:

  • “Bill was short and fat, and his bald spot was widening with every passing year.”
  • “‘Jane is a cruel person,’ she said.’”
  • “I looked in the mirror and saw how dark the circles under my green eyes had become.”

Indirect characterization, on the other hand, consists of the author showing the audience what kind of person a character is through the character’s thoughts, words, and deeds. This requires the audience to make inferences about why a character would say or do those things. This type of characterization is also known as implicit characterization. While it takes more time to develop a character through indirect characterization, it often leaves a deeper impression on the reader than direct statements about what a character is like. Here are examples of indirect characterization:

  • “Bill sighed as he looked at the offer of a gym membership. He really should join. But just thinking about it made beads of sweat collect at the top of his bald spot.”
  • “As Jane walked past the box labeled ‘Free Puppies,’ she furtively glanced around her, then gave the box a swift kick.”
  • “I yawned, trying to keep my eyes open in the meeting. I reached for my coffee cup and was disappointed to realize it was empty.”

Common Examples of Characterization

While the concept of characterization is primarily a literary device, we use characterization in many everyday situations as well. Consider the following situations:

  • Online dating websites: This is a primary place for direct characterizations of ourselves. We put up pictures and data to describe our looks, and we answer questions and write essays to describe our personalities.
  • Police line-ups: Witnesses to crimes use characterization to give police a better idea of who the culprits might be. This type of characterization is generally based on physical attributes, though detectives also may try to understand the psychology of a criminal to catch him or her.
  • Obituaries and eulogies: When a person has died, their loved ones use characterization to give a sense of what kind of person he or she was. This is primarily to show personality.

Significance of Characterization in Literature

As a literary tool, characterization has been around for about the past five hundred years. That may sound like a long time, but considering that Ancient Greek tragedies date back a few thousand years, characterization is a relatively recent development. This is because older forms of literature, including Ancient Greek tragedies, were much more focused on plot.

Characterization increased in popularity as scholars began to consider psychology as a scientific field, especially from the 19th century onwards. People became much more interested in why people do things and the way in which they react instead of just what happens. Literature has reflected this shift. However, that is not to say that works written before the 19th century had a lack of characterization. William Shakespeare writing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries created some of the most psychologically complex characters ever. It is simply a much more integral part of the storytelling process now.

Works of literature with poor characterization are often criticized for having “stock characters,” “flat characters,” “characters with no dimensions,” “poorly drawn characters,” and so on. Saying that a book’s characters are unbelievable is one of the worst criticisms that it made in this day in age. Authors therefore use characterization to “flesh out” their characters, show the characters’ motivations, and make the reader have empathy with the characters.

Examples of Characterization in Literature

Example #1

Cathy was chewing a piece of meat, chewing with her front teeth. Samuel had never seen anyone chew that way before. And when she had swallowed, her little tongue flicked around her lips. Samuel’s mind repeated, “Something—something—can’t find what it is. Something wrong,” and the silence hung on the table.

(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Cathy is a truly evil character. Steinbeck says this directly many times over and in many different ways. However, in this example of characterization, Steinbeck instead opts for a more chilling image. Cathy seems to eat meat much as a snake would. The indirect characterization forces the reader to understand this passage as an allusion to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, thereby inferring Cathy’s deep-rooted sinfulness.

Example #2

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

This quote from Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is another example of indirect characterization. Atticus is a very compassionate character who is able to extend his empathy to every member of the community. We learn about the true nobility of his character through his actions, in defending a man no one else will believe is innocent, and through the strength of his words. This quote quite famously captures his facility for empathy.

Example #3

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

(“Sonnet 130” by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare has fun with characterization in his famous “Sonnet 130,” going against all expectations. Since this poem is about his mistress, one might expect that it would be full of praise. Instead, he describes her only in the most unappealing ways and compares her to lovely things only to show that she is the opposite. This is an example of direct characterization.

Example #4

Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.

(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling)

This characterization example from the first book of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series gives a very complete physical description of Harry. It is very common in children’s books and books for young adults to give such a detailed direct characterization of many of the main characters. This is because children have a harder time inferring all the information necessary about a character through words and actions alone.

Test Your Knowledge of Characterization

1. Choose the correct characterization definition from the following statements:
A. A list of characters in a work of literature.
B. Creating characters through descriptions of their looks and personalities, as well as what they think, say, and do.
C. The act of making characters seem different than they really are.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following quotes about or by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of indirect characterization?

Besides that, he wore glasses. He was nearly blind in his left eye, and said left eyes were the tribal curse of the Finches. Whenever he wanted to see something well, he turned his head and looked from his right eye.


“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”

— Scout Finch

“This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”

— Atticus Finch

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Is the following line from Steinbeck’s East of Eden an example of direct or indirect characterization?

Nearly everyone preferred Aron with his golden hair and the openness that allowed his affection to plunge like a puppy.

A. Direct
B. Indirect
C. Both

Answer to Question #3 Show


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