What Is Characterization?

Characterization is the process by which a character becomes fully realized in a narrative. Both fiction and films employ characterization.

To illustrate the concept, think about how a movie first introduces a character to the viewer. The camera may pick that character out of a crowd and focus on them. Their voice may get filtered out of many conversations happening at once in a crowded restaurant. In a few seconds, the viewer learns many things about them — their tone of voice, the clothes they wear, the kind of car they drive, the way they drink a cup of coffee. All these are important elements of characterization. By the time the first big crisis occurs, we already have a good idea how the character will react and what weakness he will have to overcome in order to succeed.

How Do You Identify Characterization in Writing?

In literature, characterization works in much the same way. The reader is introduced to a character, gets an initial description, learns how that character interacts with others through dialogue, and eventually has glimpses into the character’s thought process. The main character develops through conflict and eventually comes to some sort of realization about their place in the world.

Up until the eighteenth century, fiction was plot-centered, and the story was more important than characterization. But with industrialization has come a focus on individuals that has led to a corresponding interest in characterization as the driving force in fiction. We have come to associate great literature with character-driven plots, while relegating plot-driven narratives to popular fiction.

Examples of Characterization

Characterization Example 1. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne’s characterization develops through her refusal to name the father of her child.

Characterization Example 2. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna and Levin begin the novel in opposite positions — he is miserable and single, while she is a married woman in an enviable social position. As their characterization develops, each slowly moves toward the other position.

Characterization Example 3. James’s Portrait of a Lady is the characterization of a woman who marries the wrong man and must live with the consequences.

Characterization Example 4. The characterization of Elle Woods in the film Legally Blonde begins with a visual montage of the vapid social world of a popular sorority sister. The film soon illustrates, however, the various ways in which Elle reinvents this stereotype in order to become successful in a male-dominated profession.

Characterization Example 5. In the first Rocky, Rocky Balboa is a shy and unassuming fighter who must develop grit and determination in order to achieve the goal of boxing an exposition match against champion Apollo Creed. The film’s deft characterization shows us how he toughens up without losing touch with his sensitive nature.

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