Portrayal Of Character

The Three Modes of Characterization--Dialogue--Action--

Description or Direct Statement--Aims of Characterization--

To Show the Nature--To Show the Man as a Physical Being--

Character and Plot--Characterization by Speech--

Characterization by Statement--Characterization by Action.

Characterization is an unlovely term, but it stands for much. In fact,

it stands for so much that it is the hardest point of technique to

discuss adequately. In the fiction writer's vocabulary, it stands for

things as diverse as the necessity that the whole action of a story be

significant in relation to character, and the necessity that the persons

of the fiction seem real and individual, apart from any unique quality

of their actions. Whether the action of a story is significant in

relation to character depends upon whether the writer has discovered a

real plot and developed it properly; whether the persons of a story seem

tangible and unique apart from their actions depends upon the writer's

skill in describing them and transcribing their speech. That is to say,

characterization is a matter accomplished by narration, by description,

and by the transcription of speech. A reader of a story has a clue to

the natures of its people in their actions, in their words, and in what

the writer has to say about them.

It may be well to enlarge somewhat on the respective functions of the

three modes of characterization. Dialogue, action, and description or

direct statement by the author all serve to give the character concerned

individuality in the eyes of a reader, but all do not function in

precisely the same manner or to precisely the same end. A few

illustrations will make this clearer.

Suppose a story involving a character whose most salient trait is

cruelty. The author may demonstrate this quality in the person by

stating directly that he is cruel, by showing him in wantonly heartless

actions, and by placing on his lips words which only a cruel man would

utter. So far, so good. Each sort of demonstration will add something to

a reader's realization of the character. But more is necessary. Cruelty

is not a particularly unique trait; moreover, if a trait is unique,

merely investing a character with it will not serve to give him the

solidity and liveliness of a real person. Whether cruelty or any other

trait is brought out, if it alone is brought out, the person will be a

disembodied moral attribute rather than a man or woman. To secure a

maximum effect upon a reader, the writer must manage to show some

particular cruel person rather than a cruel person. And he must resort

to the same means employed to show the strict character-trait,

description or direct statement, dialogue, and action. But the writer's

aim will be different. He will be concerned with the person's appearance

and effect upon an observer or listener rather than with his nature. As

Stevenson did for Villon in "A Lodging for the Night," the writer of a

story involving a cruel person may call him a "rag of a man, dark,

little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks," or may

employ any other combination of words that will give a definite picture

of the man, viewed merely as a physical object, whether he be thin or

fat, ruddy or pale, tall or short. And, in setting down a cruel

person's speeches, the writer not only may make them cruel in content,

but also may make them unique and individual by some mannerism of


What I am trying to show is the fact that characterization, as the term

is commonly employed, includes description as well as the strict

portrayal of character. I have taken up the matter of the description of

persons under that head, and I shall take up, in this chapter, the

matter of speech as both illustrating character and individualizing the

person. The whole difficulty of discussing technique lies in the

necessity to treat in isolation matters which are influential in

numerous directions in a story. In the latter part of this book I am

following the conventional mode of discussing separately the matters of

description of persons, dialogue, and the portrayal of character, but

only after much pondering whether such treatment is advisable. The

advantage is clearness; the disadvantage is loss of relation between

matters mutually influential. For instance, writing dialogue is

descriptive writing in a very real sense. A reader of a story stands in

the position of an observer of certain persons. Their mannerisms of

speech, which come to him through the ear, serve to build up his total

impression of them as much as their physical appearance, which comes to

him through the eye.

The process of characterization, then, however accomplished, is the

result of two very different aims on the part of the writer of a story.

The first aim is to show the essential natures of the people of the

fiction, and may be attained by illustration in action, by direct

statement, and by transcribing their speech. The second aim is to make

them appear real men and women, apart from their natures, and may be

attained by description--which is direct statement--by transcribing

their speech, and even by action. In all three matters of narration,

description, and dialogue the double process may go on. Narrating a

character's victorious fight with a bigger man will leave on a reader a

twin impression of the person's strength--a physical attribute--and

courage--an attribute more strictly of character. When Stevenson,

describing Villon, states that the wolf and pig struggled in his face, a

reader is made to see the cruel sensuality of the man's face as a

physical object, and to feel the cruel sensuality of his nature as a

spiritual fact. If an avaricious character is made to make a miserly

speech, a reader will have a clue to his nature; if he is made to make

it with a lisp or stutter, there will be a descriptive touch as well.

