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What Are the Different Methods of Characterization?

Writers can use many different methods of characterization.
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  • Written By: Dee Jones
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  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2014
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Many fiction writers believe the characters are the most important element in any novel or short story. Writers use many methods of characterization to bring those characters to life in a reader’s mind. The most direct method of characterization is for the writer to outright describe what a character is like. In more indirect methods of characterization, the writer might give a physical description of a character, or show the character performing some action, either positive or negative, so it’s left to the reader to decide the kind of person a character is based on those details. A writer can also use the thoughts of a point of view character to help give readers impressions about both the point of view character and the other characters in the story.

Simply describing what a character is like is probably one of the easiest methods of characterization. For example, the writer might describe a character as, “a shy, quiet girl who was usually too afraid to speak up in public,” or “an angry young man with a chip on his shoulder a mile wide.” Most readers and critics find this method of characterization unsatisfying, and most writers believe it breaks one of the most cardinal rules of writing fiction: “Show, don’t tell.” Instead of describing characters so directly, writers are encouraged to reveal characters in other, more indirect ways.

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There are many indirect methods of characterization. A writer might describe a character’s physical characteristics, the way the character dresses, or some action the character took. It’s then left to the reader to draw his own conclusions about the character based on those facts. If a character is described a wearing bright and cheerful clothes and having a perpetual smile on her face, the reader can infer that she is a generally happy and upbeat person. On the other hand, by describing the way a character kicks over a neighbor’s garden gnome, the writer might be trying to imply that the character is an unhappy or unpleasant person who doesn’t get along with other people.

Other indirect methods of characterization depend on the thoughts and feelings of the characters in a work of prose. A writer can use a character's point of to give the reader an idea what the character is like. For example, a character mentally enthusing over the date she had last night while she’s at a funeral is probably shallow and self-centered. A writer can also use one character's thoughts and feelings about another character to give the reader an idea of the second character’s personality and demeanor.

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clintflint
Post 3

@Ana1234 - I think it's great when a story takes an unexpected turn, but it does depend on the author as to how much they feel like their characters influence the narrative. Sometimes authors have a very good feel for both the story and the characters beforehand and know exactly where the story is going to end up.

Ana1234
Post 2

@Mor - I find that I have to really try to imagine having conversations with my characters before I can get to the point where I see them as distinctive people. Often it won't come together completely until I'm halfway through writing the story and I'll have to go back during the editing process and change parts because I'll have written the character wrong before I got to know them better.

I've always liked that idea that the characters tell you where they want to go and that the best characters really control the narrative completely so that even the author doesn't know how the story is going to end. To build up characters capable of that, you need to do more than just describe what they are wearing.

Mor
Post 1

The best way to figure out your characterization is to try rewriting your scenes from the point of view of all the characters present. Don't do any describing from a narrator's perspective, and don't try to work it out so that the audience understands what is going on. Your character doesn't care about an audience. Make it all about what the character notices and what they think is important. You should be able to make it so distinctive that a reader could figure out who is the viewpoint character without being told.

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