Characterization or characterisation is the art of creating characters for a narrative, including the process of conveying information about them. It 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 19th 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. Characterisation means there are certain features to make that character different from others already created.<Olivia1999>
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.
A well-developed character is one that has been thoroughly characterised, with many traits shown in the narrative. A well-developed character acts according to past instances provided by its visible traits unless more information about the character is provided. The better the audience knows the character, the better the character development.
However, characters whose behaviour is completely predictable can seem underdeveloped - flat, shallow or stereotypical; a greater sense of realism occurs if the characterization makes the characters seem well-rounded and complex. As an example, according to F.R. Leavis, Leo Tolstoy was the creator of some of the most complex and psychologically believable characters in fiction.
Character development is also very important in character-driven literature, where stories focus not on events, but on individual personalities. Classic examples include War and Peace or David Copperfield. In a tragedy, the central character generally remains fixed with whatever character flaw (hamartia) seals his fate; in a comedy the central characters typically undergo some kind of epiphany (sudden realisation) whereupon they adjust their prior beliefs and practices and avert a tragic fate. Historically, stories and plays focusing on characters became common as part of the 19th-century Romantic movement, and character-driven literature rapidly supplanted more plot-driven literature that typically utilises easily identifiable archetypes rather than proper character development.
In performance an actor has less time to characterise and so can risk the character coming across as underdeveloped. The great realists of dramaturgy have relied heavily on implicit characterization which occupy the main body of their character driven plays. Examples of these playwrights are Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Anton Chekhov. Such psychological epics as The Seagull indirectly characterise the protagonists so that the audience is drawn into their inner turmoils as they are slowly revealed over the three hours of time spent with the characters. The actors taking on these roles must also characterise over a long period of time, to the point that there seems to be no direct statement of who the character is at any point, this realism in acting requires the actor to characterise from their own persona as a starting point. The audience therefore does not recognise a realistic characterization immediately.
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 causing the audience to identify with her/him.
- Aston, Elaine, and George Savona. 1991. Theatre as Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415049326.
- Harrison, Martin. 1998. The Language of Theatre. London: Routledge. ISBN 0878300872.
- Outline on Literary Elements 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
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