Characterization may be accomplished by narration, by description, and

by dialogue, and characterization, as the term is commonly used,

includes the description of persons as physical objects as well as the

strict portrayal of character.

The writer of fiction who seeks to acquire the technique of

characterization should note two facts. The sort of characterization

which consists in displaying the essential spiritual natures of the

people of a story is largely a matter of plot, of the sequence and

character of each person's actions. If the writer states that John is

miserly, and puts miserly words on his lips, the reader will never

believe in John's avarice if he does a generous thing in the story.

Actions speak louder than words. A reader will believe in John's avarice

from the writer's mere statement and John's words, if John's actions are

not significant adversely to the trait. In other words, personality and

event must have true relation, on account of the inherent nature of a

plot, a matter previously discussed. The second fact for the writer of

fiction to note is that the sort of characterization which consists in

giving the people of a story the vivacity and concreteness of real men

and women is superficial but extremely important. A story is concerned

with the spiritual natures of its people; it shows their growth or

decay; the process is the story itself, particularly in the case of the

story of character. But a story does not deal with disembodied moral

attributes. It deals with men and women, and, if it is to be effective,

a reader must receive some definite physical impression of each person

as well as a knowledge of his nature. In the whole philosophy of fiction

writing, characterization, as commonly understood, functions thus: the

natures of the several major characters are primary elements of the

fiction, as are the events; the impression an observer and listener

would receive from each person must be built up for a reader that the

fiction may have the concreteness and reality of life for him.

Speech, direct statement, and action, the several means whereby

characterization in its two aspects may be accomplished, now may be



As indicated, characterization is a double process. The writer endeavors

to reveal the natures of his people and to individualize them in a more

superficial but equally important sense. Their speech may be made to

reveal their spiritual natures, and it may be made to individualize


The process of making speech reveal character strictly is not difficult

in itself, though it may be difficult to do so unobtrusively. A

sentimental man will reveal his sentimentality when he says sentimental

things, just as a hypocrite will reveal his hypocrisy in hypocritical

words. Cruel words will reveal cruelty in the person who utters them,

and generous words will indicate that their speaker is generous. So far

as possible, the speech of any character should have relation to that

phase of his character which is significant in the story. The cruel man

may be avaricious also, but, if his cruelty and not his avarice is the

trait which has influence upon the events of the story, his words should

reveal his cruelty rather than his avarice. The content of his speeches

should indicate his possession of that trait of his character which is

influential as to the events of the story.[M]

The difficulty will be to find a natural place for these indicative

speeches. The primary necessity in fiction writing is to be unforced and

natural, and a character cannot be made to say words indicative of his

inner nature unless he would naturally utter them under the influence of

the circumstances of the moment. Here, again, the way to write is to get

into the skin of the person involved, to live the story vicariously in

his person, and, when events would naturally call from him words

revealing his pertinent trait, to transcribe them. Primarily, a story is

a story, and its writer must meet all its necessities within its


Lack of space forbids giving examples of the revelation of character by

speech. Dickens will prove a profitable study in this connection. The

words of Pecksniff, for instance, reveal as much of the soul of

Pecksniff as we need to know. All good stories, in greater or lesser

degree, display the method in use.

The second use of his characters' words to the writer of fiction is to

individualize them. It is not a matter of content, but one of manner.

Irrespective of what the person says, the way he says it, if unique,

will serve to increase the definition of a reader's conception of him.

If a character is made to stutter, he will gain in actuality and

concreteness for a reader. The instance is coarse, but will serve to

indicate what is meant. Dickens is unrivalled in his capacity to employ

this device, although the writer of a short story or relatively compact

novel will meet difficulties in following Dickens' technique of

characterization. The "demmit" of Mantalini, the "dispoged" of Sairey

Gamp, the greasiness of Chadband's words, the rounded periods of the

immortal Micawber give a reader the greater part of his idea of each


This sort of characterization may well be called description. The aim is

not to reveal the person's inner nature--though the content of a

mannered speech may do that, of course--but to add to the definition and

reality of any attempted picture of the person by calling in the sense

of hearing. Unlike the effect of descriptive words on a reader, the

effect of written speech is nearly primary, though it lacks something of

the freshness and impressiveness of the spoken word. Writing descriptive

of a character and his mannered words function together to individualize

the person for a reader. The people of a story must be made to appear to

be real men and women, if the fiction is to have its necessary

verisimilitude and consequent effect, and mannered speech will do much

to invest the speakers with reality.

