Characterisation And Its Uses

a bird reading a fiction novel

What is a character?

The writer uses many ways to convey the nature of a character. It’s quite obvious he is unable to attach a photo of his character to a book or manuscript. However, there are ways in which a character can be described and written about that enables readers to visualize the character and create an impression of that character’s behavior. Firstly, when the character is physically described, the writer wants the reader to create a faint picture of the character in their mind.

As an example, I have taken a brief excerpt from ‘Angels and Demons’ by Dan Brown. (Read more here.)

Although not overtly handsome in a classical sense, the forty-year-old Langdon had what his female colleagues referred to as an erudite appeal-wisps of gray in his thick brown hair, probing blue eyes, an arrestingly deep voice, and the strong, carefree smile of a collegiate athlete. A varsity diver in prep school and college, Langdon still had the body of a swimmer. A toned, six foot physique that he vigilantly maintained with fifty laps a day in the university pool.

While reading the passage above, the reader imagines that Langdon has an athletic body, toned and well looked after. Now, that was easy, was it not? It didn’t need a model to explain the way he looked and it didn’t need a painting or sketch that would visualize him. We can also identify that he trains quite hard to maintain his athletic look.

Langdon’s friends had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma—a man caught between centuries. On weekends he could be seen lounging on the road in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history with the students; other times he could be spotted in his Harris tweed and paisley vest, photographed in the pages of upscale art magazines at museum openings where he had been asked to lecture.

We already know that Langdon is tall, has brown hair and blue eyes. He wears blue jeans and quite often is seen in his Harris Tweed and paisley vest. We also come to know he is manly, enigmatic. He is a professor who is seldom seen giving lectures at museum openings. He is a very formal and serious type who loves his work – ‘On weekends he could be seen lounging on the road in blue jeans, discussing computer graphics or religious history with the students’. – Now who does that on weekends? Come on, people rest and enjoy their weekends and do not discuss religious history with students! – but that’s another discussion in creating a believable storyline.

Then, there comes something called introspection. It is something commonly used by writers. It’s a way in which, along with the physical description, where characterization is conveyed.

As Langdon sat alone, absently getting into the darkness the silence of his home was shattered again this time, by the ring of his fax machine. Too exhausted to be annoyed, Langdon forced a tired chuckle. Wearily, he returned his empty mug to the kitchen and walked slowly to his oak paneled study. The incoming fax lay in the tray. Sighing, he scoped up the paper and looked at it.

Ok, we already know Langdon is a professor. His life lingers around his line of work; that’s his world. He was waiting for an important fax to arrive, he was exhausted from his daily lectures, but he was doing his work. In order to explain the character, most writers use their own thoughts.

There are a couple of other ways of characterization; this is through the actual dialogue and actions of a character.

Looking at her, Langdon felt something stir within him that he had not felt in a long time. There was a bewitching clarity in her eyes… a purity in her voice. He felt drawn. “Mr. Langdon let me ask you another question”

“Robert,” he said. Mr. Langdon makes me feel old. I am old! “If you don’t mind my asking, Robert, how did u get involved with the Illuminati?”

Langdon thought back. “Actually, it was money”.

The above passage makes it clear to readers that Mr. Langdon was in a discussion with a woman, which slightly kindled the part of him that desires a woman and wants to love. That’s why he requested the lady to call him by his first name.

In other words, it brings out another part of Robert Langdon’s character. Soon after the dialogue, we notice that the discussion reverts back to the historical subject they were previously conversing about. Back to work! That is his character. Characterization is also produced by showing or bringing out attitudes in the rest of the characters. In other words, by showing the way the other characters react, in their words and deeds.

I’ve already mentioned in one the above paragraphs that Langdon’s friends had always viewed him as a bit of an enigma — a man caught between centuries. A simple comment or question made by any of the other characters could reveal a part of the nature of the character in discussion.

The most important thing about characterization is to keep unveiling the character until the end of the story, through speech made by the character or other characters thoughts and deeds. It’s the character that makes up the entire story. This job is not done only in the first chapter and the writer must keep conveying the nature of the character through the entire story. The story above, if read in more detail, would reveal how well the author portrayed each of the characters by the actions and the interactions between the different characters. That’s the beauty of characterization. Keep peeling off the skin and penetrating deep into the characters and keep the readers wondering, guessing and enjoying the story till the last word.