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, or thoughts.
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 petty bourgeois 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 him- or herself.
- 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), looks and interaction with other characters, including other characters’ reactions to that particular person.
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However the playwright and actor also have the choice of indirect characterization in a similar vein to the writer in literature. The presentation of a character for a sociological discussion only has to be as real as the discussion requires. In this way a character can be used as an iconic reference by a playwright to suggest location, an epoch in history, or even draw in a political debate. The inclusion of a stock character, or in literary terms an archetypal character, by a playwright can risk drawing overly simplistic pictures of people and smack of stereotyping. However, the degree of success in direct characterization in order to swiftly get to the action varies from play to play, and often according to the use the character is put to. In explicitly characterising a certain character the actor makes a similar gamble. The choice of what aspects of a character are demonstrated by the actor to directly characterise is a political choice and makes a statement as to the ethics and agenda of the actor.
Weaknesses in a character, like vices, imperfections or flaws, make him or her appear more human-like causing the audience to identify him/her self with that specific character. This is a good characterization for a character in most fiction and non-fiction stories. Weakness also causes a character to be more imperfect like a real human and allows them to make mistakes.
- Harrison (1998, 51-2)
- Aston and Savona (1991, p.34)
- Elizabeth English Creating Character and Characterization in Screenplays
- 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
- Characterisation thesaurus for writers