The process must not be carried beyond the bounds of naturalness. A

mannerism of speech may be too pronounced, in that it tends to arrest a

reader's attention and distract it from the flow of the story.

Unnecessarily distorted spelling, for instance, employed in an attempt

to be too strictly phonetic, will call attention to itself rather than

individualize the speaker, that is, it will destroy the illusion of the

story. "Yuh" for "you" is an instance. We all "yuh" more or less, I

think, and for the writer of a story to insist thus pedantically on

strict phonetic accuracy tends to make the whole fiction labored and

unnatural. The whole trick is to suggest any particular distortion, and

yet to have the words as intelligible for a reader as if the spelling

were normal.

Mispronunciation, of course, is not the only mannerism of speech that

may be availed of. In fact, the tendency is to abuse it. An open ear

toward the casual talk he hears will give the writer many useful hints,

and so will reading the work of others.

The speech of class and class varies, as does the speech of man and man.

A lawyer in a story should be distinguishable from a sailor by the very

content of his vocabulary. So should a doctor from an engineer or a

brakeman, or a musician from an artist. But it must all be done

naturally. The writer cannot drag in by the ears technical terms of any

profession solely that a reader may be informed indirectly of the

speaker's profession. But a doctor or lawyer, for instance, will

generally be in a story because it requires the presence of a lawyer or

doctor, and therefore the story will offer opportunity for him to reveal

his place in society by his speech. Incidentally it may be noted that

this matter emphasizes the necessity that the writer of fiction be

observant in life and omnivorous in reading. He should know the manner

of speech of any considerable class of men. It is true, of course, that

no two lawyers talk precisely alike, but it is also true that it is

possible to suggest a lawyer speaking by a proper choice of words, and

that is the thing to do, naturally and unobtrusively. If the speech of a

character is individualized in some manner, and if, in addition, a

reader can gather his business or profession from his words, he will

gain much in reality and definition.

The content of the talk of the characters of a story, then, should

reveal their inner natures, and their idiosyncrasies of utterance and

word-choice should be devised and set down to intensify the impression

of their individuality initiated by the writer's strictly descriptive

touches. Characterization is a double process, and neither aspect of it

should be neglected, whether the writer is narrating, describing, or

transcribing speech.


So far as characterization by direct statement is a matter of

individualizing the persons of a story as mere physical objects, apart

from their inner natures, it has been discussed in stating the technique

of the description of persons. It was there stated that the writer's

endeavor should be to catch and fix in words the most salient attribute

of the character. And usually it will be the case that a person's most

striking physical attribute will have relation to some fact of his

spirit, as in Stevenson's description Villon's sensual face hints of his

sensual soul. The fact serves to make more obvious the truth that

characterization is a double process of individualizing superficially

and of revealing the person's nature, and Stevenson's description of the

medieval French poet is an instance of how the writer of fiction may

attain both ends in a single phrase, and avoid the suggestion of

artificiality in directly stating that a character is good or bad or

brave or cowardly, as the case may be. Instead of stating that Villon

was sensual and cruel, Stevenson states that the wolf and pig struggled

in his face. A reader sees the man's face and comprehends his nature,

and comprehends the spiritual fact the more thoroughly because reaching

it inferentially from a mere picture. The point is worth noting.

However, the writer of fiction frequently must state his characters'

moral attributes directly. Not all conceivable persons wear their souls

in their faces; if some ruddy, bluff old gentleman is a villain at

heart, the writer can only say so, unless he is willing to depend wholly

on the revelation of spirit worked by the character's deeds. And

sometimes such a revelation comes too near the end for the other

purposes of the story. Much of the interest or suspense of a tale may

depend upon the reader having knowledge of the natures of the people who

struggle with one another singly or in groups. Or direct statement as to

a character's nature may be necessary to emphasize the significance of

his acts. Stevenson's "The Ebb Tide" is an example. The book is

concerned with the unavailing struggle of a weak man to be other than

weak, and the author prefaces the course of events with a thumbnail

biography of the weakling that invests the progress of the story with

something of the inevitability of fate. The method is a favorite one of

Stevenson's, and is employed in most of his longer work. Each brief

sketch is directed to bring out the character's trait or traits of

significance in the story, and the whole fiction gains point thereby.

Turgenieff composed a biography of each of his characters to deepen and

clarify his own realization of them, and incorporation in a story of a

swift and significant sketch of a character's previous life likewise may

serve to deepen and clarify a reader's realization of the person.

Stating directly that any person is good or bad or brave or avaricious

may give a reader a key to his acts, lending them point, but direct

statement is the most infirm mode of characterization. Any mere

statement is less impressive and less compelling than a demonstration.

And direct statement of a character's nature must be reinforced and

proved by his words and deeds. It is difficult enough at best to invest

a fictitious person with reality, and the writer can afford to neglect

no device.

As in fulfilling all other necessities of his story, in characterizing

by direct statement the writer must be easy and natural. The requirement

is somewhat indefinite, as stated, but real. Statement should not be too

bald; a little subtlety will be profitable to employ. To state that a

character is bad, simply, is too childlike, unless the story is told

from the viewpoint of a child. The matter of viewpoint must always be

considered in characterizing by direct statement, for obvious reasons.

If the writer takes the position of an impersonal observer, to whom the

souls of all characters are open, he can write pretty much as he wills.

If he writes from the viewpoint of a single character, whether in the

first or third person, he cannot assume too inclusive knowledge of the

souls of the others. The matter has been discussed elsewhere.[N]


The value of action as a means to give a reader realization of the

physical appearance of a character is somewhat slight. To show the

person as performing a feat of strength will suggest that he is a

powerful man, but physical prowess is not a visually definite quality.

Powerful men are not always even large men. Action is greatly useful to

reveal the soul, but not very useful to reveal appearance.

However, between narrative and strict descriptive writing a borderland

exists. A person may be described as having a sneaking look. That is

strict description. But the writer also may relate how the person slunk

down an alley to avoid meeting someone he dared not face. The

descriptive value of the word "slunk" as to the person will be as great

as the narrative value of the word to the event. It is merely the matter

of vivid and effective narration approached from a new angle. Narration

consists in stating what happened to certain persons and what they did,

and a descriptive quality, both as to the persons and the events, should

permeate it. Visualization of the story in imagination will show the


If action is the least effective way to hint of the characters'

appearance, it is by far the most effective way to display their

natures. The whole purpose of the story of character is to display the

fact and demonstrate the consequences of the possession of certain

traits by a group of persons or even by one person. And in any real

story, that is, in any fiction built about a plot, the traits of a

character and the events will be mutually influential. Either the

characters will be devised to develop the events, or the events will be

devised to develop the characters. The moral quality of an act is a sure

index to the moral quality of the person who commits it. A story must

reveal character simply because it consists of a series of events

involving and produced by men and women. The writer's endeavor is not

merely to narrate the events for their own sake, but also to realize

just what sort of people must inevitably have acted so under the given

conditions, and to employ his subsidiary means of characterization so as

to bring out no trait unnecessary to the events.

There is one exception to the rule that the writer should endeavor to

bring out only the traits of character strictly material to the events.

Of course, the primary necessity in fiction writing is to develop the

whole story naturally. But a story is for its readers. To give some

stories full effect upon a reader it is necessary to invest one or more

of the characters with a trait or traits not strictly necessary to the

development of the story. Usually the aim will be to awaken the reader's

sympathy that he may follow the fortunes of the person or persons with

greater interest than the bare content of the story would evoke. For

instance, if a story shows a character whose unlovely traits lead him

into difficulties, investing him also with some pleasing attribute will

deepen a reader's interest in his fate by arousing active pity for him.

