Writing about Character


We fall in love with them, pity them, hate them; they frustrate us, confuse us, inspire us; they are righteous, they sin, they struggle; sometimes we get to know them so well, so thoroughly, we miss them when the story ends. Yet, though they may be rendered so realistically on the page, we must be wary of confusing characters with real people. This is one of the mistakes that beginning literature students often make—to the damage of the story, the characters, and the experience of reading itself.

 One of the major differences between people on the page and people in the flesh? As E.M Forster remind us, characters “are people whose secret lives are visible or might be visible: we are people whose secret lives are invisible” (Aspects of the Novel 70). This unnatural knowledge is the soul of characterization, and the reason why a character can resonant with you for years after you’ve forgotten the title and perhaps even the plot.  

We cannot forget, though, that these people and their visible “secret lives” are carefully constructed entities. Forster defines characters as “word-masses”; the author gives these “word-masses….names and sexes, assigns them plausible gestures, and causes them to speak by use of the inverted commas, and perhaps to behave consistently” (52). In essence, characters are simply marks on a white page, left for us (in work not unlike Dr. Frankenstein’s) to put together. But how is it that we create from these “word-masses” those seemingly complete individual lives? 


Character Traits

As the story unfolds, the personality traits of a character will begin to accrue. We will begin to see patterns in behavior and attitude that help us “get to know” her. Is she lazy? A good listener? Ambitious? Self-centered? Reliable? Domineering? Meek? Confident? Cruel? Biased? Fearful? Optimistic? Dreamy? Determined? Well-intentioned? And the list goes on. There are as many character traits in literature as in life. In some stories, a character will be almost entirely defined by one primary character trait. In others, we will see a character struggle between contradictory traits—kindness and cruelty, responsibility and laziness, etc. In still others, the character will think of herself as one thing (perhaps reliable), but the readers will realize that this is not so. Or perhaps the character will make an effort to construct a personality trait when in the company of other characters, but will privately know that this is only a show. All of these permutations help to create a recognizable person.   


A trait is an important method of characterization; our “gut” reactions to a character are often based on this. But we don’t always stop to think how we’ve performed this magical translation from “word-mass” to life?  



Physical descriptions (things like hair color, eye color, skin color, size, ethnicity, beauty and/or ugliness, scars, etc) enable a reader to generate a mental image of the character as she moves throughout the story. Sometimes, this can become be particularly important; scars can denote a tragic history, clumsiness, violence, victimization, etc; size and beauty or ugliness can affect the way we understand the character’s self-esteem or how others respond to her; skin color and ethnicity offer similar context. Though physical description don’t give us character traits, per say, they can help us to understand these traits as they appear.


An author may also choose to explicit state an important aspect of the character’s personality.  When an author tells us if a character is “uptight” or “narcissistic” or “petty” or “kind” (or whatever), we want to both take it as face value and be on the look out for moments in the story that contradict this. Sometimes the narrator (or the authorial voice) will present judgments about a character’s personality. This, though, is not definitive; you are free to disagree.      



What a character does is one of the most powerful ways to understand who she is. Though obviously an author has decided for the character what she will do, it is helpful to imagine a character’s actions as a series of choices. When we consider the possible alternatives (what the character could have but did not do), we start to see how actions characterize.


Sometimes this is obvious, sometimes it is not. Think, for instance, about this situation: a neighbor’s house has caught fire. Our character (let’s call him Henry), is working late at his desk; his wife has already fallen asleep. Henry, in a moment of abstraction, glances out the window that looks out to the neighbor’s yard. Henry sees the flames and immediately rushes over to help. From this series of choices (not putting on his shoes or coat, not calling the fire department or shouting for his wife to do so, running to the rescue), we can make a few assumptions about him: he is brave (he does not hesitate for a moment), he is selfless (he puts himself at risk to help others), but his bravery and selflessness has an element of pride (he does call the trained professionals, but instead attempts to be the hero on his own). With just a little bit of analysis, Henry’s character begins to coalesce.


What happens, though, if Henry sees the fire and stares for a moment before shuffling over to the telephone and calling the fire department. After he reports the danger, he goes to the door, slides on his shoes and his coat, and then stands at the border between his lawn and the neighbors’, waiting for the sirens.  


This is more complicated. We can’t know for sure what motivates him, nor can we understand what is going through his head as he putters around with his coat and shoes, as he waits between their houses for the fire trucks to appear. Perhaps he is afraid. Perhaps he is struggling with the conflicting desires to do something (to be brave) and to stay safe. Perhaps he feels guilt, shame. Or perhaps his lack of action is due to a grudge he holds against his neighbors—then, he is vengeful, bitter. 


In this case, actions alone don’t characterize quite enough—they are one incomplete aspect.   


