Characterization in Literature
by Karen Bernardo
An important component of modern fiction is characterization. Historically, realistic characterization has only
intermittently been considered an essential part of good writing; in eras when allegory and didacticism become more
important than realism, characterization generally goes out the window.
For example, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, begun in 1387, has considerably more individualized and
realistic characterization than does the anonymously-written Everyman, composed only a few years later;
Shakespeare's works, written between the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, have
superb characterization, while Pilgrim's Progress, written in 1678, has virtually none.
What does characterization do for a story? In a nutshell, it allows us to empathize with the protagonist and
secondary characters, and thus feel that what is happening to these people in the story is vicariously happening to
us; and it also gives us a sense of verisimilitude, or the semblance of living reality. An important part of
characterization is dialogue, for it is both spoken and inward dialogue that afford us the opportunity to see into
the characters' hearts and examine their motivations. In the best of stories, it is actually characterization that
moves the story along, because a compelling character in a difficult situation creates his or her own plot.
Unfortunately, characterization is one of the most difficult aspects of creative writing to master, because authors
tend to naturally fall into the fatal trap of creating two-dimensional, cardboard characters. We may describe the
grandmother in our story, for example, as kindly, with softly-curled gray hair, and a preference for polyester
floral prints. Isn't that how all grandmothers look? Of course not; that's a stereotype. Good stories feature
characters who turn the stereotypes upside down -- people who defy expectations.
Cervantes' Don Quixote, who believes he is a knight, is in actuality a gentle madman; but his good heart epitomizes
the essence of real chivalry. Hemingway's protagonist in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is not a Great
White Hunter; he is a coward humiliated by his wife. The crippled daughter in Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country
People" does not elicit our sympathy; she is so angry, hostile, and arrogant that one page into the story we are
dying to see her get her just desserts. The common denominator between all good characters is that they are
multifaceted, just as we are ourselves, and their personalities pose questions and challenges that keep us turning