Characterization is a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem. This technique occurs towards the beginning of a story when the writer outlines a character’s basic features, as well as later on in the work when their deeper emotions, intentions and beliefs come to light.
Without this technique, characters fall flat. If a writer does not take the time to describe a character adequately, explicitly or obliquely, they won’t be of interest to the reader. They will seem purposeless, drifting, and without personality.
Purpose of Characterization
in addition to making a character interesting, characterization can be used to drive the plot. If a reader is aware of a character’s desire to achieve a specific goal or stick to a set of beliefs they may be more or less surprised at certain actions or events. If one is aware that a character loves their partner more than anything and a villain is introduced who has a fondness for kidnapping those close to their enemies, a clever reader might infer that the plot might go in that direction.
Types of Characterization
Explicit Characterization, also known as direct characterization, is the most obvious way of describing and understanding a character. A writer will say specifically who someone is and why they do what they do.
Implicit Characterization, also known as indirect characterization is a more oblique, less obvious way of explaining a character and their traits. When a writer uses this kind of characterization the reader has to figure out the intricacies of a character for themselves. The writer might talk around the character’s nature, saying what they do and don’t do but not why. It is up to the reader to explore, deduce, and come to understand who a character is.
Examples of Characterization in Literature
This is one of Shakespeare’s best-known sonnets. It depicts the “mistress” through the negation of stereotypical character traits that are associated with women. Her eyes are “nothing like the sun” or “white’ like the snow. Take a look at these lines:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
Here, he is expressing his admiration for this woman by depicting her has far ahead and beyond other women. She cannot even be described through normal means. She is brighter than the sun and her skin is whiter than the snow.
Example #2 The Odyssey by Homer
The best-known of the classic epic poems, The Odyssey contains many examples of characterization. Some of these are briefer than others, such as the description of Telemachus as “clear-headed” and Penelope as “wise”.
Odysseus is probably the best example when one considers the amount of time spent detailing his exploits and tragedies. his various adventures throughout the poem can be taken together as a description of who he is and how he deals with various situations. A reader can derive much about his morals and beliefs from his choices. His cleverness is one of his primary character traits. this is seen through the wonderful example of his run-in with the cyclops and the naming of himself as “Nobody”.
Example #3 The Kingfisher by William Henry Davies
This poem addresses a “kingfisher” bird and how it was given “birth” by a rainbow. The rainbow left it all its hues. Through a variety of poetic devices, the poet outlines what the kingfisher looks like and the atmosphere that’s created when it is present. It was birth by a “Rainbow” he says in the first line. From just this statement a reader an infer a great deal. She left “thee all her lovely hues,” he adds in the next lines.
Go you and, with such glorious hues,
Live with proud peacocks in green parks;
On lawns as smooth as shining glass,
Let every feather show its marks;
Get thee on boughs and clap thy wings
Before the windows of proud kings.
Nay, lovely Bird, thou art not vain;
In this central section of the poem, he characterizes the bird by telling it that it is so beautiful it could stand up against the power and grandness of a king. But, in a very revealing line, he adds that the bird would not do this. It is not “vain”. It does not have a “proud, ambitious mind”.