I have touched upon this matter before and from another angle in

discussing the necessity that the writer select a mode of narration

which will permit him to express his sympathy for a character that he

may evoke a reader's. Stevenson's treatment of Herrick in "The Ebb-Tide"

was instanced, and one who has read the book will recall that its author

gave Herrick attributes of mind and soul more pleasing than inefficiency

and weakness, though weakness was the single quality demanded in Herrick

to render inevitable the course of events.[O]

No specific technique of characterization by action can be stated; it is

a matter of conceiving and elaborating the whole story justly. The fact

for the writer is that a person's acts reveal his inner nature, and the

necessity that the writer must meet is to devise events and characters

having a natural and plausible relation. If this is done, the essential

substance of the story will be sound, at least, so far as character is

concerned. Then the writer must meet the other necessity to make his

people appear to be real men and women apart from any distinction of

their inner natures. If both necessities are met, a reader will be faced

by real people doing things for real and adequate reasons, which is a

great part of the art of fiction.

All the acts of a person's life, great and small, would reveal his whole

nature. But a story usually does not take a person from birth to death,

and, if it does, it is concerned with a phase of the life rather than

with the whole life. The art of fiction is highly selective, and

necessarily so. Not only must the writer of fiction produce his effects

within a limited space, but he must consciously eliminate here and

suppress there in order to make apparent the real significance of his

picture of life. The significance of one man's life may lie in his

constant loyalty to and sacrifice for his family; the significance of

another's in his complete disregard of his obligations as a husband and

father. In either case, the writer who sees material for a short story

or novel in such a life must select for reproduction chiefly those acts

of the character which are significant as to the trait sought to be

brought out, otherwise the story will be without point and meaning.

Viewed superficially, a story is a mere string of events that happened

to happen, a thing easy to write without forethought and calculation.

But the truth is that a story is a chain of events at least influenced

and sometimes even determined by character. If the influence of

character in the fiction is predominant, it cannot be written justly

without careful weighing and selection of the incidents that suggest

themselves to the writer.

Having conceived a plot and devised characters to enact it, or having

conceived characters and devised a plot to develop them, the writer

should outline the main course of the story, mentally or on paper. He

then should realize definitely and precisely what traits of character

are primarily significant in the story, and should prepare to develop

them so as to reinforce the effect of his people's acts upon a reader by

characteristic dialogue and description and direct statement. The writer

should consider next whether a due regard for a reader's interest

requires that he invest his people with attributes not strictly

necessary to the main events of the story, and therefore not to be

revealed by each person's part in such events. Finally, the writer

should realize that he must give each person a definite physical

presence and illusion of actuality, and should prepare to do so by

visualizing them in imagination. If all this is done at all, it is

certain that the story will be a better piece of work than if the writer

set to work with only a vague prevision of the course of events as his

material. And if it is done justly, and the writer has adequate

executive powers, the story will be worth while, at least in relation to



[M] A great deal of close argument might be developed here. A plot is a

chain of events influencing and influenced by character, and by

character is meant not persons but traits. In some story, let us say,

the avarice of one man brings him into conflict with another, also

impelled by avarice. The conflict, of course, is not between two

disembodied attributes, but between two persons, and the writer of such

a story must individualize them. He should endeavor to give a reader an

idea of how they look, by describing them, and of how they talk, by

individualizing their speech. But he need not emphasize nor even bring

out any phase of their spiritual natures not material to the story. That

is to say, the writer of a story, in order to give it the seeming of

life, should make every effort and employ all means to invest each

character with a definite physical presence or illusion of actuality,

but he should not try to displace the inner nature of each person in

like detail.

[N] It will be instructive to realize why direct statement of a

character's outstanding moral quality is less effective than skillful

description of his person, though both the statement and the description

are fundamentally descriptive writing. One may say that a moral

attribute cannot be described, can merely be stated, but that is a

statement of the condition rather than of the cause. The root of the

matter is that the appearance of a person is the resultant of a

combination of details; by stating the significant details in proper

relation the writer can force a reader to perceive for himself the

totality of the person's appearance. But a quality of soul is unified

and undetailed. It is ineffective to say that a person is cruel simply

for the same reason that it is ineffective to say that he is handsome.

It follows that any breaking up of a quality of soul into its elements,

if possible, will increase the effectiveness of the statement. Thus,

cruelty may result from essential virility of soul in combination with

insensitiveness, and so forth.

[O] To accomplish this subordinate and strictly unnecessary

characterization the writer must employ the same three means of speech,

direct statement, and action. But the action will constitute only a

secondary event or events in the story, and must not bulk too large at

the expense of the primary events.

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