Characterization or characterisation is the concept of creating characters for a narrative. It is a literary element and may be employed in dramatic works of art or everyday conversation. Characters may be presented by means of description, through their actions, speech, thoughts and interactions with other characters.
The term characterization was introduced in mid 15th century. Aristotle promoted the primacy of plot over characters, that is a plot-driven narrative, arguing in his Poetics that tragedy "is a representation, not of men, but of action and life." This view was reversed in the 19th century, when the primacy of the character, that is a character-driven narrative, was affirmed first with the realist novel, and increasingly later with the influential development of psychology.
Direct vs. indirect
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, way of talking), physical appearance, mannerisms and interaction with other characters, including other characters’ reactions to that particular person.
Characters in theatre, TV and film differ from those in novels in that an actor may interpret the writer's description and dialogue in their own unique way to add new layers and depth to a character. This can be seen when critics compare the ‘Lady Macbeths’ or ‘Heathcliffs’ of different actors. The other major difference in drama is that it is not possible to ‘go inside the character’s head’ in the way that it is possible in a novel or short story, meaning this method of character exposition is unavailable.
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.
- Harrison (1998, 51-2)
- Aston and Savona (1991, p.34)
- Aston, Elaine, and George Savona. 1991. Theatre as Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04932-6.
- Harrison, Martin. 1998. The Language of Theatre. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-87830-087-2.
- Outline on Literary Elements at the Wayback Machine (archived November 11, 2007) by Dr. Marilyn H. Stauffer of the University of South Florida
- Lecture about Fiction by Professor Waters of the Western Kentucky University, especially the accompanying PowerPoint presentation
- Character and characterisation in The UVic Writer's Guide (from the University of Victoria)
- Drama Theory
- 15 Days to Stronger Characters