Seeing Actions in Constellations


Stories often consist of more than one scene, where we have the opportunity to see a character make decisions in a variety of circumstances. Each choice does not stand alone, but resonates and informs the next. By the end of the story, we are often able to understand the “shape” of the character’s actions, just like we are able to see the Big Dipper in a cluster of stars. If we have already seen Henry offering to do the dishes, stopping the car (even though he’s late to work) to help a child catch a dog that’s run into the road, then his rush to save his neighbors seems suddenly like another instance of his selflessness, not purposeful heroism.  Similarly, if we’ve seen him doing the dishes and catching the dog, then his strangely hesitant reaction to the fire reveals his struggle: he tries to be helpful and selfless, but confronted with danger to his own life he cannot live up to such high standards.


Watching the way that characters act over time in various situations, we can track their behavior; is it consistent? If not, can you pinpoint the change? Characters that undergo some sort of transformation, however small, some shift in consciousness, are termed dynamic (or round) characters. Most traditional stories are centered around this concept of change. Sometimes the characters realize it (there is something like an aha! moment where they come to understand something about themselves) or sometimes they don’t; in the latter case, the character is still “round” because the reader has experienced the shift.  



Dialogue (verbalized or internal)     


Characterization is also achieved by what a character says (both to himself and to others). If the second Henry had said to his wife, “What do we do? What do we do?”, then we would suddenly feel his anxiety—his struggle between action and fear. If Henry had stood on the lawn thinking about the time his neighbor neglected to invite him a barbecue, then perhaps we could infer that his passivity is a sort of revenge.    


Again, though, there’s a complication. Sometimes what the character says to authors directly contradicts what she thinks; characters, like us, lie for all sorts of reasons. One of our duties as readers is to understand why this tension exists, and what we learn from it.


What Other Characters Say

Though we can’t always believe what other characters say (they, too, can have biases and agendas), they can help us to understand a character. For instance, if all the other characters express their dislike of the character’s irresponsibility, we can either agree with them (oh, yes, this character is irresponsible—how selfish!) or we can question their judgment (this character is misunderstood; others think that this character is irresponsible, but in fact he is an artist who is more concerned with the “larger questions” than with the everyday—this is an annoying habit, but it is not fair to condemn him for not adhering to social expectations). In either case, we have an added element of characterization.   


Characters and setting            

Another thing to keep in mind is that characters are inextricably bound to the time and place in which they “live”; a character’s socio-economic reality is important in forming her being, just as it is important in forming ours. When reading, it’s important to notice they often abide by (or reject) social codes that come from the communities in which they live. Maybe our first Henry (the shoe-less one) lives in a working class community that values that myth of masculinity that demands men be brave, be heroes, be “doers”.  In this light, his unthinking rush to the flaming home could be read not as selflessness, but as duty—rather than being a “good man”, he is simply being a “man”. Context matters.   


A final note

The decisions characters make are not simply choices to be read as “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”. Even if you feel in your heart that a character is morally or ethically “bad”, this is only a beginning observation; as a careful reader your job is to analyze and interpret. Characterization works to further the story’s themes, to explore some aspect of society, ethics, emotion, psychology (etc). When reading and writing about characters in literature, you want to think about what you can learn from it–so keep an open mind.  Your interpretation may not be the same as mine, and we should all welcome this.   


Writing about Character


If you choose to write an essay that focuses on character, remember that you need to be making an argument that is based in close analysis of the text. There are many ways to go about this. Here is a short list of possibilities:


1.)     Write an essay that develops a character’s primary trait. It is not enough, though, to write an essay that illustrates the trait, claiming that Henry is “brave” because he runs to his neighbor’s rescue. You want to look, too, at the way the formal elements of the story add to, reflect, contradict this trait: what about the story’s structure, the setting, the language used by the narrative and by Henry. You want to look very closely at each of the ways the author presents the character, and this becomes the bulk of the body of your essay. Do you see anything surprising? If so, point it out and interpret it! Finally, you want to ask yourself, so what? Why is this significant? Does Henry’s bravery suggest a larger truth about class, gender, social structure, psychology, ethics, desire, relationships between characters?


2.)     Write an essay that explores a character’s growth, realizations, or transformation. This essay would begin by illustrating a character’s traits at the start of the story, and then analyze the changes that take place; again, pay attention to the various ways the character is presented and to the way the formal elements work in tandem with the characterization. When you interpret the way the formal elements reflect or embody the character’s transformation, you are acknowledging the “so what” question.


3.)      Write an essay that studies one central action, object, or passage that reveals a character’s primary trait. Certain elements of the story may stand out to you. Organize your essay around this and analyze closely.


4.)     Write an essay that takes on a flat character’s function. Discuss the way in which a flat character or characters (those who do not go through a process of realization or transformation) become(s) significant in the story; discuss the group the character represents, and the ramifications of this representation. Or explore the relationship between the flat character and the round character, developing why the flat character is necessary.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: